Monday, December 29, 2014

It's Interview Season (Again) (Still). What Should Female Candidates for Law Jobs Wear?

Grades are in--a few hours late, but in nevertheless.  It must be almost time for New Year's Eve, syllabus and first-assignment posting, the AALS conferenece, the first day of classes, . . .  and more job searching for our students!

I was reminded in an email from a student this morning that the hunt for summer and permanent law jobs is revving back up again after the holiday doldrums.  The student, a 1L mentee seeking summer employment, was asking a few questions about my cover letter post, to which I eaerlier had referred him.  I expect to start getting more of these communications from students about their job searches over the next few weeks.

Our brother bloggers over at the Law Skills Prof Blog have already struck while the iron is hot on this issue.  Specifically, Lou Sirico posted a quip on dressing for job interviews the other day.  The quoted advice?  "The interviewer should remember what you said and not what you were wearing."  

Hmm.  Yeah.  I guess so.  Well, maybe not.

Certainly, that's the advice I was given by NYU Law's fabulous placement folks in "the day."  Then, that meant wearing: a black, navy or midnight blue, or gray skirt suit; a neutral (white, ivory, gray, black) collared shirt or jewel-neck blouse; skin-tone hose; dark, solid-colored, medium-heeled pumps or really lovely flats; and either Barbara Bush pearls (the double strand) or a silk floppy bow tie (like an Hermes twilly, only not as fashion-forward).  Bo-ring.

I am proud (but call me lucky) to have gotten my job wearing (to the initial interview) a deep pink--almost fuchsia--silk-blend skirt suit (midi-length skirt, hip-length jacket), with a white collared blouse, neutral hose, black flats, and a patterned (pink, blue, etc.) floppy silk bow tie.  (This is where the folks in the UT Law Career Center lose faith that they are sending students to the right place when they refer them to me for career advice!)  I was confident and radiant in that suit (although I am not sure I realized that fully at the time), and I am convinced that made a big difference in the reception that I got from people when I wore it.  However, it's true that I  was interviewed by a woman (a female senior associate in a multicolored silk dress with straight blond hair down to her derrière) and I was seeking employment at an entrepreneurial, individualistic firm--Skadden.  

I know the suit was memorable.  At the on-campus Skadden (Boston office) interview, the interviewer said to me (when I walked through the door): "Thank heavens!  I just can't take another  black or navy suit!"  And when I was in Boston for my callbacks with a bunch of firms (including the Boston office of Skadden), I ran into that on-campus interviewer at the Government Center T stop when I was on my way to a callback interview at another firm, wearing that same pink suit (which I had not worn to my initial interview with the other firm), and the Skadden interviewer greeted me warmly, saying: "Joan MacLeod!  I'd know that pink suit anywhere!  How are you?"  (Of course, I had a different suit to wear back to my Skadden callback later in the week . . . .)

After reading Lou's post the other day, I went in search of more information--something to validate in some small way the seemingly ridiculous, but successful, approach I took in that initial interview. InStyle magazine to the rescue!  Back in October, InStyle carried a feature article on professional women's dress on television by Eric Wilson entitled "Pantsuits Won't Play Here" (on-line teaser at "Fashion Cues: Learn Style Tricks From TV’s Most Powerful Female Characters").  Among the quotables from the article:

  • "The notion of taking fashion cues from men to compete with them sounds so antiquated, it's laughable . . . ."
  • "If there's a universal message to be found here, it's this: Leave the pinstripes, gray flannel, and shoulder pads to the boys."

I tend to think the article gets those points right.  Neither men nor women are comfortable at this point with a menswear approach to women's professional dress.  The InStyle article ultimately voices (somewhat hopefully) the view that many new rules (more feminine, but in some cases a bit outlandish) applicable to female professionals on television will soon apply to professional women IRL.  Even if the article is right about the more practical elements of those new rules "catching on" beyond the TV world, it may take a long time for that change to occur.  Moreover, these new rules are unlikely to affect women applying for jobs in large private law firms for many years--if at all.  Interview outfits need to be, as I was always told, a step above what you would consider wearing to work, but not too far ahead of the interviewer in style or formality.

So what do I recommend to female students?  NOT bold pink suits, I can assure you.  Having said that, the traditional black, navy, or gray skirt-suit-and-shirt-or-blouse ensemble, while almost always appropriate for law job interviews, is sometimes not the right approach for a specific individual interviewing for a particular position.  As alternatives, I favor: a silk (or similar fabric) shirt dress with a black or dark short blazer; a sheath dresses with a matching blazer (very versatile for travel, too); or a matching patterned skirt/top combo with a black or dark blazer.  Make sure suit jackets and blazers fit properly.  I never used to do that, but it makes all the difference in the world.

Nude hose and medium-heeled pumps are still a good idea for female law job applicants (remember: you need to be able to walk comfortably in what you are wearing for many hours at a time), and solid colored pumps certainly are easier to match.  But don't be afraid to try a textured leather pump or even something conservative but multi-colored--like a two-tone spectator pump--if the rest of your outfit is very plain.  Put shoes on that make you feel like you are at the top of your lawyer game.

Accessories like scarves and jewelry should be minimal and, again, comfortable.

Really, within a range of clothes, a woman should wear work clothes to an interview that make her look and feel like a competent, likable, self-assured, calm, professional.  And just remember that if you are wearing something memorable, you will be remembered for who you are and what you say.  So, you'd better make a good showing!

Joan Heminway, Jobs, Law School, Teaching | Permalink


I have worn a distinctive piece of jewelry for every interview since 1L year, and interviewers (mostly females but many males) made favorable comments. I also wore bright or jewel tones blouses under my navy or black suits. Now that I wear glasses all the time, I make an effort to make them more stylish than boring. They tend to be conversation pieces as well. I always defied the advice so that I could feel more like myself and more self-assured.

Posted by: MARCIA NARINE | Dec 30, 2014 8:11:04 PM

Marcia, thanks so much for sharing these aspects of your (obviously successful) interview dress strategy! I may just get that new pair of glasses the optometrist recommended at my last visit . . . . Hmmm.

Posted by: joanheminway | Dec 30, 2014 8:30:40 PM

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