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Washington Lawyer

Legal Spectator: Dressing Down to Dress Up

From Washington Lawyer, October 2000

By Jacob A. Stein

spectator

The agenda item before the business development committee is, should we adopt a dress-down code? Those in favor repeat what Lee Iaccoca’s press agent told him to say: "Get out in front or get out of the way." The way to get out in front of the competition for the technology business is to dress down like the techies. Open shirt, dungarees, tennis shoes. Bathing optional. By doing so we signal we are one with them. We dress their language.

There was a time when dressing up in an expensive white suit told the world that you have so much money that you need do no real work. If you even tried to do real work, you would dirty the white suit. Whatever work has to be done must be done by the hired help, preferably people in costly uniforms, like butlers, chauffeurs, and cooks. In a society where pecuniary emulation is required, it is dishonorable to do anything that you can pay others to do for you.

Thorstein Veblen in his Theory of the Leisure Class declared that wealth is intrinsically honorable. All heiresses are beautiful and obviously of the upper class. Wealthy men have good singing voices. A show of wealth confers great respectability on its possessor. Wealth tastefully displayed is equivalent to three character witnesses.

Things have changed since Veblen wrote in 1899. But his basic principle remains valid. How can we, by our style of living, confer pecuniary honor on ourselves by telling the world we have more money than we can spend? It is no longer done by wearing a white suit. It is by dressing down in order to dress up.

Clothes that look like clothes that have food stamps in the pockets, the Goodwill Industries attire, is just the start. It is part of a one-two punch. The ragbag get-up says that I am so secure that people must put up with me no matter how I dress. Or it may be saying I must be awfully rich to dress like this. But just so there is no pecuniary misunderstanding, I have my Range Rover and my Mercedes SUV, and I can be reached at the New York office, the San Francisco office, or on the slopes at Aspen.

The contrast between the torn clothes and the Range Rover-Aspen scenario heightens the impact. The Soviet commissars understood the use of the proletarian look as a social asset. They rode around in the chauffeur-driven black limousines, but made contact with the working man by wearing cheap suits with the sleeves two inches too long.

The desire to mimic the client’s clothes carries with it considerations that are not as trivial as they may seem. When the lawyer and the client become one, whatever independence the lawyer may think he has is diminished. At the big meeting to determine how to meet the client’s business crisis, the lawyer’s voice gets no special attention. A lawyer in dungarees is just one voice among the many, all of whom are wearing dungarees. The lawyer is indistinguishable from the PR people, the man or woman who knows the man or woman who can plant the favorable story and maybe even an astrologer. Perhaps the lawyer may be able to preserve professional detachment from the client, but it is not easy. He will find "there is need for a poise so perfect that the least overweight in any direction tends to destroy the balance. Temper destroys it, crotchet destroys it, even erudition may destroy it."

The New York Times carried an article titled "The Suits Loosen Up a Bit Uneasily." Above the article is a picture of three lawyers from Cadwalader in conventional dress: white shirt, suit, and tie. Below the article the same three Cadwaladers reappear in casual dress, called "business casual."

Cadwalader’s decision to go casual must be countered by the testimony of the distinguished New York lawyer who told the New York Times, "I’m not going to dress casual." I attended several meetings when this New York lawyer, on behalf of clients of his, delivered bad news to an assembled group.

There are many ways to deliver bad news. The deliverer may hold out the hope that things will get better. He may stand by as an associate delivers the bad news. He may make it contingent on other events. He may say how much he regrets having to deliver such bad news.

The New York lawyer did none of these things. He came directly to the point. He transmitted the bad news in simple declarative sentences so there could be no misunderstanding. This was bad news. Pure and simple. He was dressed for the occasion. He was wearing a black suit, just like an upscale undertaker who dealt in top-of-the-line brass-handled caskets.

Bad news is inherent in the adversary system. Good news is the exception. And we don’t know exactly when we must deliver bad news. It cannot be done dressed casual, with a tennis racket or golf club in hand. Keep the undertaker attire in the closet, ready for action, when you must tell your client that all is lost. The court granted summary judgment because you let the statute run.

Sometime after the New York lawyer delivered his bad news to us, I saw the same lawyer a year later. It was on a weekend in the airport, where people transfer to flights to Boseman and Aspen and Jackson Hole. There he was, dressed causal, casual but impressively casual, as only somebody who knew when it was appropriate to wear black and when it was appropriate to wear denim.

If Thorstein Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class is new to you, don’t admit it. Get it and read it right away. It only costs $2 in the Dover paperback.

Jacob A. Stein may be reached by e-mail at jstein@steinmitchell.com.