Fitting in without selling out

Fitting in without selling out

  • January 30, 2017
  • James Careless

A long-established “suit-and-tie” law firm can be a daunting place for a free-spirited young lawyer, especially those accustomed to dressing as they please, showing off their tattoos and piercings, and speaking their minds. In fact, it can seem like an impossible place to work without selling out and conforming.

There is some truth to this perception of law firms, but it doesn’t have to be so. “It is possible for savvy lawyers to balance career success with self-expression,” said Jordan Brown; a young lawyer with Cox & Palmer in Charlottetown, P.E.I., and member of the provincial legislature with the Liberal government since 2015. “The key is to find a position with a law firm that best suits your style, or setting up your own practice where you can call the shots.”

Still, young lawyers are unlikely to find any firms that encourage their staff to dress like punk rockers. “This is because a lawyer’s appearance has to conform to the clients’ notions of what a lawyer should be, in order to inspire client confidence and retain their business,” said Preston Parsons; a young lawyer with Overholt Law in Vancouver. “You have to adjust your appearance with this fact in mind, as does everyone within your firm, whatever their age.”

Firms whose dress codes are based on their clients’ reasonable expectations – rather than any hidebound concepts of what their staff should look like – may offer their lawyers a lot of leeway in their appearances, including accepting body jewelry as long as it is tasteful and discreet, and even tattoos. These are potential employers that image-conscious young lawyers may want to seek out first during their job searches.

 A case in point: “I remember attending a client meeting, and the partner I was working for suggested we both dress more casually given the meeting was to be held on a construction site,” said Vivene Salmon, a young corporate lawyer. “This made a lot of sense. So my best advice is to take your cue from your manager or colleagues a couple of years ahead of you.”

Developing a professional dress wardrobe – particularly one that conveys personal style – can be an expensive hurdle for young lawyers as well. This makes an office that allows less formal attire a tempting option.

Preston Parsons recalls wearing suits which didn’t quite fit as well as more business casual wear from law school through his first few years of practice because he did not have the funds to quickly upgrade his wardrobe. He started wearing custom-made suits once his salary allowed him to do so. “Wearing a suit that has been made for me expresses who I am, while delivering an image of professionalism that is superior to what I can get off-the-rack,” Parsons said. “This is a win-win solution for me and my firm, but it took time to be able to finance it.”

There is no doubt that women tend to receive more intense scrutiny on their workplace appearance and attire than men do; even in the supposedly more-enlightened 21st century. In particular, “I think women are judged much more harshly when they make a ‘mistake’ in their choice of clothing,” said Salmon; even if that mistake is simply someone else’s opinion.

To provide herself with fashion guidance that aligns with her personal sense of style and gives her confidence, Vivene Salmon keeps a close eye on the styles worn by powerful women that she respects. “I admire Theresa May, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Christine Lagarde, the Managing Director of the IMF and Mellody Hobson, the President of Ariel Investments,” Salmon said. “All are extremely accomplished professional women who always look professionally turned out, but preserve their sense of style and individuality.”

Distinctive clothing and piercings/tattoos are just the visual elements that can make young lawyers stand out. Their attitudes to interpersonal relationships, and the language young lawyers use, can also cause friction with older lawyers.

“My father always used to tell me that ‘you have two ears to listen and one mouth to speak; act accordingly’,” said Brown. “In fact, it is just a good practice to listen carefully before speaking, no matter the age of who you are dealing with. And when you do reply, be polite and respectful while being direct: This usually plays well with anyone who is willing to listen.”

The language lawyers use speaks volumes about their professionalism, no matter what their age. “My generation is accustomed to speaking quite colloquially,” said Parsons. “Making the shift into the legal profession requires a more polished and precise style, so we have to temper what we say in line with this reality if we are to be taken seriously. On the positive side, learning to speak like an established lawyer does allow you to say what you want to say, as long as you choose your words appropriately.”

Even the inflection that young lawyers use matters, if they are trying to be taken seriously by older colleagues. “One of my legal mentors once said to me, ‘Vivene, you are a very intelligent person, but you always say ‘like’ or ‘you know’ and end your sentence with an up-tick, as if you are asking a question when you are in fact making a statement,” said Salmon. “This takes away from the impact of what you are saying.” To address this problem without compromising her ability to speak her mind, “I took an acting course, which was an excellent tool in helping polishing my public speaking abilities,” she said.

The points made by these three successful young lawyers – all of whom are on the executive of the CBA’s Young Lawyers Forum – prove that it is possible for younger practitioners to fit in without selling out. “Yes, there are law firms who frown on their young members showing too much individuality,” said Jordan Brown. “But you don’t have to work for such firms, or indeed for anyone but yourself if you so choose. After all, your legal career is your own to direct; no matter how young or old you may be. And you can select your path as soon as you start looking for your first job.”

James Careless is a frequent contributor to CBA PracticeLink.

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