Do you have the look?

Susan Scafidi in Daily Business Review, March 25, 2011

Media Source

by Vivia Chen

"Branding" is the new big buzz word among the legal set these days--it's up there with "teamwork" and "collaboration" and other concepts strange and exotic to most lawyers. Sure, we sort of know what "teamwork" entails (e.g., lawyers sharing Chinese takeout around a conference table), but does anyone really know what branding means for law firms and lawyers?

Your firm is probably paying consultants a bundle to figure out this brand thing. But I'd like to talk about an aspect that they probably wouldn't touch: your looks--and how they affect your personal brand.

Yes, it's a shallow topic, but looks always play a role in the game of success. But it's not just about looking "decent" or "good"--it's about looking the part. Do you have a "look" that says you are one-hell-of-a-litigator, or the go-to corporate strategist? Is your suit, tie, dress, shoes, briefcase--the whole package--delivering the message that you merit that $800-plus hourly rate? And is your look keeping up with the clients you serve?

The new look of power, according to a recent article in the business section of The New York Times, is to dress down--or, at least, unconventionally. Among those singled out by the NYT for their unique personal brands: Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne (sweaters and pressed shirts); Apple founder Steve Jobs (jeans and rumpled black cotton turtlenecks); Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg (hoodies and sneakers); and Avon CEO Andrea Jung (fitted sleeveless dresses, sans jacket), who's also famous for her long hair with a sweep of side bangs.

All these execs can afford to wear anything they want, "yet the bare-bones personal uniform is being seen in some corner offices as the ultimate power suit," writes the NYT. The upshot is that the more powerful you are, the more license you have to be casual, even sloppy.

So are lawyers ready to follow their example? Not yet. For most lawyers, the uniform is still the conservative suit (though women can get away with a dress and jacket). Image consultant Diana Jennings says it's a uniform that conveys the "message of authority, precision, and stability that lawyers need to communicate."

But Jennings warns that dressing conservatively doesn't mean being outdated: "If you're not current in your presentation, the perception is that you are not current in thinking." She advises getting a stylish haircut and wearing current styles, "or you'll be seen as stodgy or staid."

Think of that uniform as a canvas for personal expression, says Susan Scafidi, the director of The Fashion Law Institute at Fordham Law School. "Everyone can pick out signature accessories," she says, but adds, "Figural jewelry should be tasteful. Unless you represent major gambling interests, skip the cuff links shaped like dice or dollar signs."

So let me see if I have all this straight: Dress conservatively, but make sure you're conservative in a trendy way. Also, wear distinctive accessories, but don't be gauche or Donald Trump-y about the jewelry.

Lawyers need a distinct look, a little wow factor--but they can't be obvious about it. It's all a delicate balancing act, isn't it? No wonder lawyers are still stuck in the 1980s. For men, it's the old starched white shirt (often with those pretentious monograms on the pocket or cuffs), an expensive but unmemorable tie, and cuff links. For women, the defaults remain clunky gold jewelry and St. John knit suits. A bit pathetic, no?

But its tough for lawyers to broadcast a "look." Even my stylish friend Jennifer, an entertainment lawyer in L.A., voices ambivalence about showing a bit of flash: "I think that we should look professional, but not draw attention to our appearance. Service providers need to focus on service and advancing their clients' objectives, not creating their own 'brand.' That's not our job!"

Readers, do you think a signature look will help a lawyer's career? Do you know lawyers whose looks helped develop their brand?