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Jacobs & Dow, LLC

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Office Casual

Some lawyers pay a lot of attention to dressing well. Recognizing you never get a second chance to make a good first impression, they rely on clothing to project intelligence, competency, self-assurance and success. They believe it shows clients and juries the lawyer is “somebody”. You have to be careful, though, not to go too far. Dressing too well can be insulting or even ridiculous, like wearing a tuxedo to a parent-teacher conference or a mink coat to a Tupperware party.

But lawyers’ wardrobes have changed. What began as “Casual Friday” has become “Office Casual”. All day. Every day. For everybody. This started, we’re told, first with the computer whiz-bangs and then the dot-com innovators, all barely in their twenties, who are able to generate instant millions with a snap of their gum and the marketing of innovative Microsoft approaches to a world of commerce founded on cash registers, adding machines and carbon paper. When coat-and-tie lawyers started calling on these casually dressed clients, they soon realized that Ralph Lauren and Armani did not impress people who ride scooters in hallways and whose stock options alone could subsidize the summer Olympics.

The lawyers were and felt out of place. They adjusted. They replaced the blue pinstripe/charcoal gray suit uniforms with chinos and muted, earth-toned soft collar shirts (really just tennis shirts in dark colors) and loafers. This is how office casual came to be. And with it an etiquette of what was and wasn’t acceptable (Go on. Be wild. Wear the Sperry Topsiders!)

Well, I have yet to buy into this concept. When I dress casual, I work casual. To me wearing casual clothes during the week means that you aren’t going to court and you can work at three-quarters speed. Phone calls don’t get returned right away and you can read the sports page at your desk. And if there’s a rule for what’s acceptably “casual”, then to me it ain’t casual. Running shoes, Levi’s and T-shirts are my kind of casual, but apparently not acceptably “Office Casual”. Well pardon me.

I prefer to play by the old rules: coats and ties during the week; whatever you want on the weekends. By my standards a sport jacket and a non-white dress shirt is office casual. Beyond that, when you show up for work Monday through Friday, wear a tie. On the weekends just get out of bed and show up. Pajamas or better are ok. Showing up is what counts.

Now while I am in favor of traditional office wear, I don’t go nuts about it. Dress up. Look nice. Make sure your fly is zipped, there are no price tags left on your sleeves and the skinny end of your tie isn’t longer than the fat end. That, and your shoes shouldn’t be too far away from a shine. Maybe I won’t end up on the pages of GQ, but I won’t be accused of stealing from the Goodwill deposit box either.

Using this standard I used to think I dressed ok. I once had a client, though, who thought differently. He was an executive I represented years ago on a very serious crime of violence. He took great pride in what he wore and how he looked. Everything was perfect; nothing was out of place. And he paraded around just to make sure you’d notice.

This gentleman, new to this side of our courts, was insulted beyond words by the indignities of the criminal process despite the near-homicidal acts he acknowledged committing. The only thing more insulting, he felt, was being compelled to associate with me, someone who represented “those people”, the ones he called “real criminals”. This was, suffice to say, a rocky relationship. Nothing I did was right. Everything I did was wrong. He constantly called this to my attention, almost nightly, in long, high-decibel, threatening phone calls.

One day he was required in court. We had moved to modify certain restrictions on his bond. The prosecutor advised he did not object. This would be easy. I so informed Mr. Wonderful. I asked him to meet me at my office so we could walk together to court. He arrived, as usual, fifteen minutes early, stylishly dressed in a blue blazer with enameled, college-crested gold buttons, white shirt monogrammed on the cuffs, repp tie, and well-shined loafers.

We walked briskly toward court. He bitterly reviewed the injustices of the system to which he had been unfairly subjected. I commiserated. I explained that, at least on this day one small piece of the puzzle-the bond piece-would go well for him. That was, he observed, the least he was entitled to, not being a “common criminal” like those “other people”.

We arrived at the courtroom. The prosecutor caught my eye and signaled we should talk alone. We went into the hallway and he told me the temporary bad news. He couldn’t agree right now to the modification, he said, he needed another week to get things squared away and then he wouldn’t object and the bond could be modified. Fine. We told the judge in chambers we needed a week. The continuance was granted.

That was easy. Now to inform Captain Sunshine. I gingerly approached my client. He would not be happy. I invited him into a conference room. I asked him to sit. “Well,” I said, in my calmest, most dispassionate voice, “There’s a problem. We have to wait for a week because the prosecutor is opposed for now. Next week we’ll get the modification.”

Predictably, Vesuvius erupted. He began yelling in the too-small room. He was in my space, sputtering at the top of his voice, jabbing the air with his index finger. “What? What?!!! I knew it! I knew it!!! You f—-d up again!!! You f—-d up again!!!! And besides”, he screamed, now pointing his finger at my feet, “you should NEVER wear brown shoes with a gray suit!!!!”

I was right about the bond. And I’m pretty sure I was right about the shoes. It really didn’t qualify as a fashion offense. My client and I parted company soon after the bond was modified. We never got a chance to discuss his views on “Office Casual”. I think I can guess what they are.