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Dress Codes: The Poll Results

It’s okay to ditch the tie when working in the office, according to lawyers across the commonwealth. Just don’t show up with a three-day beard.

Leave the low-cut tops at home, but don’t be afraid to step out in stilettos.

Tattoos and nose rings have no place in the law firm, but men can probably get away with sporting ear studs.

These were some of the opinions from Virginia Lawyers Weekly’s recent Web poll.

Last month, we asked readers to weigh in on what they thought was – or wasn’t – appropriate for associates to wear in a law firm setting. The online survey featured eight photo examples of “questionable” fashion choices. We asked readers to vote thumbs up or thumbs down on each image, then left the floor open for thoughts.

The topic seemed to touch a nerve. More than 500 people responded, many with thoughtful comments indicating that firms do deal with these issues, practically on a daily basis.

We asked our voters to identify themselves only by age, location and gender. Women and men weighed in nearly equal in numbers, with a large percentage of voters practicing in Central and Northern Virginia. Lawyers in both their thirties and their fifties were the most active participants in our survey (See chart to the right for a complete demographic breakdown).

We rounded out the survey with one final question: Does your firm have a written dress code policy?

Sixty percent of survey-takers said that their firm did not have a written policy. But many of those who commented said that there were certainly unspoken expectations for how attorneys should present themselves both in the office and in the courtroom.

On the opposite side, several voters whose firms did have a dress code policy said that it was rarely, if ever, enforced. Others said that their office dress code was not only mandatory, but strict. A lawyer working for a commonwealth’s attorney’s office in the Tidewater area said that women are required to wear a skirt or dress for jury trials. Meanwhile, some voters lamented that men in their firm were restricted to a suit and tie each day, while women had more options when it came to their wardrobe.

Voters also suggested that how one dresses should depend on certain conditions. Some said that an attorney’s look could reflect his client base. For example, younger clients could be more accepting of some of the more youthful fashion statements. Lawyers should also be able to dress down on days where they won’t be visiting clients or going to court, others said. A few even reasoned that if partners could get away with certain clothing choices, the associates should be able to do the same.

However, the majority of those taking our survey seemed to agree that, when it doubt, it was best to err on the conservative side. “Even if all the times on which you are polling are perfectly acceptable to some clients, some judges or some jurors, lawyers should not run the risk that they won’t be,” wrote one voter.

So what did our poll-takers say about our eight examples? Here is the rundown.

Nose ring

An 87 percent majority voted thumbs down on the nose ring. Voters viewed facial jewelry as unprofessional, stating that it was just too distracting. “The point of a nose ring is to draw attention to the nose or the ring itself,” said a Metro Washington attorney. “You are there to serve the client, or assist those who do, not bring attention to yourself.”

But while an overwhelming majority said no, a few voters pointed to exceptions. Those in favor agreed that a nose stud was ok if it was small or otherwise discreet (one person suggested wearing a clear stud during working hours). But most drew the line there. According to one participant, if it’s a “large ring or other facial piercing, no.” Several people said that eyebrow and lip piercings were definitely not acceptable. “Fishing tackle in the face does not say ‘professional,’” one respondent said.

Another exception: if the piercings had cultural or religious significance. “In a Hindu woman, where it is traditional, yes,” noted one voter.

Unshaven or stubbly look

“Do you mean the unemployed look?” one respondent quipped.

Seventy-three percent nixed the unshaven look, many stating that men sporting five-o’clock shadows appeared slovenly and lazy. Many commenters also criticized a stubbly lawyer’s attention to detail and questioned his overall ability to perform his job. Looking at it from a client’s perspective, one commenter offered: “Can’t prepare for work by shaving and combing hair? Did you prepare for my trial?”

An attorney from the western part of the state suggested that the scruffy look is okay “only if you’ve been at the office all night cranking out work.” Others said that facial hair is acceptable as long as it’s kept neat and trimmed.

“If it is that limited period while growing an actual, grown-up man beard, OK,” a Central Virginia lawyer in his 40s commented. “Otherwise, take Nickelback off your iPod, buy a [razor] and shave.”

Stiletto heels

While some survey-takers debated the meaning of “stiletto,” 72 percent of voters found them acceptable for female attorneys to wear. If the rest of the outfit was professional-looking, proponents said, shoes were just a minor detail.

Of those in favor, several stated that the boost in stature could potentially increase the confidence level in some women. “Height is a power issue,” one female responded. “More is better.”

There were still a number of naysayers who criticized stilettos, writing them off as uncomfortable, impractical and perhaps even dangerous to walk in. But most voters agreed that the style was fine, so long as the wearer chose a conservative color, didn’t go overboard with the height of the heel and stuck to a closed-toe style. Shoes with platforms under the balls of the feet were also a no-no, making one respondent think “Lady Gaga, not Madame Justice.”

