Eight tips for building an articling wardrobe

  • January 01, 2015
  • Carolynne Burkholder-James

Preparing for articling is a daunting process for many law students. Fortunately, building your articling wardrobe doesn't have to be difficult. Here are eight tips to help you look work-appropriate. 

1. Start early

Stacy Keehn, the Acting Assistant Dean of Student Services at the University of Ottawa, recommends that law students start looking for work-appropriate clothing before they finish school.

“Start by going shopping, but don't necessarily buy anything the first time you go,” she advises. “Just try things on and find out what fits you and what suits you.”

After you have an idea of what you like, you can wait for the outfit to go on sale.

“If you wait for clothes to go on sale and then you start trying things on, it can be really frustrating. You can be under a time-crunch and they may not have your size,” says Keehn. “But if you know in advance your size and what you're looking for, that can be really helpful when it comes to not spending a fortune on clothing.”

2. Stick to the basics

Keehn recommends that articling students first invest in a few “building blocks,” including one or two formal business suits.

“You want to make sure that you stick to the basics,” she says. “Then you can continue to build on that wardrobe as you continue working.”

Sasha Toten, an articling student at Bennett Jones LLP in Toronto, agrees.

“You want to have good quality basics so you can wear them for years,” she says.

Women can wear both skirt suits and pant suits, says Keehn, but she cautions that they should be traditional business suits and not trendy outfits. Most men wear classic button-down shirts, while women have more variety with buttoned blouses, knits or tops.

Keehn also recommends that both men and women “stick to classic or neutral colours.”

3. Don't forget about accessories

Articling students often focus on their clothes and forget about their accessories, warns Keehn.

“You don't want to forget about shoes and you also don't want to forget about a bag,” she advises. “And although your backpack may have done you very well in law school, you're going to need to look professional going into the office.”

For women, Keehn recommends closed-toed shoes.

“Never wear an open-toed shoe to the office, particularly when you're just starting work,” she says.

Toten says that accessories can help you personalize your outfit, especially in workplaces with a strict dress code.

“Jewelry is a way to make a plain outfit more interesting,” she says.

4. Make sure your clothes fit

“No matter what you're wearing, make sure it fits,” emphasizes Keehn.

This means that your shoulder pads must sit right on your shoulder, your sleeves are tailored to the correct length and your suit isn't too tight or too loose. 

“Almost everyone, when they go to buy their first suit, is going to have to get something tailored,” says Keehn. “If you wear an inexpensive suit that fits you'll look better than if you wear an expensive suit that doesn't fit.”

5. Check out the dress code

No matter where you're working — Bay Street, government or a small-town firm — suits are the safest bet when you start articling unless your employers tell you otherwise, says Keehn.

After that, she recommends you check out the formal dress code policy if your employer has one. If it doesn't, look at what everyone else is wearing.

“Err on the side of conservative until you really get a sense of what other people are wearing in the office,” Toten advises.

“Look at what people are wearing doing your type of work in your type of work environment and use that as your guide,” Keehn agrees.

In some law firms, for example, women wear pants with a different-coloured blazer. In other places, everyone wears full matching suits every day.

“But no matter what type of work environment you're in and no matter what their dress code is, you always want to remember to stay professional,” says Keehn. “Casual Friday does not mean come into work with your sweats and sneakers. It's still a workplace. You can dress down on those days but you still have to be professional and make sure you are in line with your employers' expectations.”

6. Don't forget about casual clothes

If someone from your work invites you to an event on the weekend, you have to wear appropriate casual clothing, says Keehn.

“If the only casual clothing you own is best suited for a night on the town with friends, that isn't appropriate,” she adds. “Go through your closet and see if there are some casual clothes you own that would be appropriate for an office event on the weekend. If not, start looking for some basics.”

7. Pay attention to the seasons

Most students start articling in the summer, but you will need to have clothes to last you all year. Keehn says she finds it easier to find work clothes in the spring and the fall.

“If you're looking for a work-appropriate dress in the middle of summer, it can be really hard to find one. A lot of stores are just carrying beach dresses for the weekend or dresses for weddings. For men, they'll be selling shorts when all you want is a pair of pants and a blazer,” she says. “When you get into the winter season, the focus is on the holidays. You'll find a lot of stuff with sparkle and shine and shimmer.”

8. Remember to smile

“Your smile is your best accessory,” says Keehn. “First impressions matter.”

Carolynne Burkholder-James is a former journalist and a third-year law student at the University of Manitoba. She starts articling in May at Heather Sadler Jenkins LLP in Prince George, B.C.