At law firm Bickel & Brewer, even the mailroom clerks wear suits and ties. Until recently, that might have been considered extreme. But now, power dressing is coming back in style, and the old-school law firm has a new relevance.
As law-firm layoffs mount, fear of unemployment appears to be speeding up the resurgence of power clothes, even among the youngest recruits. Legal interns have begun flouting business-casual dress codes and wearing suits instead, says Gretchen Neels, a Boston communications consultant who works with law firms and graduate schools. “In our economic times, you really want to have your game on. You can’t be too formal,” she says.
Power clothes are selling well at menswear retailer Paul Fredrick. Those white-collared, colored dress shirts that Gordon Gekko favored in the 1987 movie “Wall Street” have been big sellers in recent months, says Dean White, executive vice president of merchandise. So are yellow power ties, another 1980s dress-for-success accessory.
The return of old-school power dressing is something of a “duh” moment for Bill Brewer, co-founder and managing partner of the law firm, which has offices in Dallas and New York City. He never really got the appeal of khakis and rubber-soled Gucci loafers at the office. He prides himself on custom three-button suits with a center vent and shirts from Bruce Clark in New York. His voice tightens with disdain when he describes “those square-toed club shoes” that some young recruits wear to the office.
“I think people expect high-powered lawyers to look like high-powered lawyers,” Mr. Brewer says. “Anything else is sending the wrong signal.”
Even six months ago, that kind of talk might have sounded as outmoded as John Molloy, who penned “Dress For Success,” the 1980s bible of corporate style. Casual clothing has long been seen as a sign of a modern attitude and has become an important job perk. In a 2007 column I wrote, a number of young lawyers defended working in Ugg boots, jeans and clingy T-shirts, arguing that they needed to be comfortable at work. They felt entitled.
But people’s sense of job entitlement has evaporated as unemployment figures rise. Ms. Neels suggests that any law graduate with a job should prepare to invest in whatever the firm asks. “If they want you to dress up like Big Bird every day, for $160,000 a year, just do it!” she says, citing the going starting salary for law associates this year.
Alicia Russell, an executive recruiter for legal jobs with Boyden Global Executive Search, says Bickel & Brewer’s all-inclusive power-dress code is unusual. “I can’t say that I’ve ever been in a law firm where every single person is in formal business attire,” she says. But she isn’t opposed to the concept. In fact, she recommends that lawyers stick with dark, conservative suits. Men should wear ties and women should add an accessory that has “panache” — such as a piece of jewelry or a sharp-looking purse or briefcase.