Casual Day Casualties

Not so ready to wear: Judge Jay Patterson spreads his anti-casual-day message on a T-shirt.
Mark Graham

It spread like some contagion, ruthlessly ravaging the wardrobes of lawyers across the city. First there was the occasional "casual day." Dressing down became a reward for a job well done, a celebration when a law firm's billable rate topped $400 an hour. Then things got more habitual. Every Friday became casual Friday. Attorneys had busted their butts all week long. Why not kick back on Fridays by relaxing in a cheesy Hawaiian shirt and khakis? Then came the in their torn jeans stuffed with venture capital--the Cuban-aires. Lawyers figured they could better relate to their techie clients if they dressed more like them. To hell with Brooks Brothers. To hell with professionalism. To hell with judges who insist attorneys wear three-piece suits while their BMWs registered 120 degrees in the courthouse parking lot. For major law firms across the city, every day was suddenly casual day.

Lost among the down-fashion uproar was a sole voice of dissent, a lone jurist willing to speak out against the casual consciousness that had befallen local lawyers. In a September 1 editorial in the Dallas Bar Association newsletter, state District Judge Jay Patterson threw down his gavel: "Down with casual day!" he wrote. "Double down with casual day every day!!" In an era replete with lawyer jokes (What is the difference between a vulture and a lawyer? The vulture doesn't get frequent-flier miles), unconscionable legal fees, and fierce competition among law firms, respect for lawyers is at an all-time low. "So how are we addressing the problem?" asks the judge. "By dressing less professionally." Patterson sees "attorneys arriving every day for business with our court" in casual clothes. He urges all attorneys "to return to looking like professionals who care."

Oddly, the judge's chastisement was laced with biblical references, such as "We are judged by how we look. That is one reason why Paul told the Romans to clothe themselves in Christ." He might have better grounded his argument in the recent research that indicates that relaxed attire can create a lax workplace, decreasing productivity and increasing tardiness and sexual harassment. Management surveys also reveal a trend away from corporate dress-down days: The number of businesses going casual seems to be on the wane for the first time in years.

But you won't find any backlash in big downtown law firms such as Vinson & Elkins, Jenkens & Gilchrist, and Haynes & Boone, which just this year went "business casual" in their everyday threads. In an attempt to legislate how casual is too casual, local firms have hired image consultants and enacted dress codes that are intended to take the ambiguity out of getting dressed. The legal profession has survived, in part, because of its rigid adherence to antiquated apparel (wigs and waistcoats), but for those male lawyers wearing shirts without ties and those female lawyers wearing skirts without pantyhose, there is no turning back.

"It's a quality-of-life issue for many attorneys--particularly young ones," explains attorney Vincent Walkowiak, a partner at Fulbright & Jaworski. "Business casual's time has come, and old lawyers like myself and old judges need to accept that."

In addition to fostering relations with high-tech clients, Dallas law firms justify their switch to casual clothing as a means of remaining competitive in their hunt for new associates. Most already offer baby lawyers outrageous salaries--many topping $100,000 a year--so casual days are just one more recruiting perk to lure blue-chip graduates. But once these attorneys join their firms, it's payback time. "To justify these big salaries, firms are working their new associates about 200 billable hours a month," says state District Judge Merrill Hartman. "It interferes with their married life, their home life, so to cut them a little slack, they get to work without a coat and tie. Spending that much time in the office, they might as well be comfortable."

But some fear that once lawyers know the freedom that Dockers bring, slovenly geek chic will rule. To allay those worries, law firms have hired image consultants to give them the fashion sense that separates business casual from just-hanging-out casual. "People are perplexed by business casual because there is always the chance that you have gone too far," says Leigh Bennett, a corporate trainer with the Dallas firm Image Dynamics. "On TV, Ally McBeal wears these really short skirts in the courtroom, but that's not professional attire. It's not even business casual." Bennett counsels her law clients to think conservatively when dressing casually: no hiking boots, sandals, cotton sweaters, or golf shirts. "Leather is just not a professional material at all," she says.

Law firms may follow the advice of an image consultant or they may formulate their own casual-dress codes, which can sound so legalistic, they read more like IRS regulations than perks intended to boost employee morale:

"All clothing must fit properly, be clean, pressed, not faded or excessively worn, and otherwise neat in appearance," mandates one Dallas firm's business-casual policy. "Men must wear dress slacks and long-sleeve shirts with a collar or a sweater over a collared shirt (except that short-sleeve shirts and casual pants, well-pressed with a visible crease, are allowed between May 1 and Labor Day)."

Most firms insist on professional attire for court appearances, but Judge Patterson claims that casual-dress policies bleed into the courthouse, particularly when a lawyer is filing paperwork or meeting a judge in chambers. "I have only thrown one lawyer out of my courtroom for wearing an open-collared shirt and slacks to a hearing," he says. "But I see lawyers outside the courtroom casually dressed quite frequently."

"It was over 100 degrees for most of the summer," recalls criminal defense attorney Stuart Parker. "If I'm going into a clerk's office to pass a case and not making an appearance in front of a judge, I might wear blue jeans. Why do I need a piece of silk binding my neck?"

When the national employment law firm of Jackson Lewis asked a similar question to more than 1,000 human-resource executives across the country last year, they were surprised by their response. Of the 70 percent who said they had policies allowing "dress-down days," 40 percent reported those policies had a positive effect on employee morale, while 44 percent noticed an increase in tardiness and 30 percent reported a rise in "flirtatious behavior."

"Our survey is just a starting point," says Margaret Bryant, a New York-based attorney with Jackson Lewis. "For companies that are considering relaxing their dress policies, they should be thinking, What, if any, effect is this going to have on behavior in the workplace?"

Although no meaningful body of "casual day" research has yet evolved from academic circles, several ongoing studies may uncover whether dressing down is a good thing for corporate America. "There are two different camps on this," says Timothy Franz, a psychology professor at St. John Fisher College in Rochester, New York, who is researching the issue. "Some feel it makes people more relaxed and reduces the communication barrier between employees and managers. It also reduces clothing costs. Others feel the more relaxed you get, the less you feel like actually doing anything."

Judge Patterson has no intention of ruling on the merits of either camp. His concern is with attorneys, whom he calls "the vital cogs in the machinery that ensures order, justice, and liberty in a free society." Those cogs, he believes, get no respect anymore, partly because lawyers don't dress as if they are ensuring order, justice, and liberty in a free society.

"Jay Patterson comes from a generation where casual meant not serious and not serious meant no respect," Judge Hartman explains. "Jay has great respect for the legal system and wants to maintain that respect." Of course, Hartman adds, wearing a tie doesn't automatically bestow respect on anyone.

"I knew I would take a lot of razzing for my position," Patterson admits. "But my goal is to leave the judicial campground better than I found it."

Or at least better dressed.

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