When it came to pairing stilettos with a skirt or dress, a few stated that panty hose were a must. Said a female working for a law firm in Central Virginia: “No bare legs! I don’t care if Katie Couric does it!”

No tie

No tie, no problem, said 67 percent of survey-takers. “Ties are outdated and are only necessary for particular occasions, such as court,” said one respondent, whose firm requires male attorneys to wear ties. The majority of voters agreed that men should be able to get away with an open collar while working in the office.

There was, however, some debate over whether it was acceptable to meet with clients sans necktie.

A few voters said it depended on certain factors, such as the type of client, the firm environment and area of practice. “I think [no tie] helps clients feel more relaxed when speaking with an attorney,” one commenter wrote. But others disagreed, claiming that it was never appropriate to greet with clients without a tie.

Those who commented agreed unanimously on one thing, though – Not wearing a tie into the courtroom was a definite mistake. “He’d better keep a spare in his office for the unexpected.”

Visible tattoos

The votes against having a visible tattoo were the most unanimous among the eight examples, with a resounding 89 percent of survey takers saying, “No way!” As with facial piercings, many thought tattoos were too distracting and might be a deal-breaker for potential clients. While tattoos are becoming more mainstream, they’re not yet “widely enough accepted across generations,” as one voter in her 40s put it.

Of the 11 percent voting in favor, a few said that a small tattoo, placed in a non-prominent position was okay to expose. “I do not object to small, neat and tasteful tattoos,” said a voter in his 70s. A few survey-takers also stated that military tattoos were acceptable.

Several lawyers fessed up to having tattoos themselves, but recommended covering up whenever possible.

“I have a cuff tattoo around the lower part of my right leg” a 20-something from the Washington area said. “As a female wearing skirts, it is impossible to cover. But I always wear stockings and do not draw attention to it.”

As an aside, more than a few voters commented that the short-sleeved dress shirt in the example photo was a bigger fashion faux pas than the tattoos themselves.


Nearly 79 percent voted in favor of covering up cleavage. Plunging necklines are inappropriate, most survey-takers agreed, and serve as a distraction to those in the office and in the courtroom.

Several respondents thought that wearing low-cut tops only invites trouble in the workplace. “Men won’t take her seriously, women will resent her,” said a voter in his 50s.

But not everyone nixed the low neckline. A few voters said that while the survey picture was over the top, a small amount of cleavage wouldn’t be a cause for concern. “Certainly, even decent, professional shirts can show some cleavage,” said a 20-something female from the western part of the state.

Still, many thought that a cleavage-baring attorney was more interested in inviting attention to herself and not looking out for the best interest of her clients. A small-firm attorney in Fairfax had this advice for female associates who tend to bear more than they should: “Focus on what you are saying and not your cleavage.”

Short skirts

“This is not Ally McBeal!” an attorney from the Washington Metro area responded, recalling the miniskirted TV lawyer from the 1990s.

Sixty-three percent of voters agreed that short skirts do not make for office-friendly attire.

One female voter called skimpy skirts “inappropriate and not at all practical. Just above the knee is flattering for everyone. Mid-thigh is right up there with too much cleavage.”

As with the cleavage example, poll-takers suggested that the picture from the survey may have been a bit too much, but some styles of above-the-knee skirts were acceptable for female attorneys.

Others said that a shorter-styled skirt is acceptable if paired with tights or panty hose – and if it’s not too tight.

Ear stud for men

Opinions on the ear stud for men were split down the middle. By a mere 1 percent, “no” inched out above “yes,” but even the proponents agreed that less is more. A small stud in one or both ears is acceptable, voters commented, but hoop earrings or big, flashy studs are not.

A few voters opined that earrings on men may be okay in Virginia’s metro jurisdictions, but wouldn’t go over as well in rural localities, and could potentially cause bias with a judge or jury. Others suggested that men remove the earrings before meeting with clients or going to court.

“It depends on the type of clientele and the makeup of the staff,” wrote a female who practices in the western part of the state. “This is the least offensive of the eight I’ve viewed thus far. Women can wear earrings, why not men?” Several others agreed that banning men from wearing earrings was an unfair double standard.

Of those not in favor of this trend, a voter in his 30s called the trend more “hip” than “professional.”

One comment

  1. Ultimately, the more skin you show (including cleavage), the less authoritative you become. While cleavage may be appropriate for after hours, particularly in the workplace cleavage is distracting to any point a professional woman wants to make. //bit.ly/8TNQoU

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