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Dress codes: The poll results

Paul Fletcher//July 1, 2019

Dress codes: The poll results

Paul Fletcher//July 1, 2019//

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VLW 070119 new.inddMen don’t need to wear a tie to the office much any more. And if you don’t shave for a few days, that’s kind of OK.

Women should not wear low-cut tops or short skirts, but high heels are OK.

And neither men nor women should sport facial jewelry or have a visible tattoo at the office.

Those are the findings of the newest VLW Dress Code Poll, conducted from mid-May to early June.

The poll is a reboot of the same survey that we conducted in 2010, asking eight questions seeking to determine what is “professional” in the law office setting – there were three questions focused on men’s appearance and three for women. Two questions applied to both men and women.

We provided this year the same pictorial reference points, shown on this page, that we used in 2010.

The comparison of 2010 to 2019 prompts this conclusion: What a difference a decade doesn’t make. Most of the responses this year mirror the same, mostly unwritten law office guidelines from nine years ago.

Here’s the rundown of what the 2019 poll-takers thought:

  1. Nose rings or facial jewelry

No, said more than three-quarters – 77% — of the more than 400 respondents to the 2019 poll. It’s worth noting that this response is strong, but not as overwhelming at the 87% who nixed facial bling in 2010.

Big nose studs are distracting, said several people, but others said a discreet small stud might be acceptable.

Several respondents observed that a nose stud that has cultural or religious connotations would be OK.

At least one firm allows the jewelry for staff, but not attorneys. And another says the lawyers can sport facial jewelry, so long as they remove anything before going to court.

And one lawyer anticipated the 10-point move from 2010 to now: “Not my cup of tea but times have changed.”

  1. Unshaven/stubbly look

Just slightly more than half of the poll-takers, or 53%, said no to stubble. That’s down from 73% nine years ago.

Maybe the decline in objection correlates to current fashion — Having a beard in the office is generally acceptable, noted many respondents.

The rates at which men grow facial hair may vary. If you’re going to court, however, clean up was the general message.

One lawyer was direct: “Don’t show up for work looking like you just got out of bed; take pride in your appearance – same goes for unwashed, uncut and messy hair. You’re not in college anymore!”

  1. Stilletto heels

High-heeled shoes were OK in 2010, with a 72% acceptance rate. This year the yes vote was 71%. Not much difference there.

The comments noted that the shoes needed to be appropriate for an outfit. And in a recurring theme, numerous respondents counseled against wearing heels to court.

  1. No tie

Men’s shops everywhere must be fretting over the fashion move against wearing a tie in the office.

More than three-quarters, or 76%, nixed the neck noose, up a little from the 67% nine years ago.

Several respondents noted that the concept of “casual Fridays” is alive and well, and no tie is expected then.

Others said that lack of a tie is office policy, except when meeting with clients or going to court, where highly professional attire is expected.

  1. Visible tattoos

Tattoos may have gone mainstream in popular culture – it’s hard to find either a professional athlete or a fashion model who doesn’t have some ink.

But for the law office, keep it under wraps.

Back in 2010, the strongest no vote (89%) came for visible tattoos. The preference remains against showing off a tattoo remains strong, at 72%.

“Hell no,” said one lawyer. “Unprofessional and huge turnoff if you want to be taken seriously.”

Other respondents attempted to draw some lines, noting that small tattoos were permissible. Neck and face tattoos were forbidden.

Interestingly enough, in both surveys, respondents took the man in our model picture to task for wearing a short-sleeve shirt with a tie.

This view was summed up, “Problem isn’t really the tattoo; it’s the short-sleeved dress shirt!”

  1. Cleavage

In both 2010 and 2019, a strong majority of respondents said that cleavage should be covered in the law office, with 79% and 78%, respectively, voting no.

A low-cut top can be distracting in the office, said several lawyers, finding it generally inappropriate.

And it’s definitely not a look to take to court, observed others.

  1. Short skirts

More poll-takers said yes to short skirts in the office this year (78%) than approved the idea in 2010 (63%).

Respondents offered a variety of definitions of how short a skirt could be to be acceptable.

One lawyer cut to the chase: “Is she an attorney or a 13-year-old girl on her way to see a boy band play?”

  1. Earrings or other studs on men

This is the one category that switched answers. While 51% said no to men with ear jewelry in 2010, 57% of the poll-takers this year said the look now was acceptable.

Many respondents said that if a man went with an ear stud, it should be small and tasteful.

One lawyer wrote, “It is not offensive, but it also is not really professional. Most male attorneys take out the earring for court work, clerk’s office visits and meeting new clients. If it is an ‘office day,’ then wearing it is fine.”

Another drew a line based on type of legal practice: “Depends on the firm and clients. Corporate, No. Plaintiff’s PI, Yes.”

And once again, there was an acknowledgement that fashion rules are changing over time, even in the legal profession. “I realize this is the ‘modern thing,’ but I don’t care for them, said one response.

One perhaps unexpected finding from the 2019 poll is that fewer firms seem to have formal office dress codes.

This year, the respondents noted that only 35% have some formal policy on appearance. Nine years ago, 40% reported having a code of some type.

One lawyer said, “We have a dress code for everyone, not just lawyers, but it frankly doesn’t address these issues in detail. It’s basically a ‘professional attire’ policy, meaning no jeans or flipflops, no t-shirts. There is a great amount of flexibility and interpretation from time to time. To me, it is harder to inspire confidence if you don’t appear professional, as vague as that is sometimes, in your area of practice and your geographic area.”

Give the final word to a lawyer whose firm does not have a policy: “We’re all professionals. No one needs to tell us how to dress. As with everything else in the practice of law, attorneys need to hold themselves to a higher standard lest someone else do it for us.”

Correction: In the original article reporting the results of the 2019 VLW Dress Code poll, the yes/no percentages for respondents’ views on wearing short skirts were correct on the front page chart of the print edition, but the answers for that question were transposed in this article. That correction has been made to the story above.

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