Monday, August 15, 2016

Do Clothes Make the Lawyer? Maybe They Do . . . .

As many of you know, I often like to post on issues relating to advising students (witness my cover letter posts, the most recent of which can be found here).  I also like to post from time to time on issues relating to fashion and the law (e.g., this post).  And sometimes, I fuse the two in a single post.  This post is one of those fusion posts.

Many of us intuitively understand that clothing affects not only the perceptions others have of us but also the perceptions we have of ourselves.  Some of us may even have done research to unearth evidence that these intuitions have some empirical traction.  But can what you wear affect your performance?  Research provides some evidence that it can.

Researchers at Northwestern University have identified a "systematic influence that clothes have on the wearer's psychological processes" that they term "unclothed cognition."  Their research, published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology in 2012, found that the attentiveness of the subjects was higher when wearing a lab coat than it was when they were not wearing a lab coat or were wearing a lab coat described as a painter's coat. The research was fairly widely reported at the time.  Although the study explored the effects of wearing a lab coat, one can see how the results may also hold for people wearing other performance-linked clothing, like athletic wear or other professional clothing, including business suits.  (A subsequent study on the cognitive effects of business suits can be found here.  More general commentary is available here and elsewhere.)

Admittedly, the results of these studies and others like them are qualified and the research in this field is at an early stage.  Having said that, as our students start interviewing for jobs and engaging in clinical practice and other experiential learning in the new semester, the possible effect of clothing on performance may be a relevant footnote for them.  I admit that I am not a fan of dress codes, as a general rule.  However, I may mention these studies to my students so that they can use the information in their decision-making, if they so choose.

Joan Heminway, Jobs, Psychology | Permalink


Interesting post, Joan. When I was in NYC, it seemed that many of the law and business firms were starting to swing back to more formal dress after a period of relatively relaxed dress. That said, I am reading your post in my office in shorts, polo, and flip of the last days of summer. But I do usually wear slacks, button-down, and a sports coat to class.

Posted by: Haskell Murray | Aug 15, 2016 7:11:56 AM

Interesting, Haskell--about law firms moving back toward more formal dress. It may be that requiring formal dress every day has a different effect on people than choosing formal dress for specific events/tasks. And I would be in casual mode, too, were it not for things beginning here at UT Law today!

Anecdotally, I know a colleague at another school who says he dresses especially well for presentations for which he is less prepared. He does this because he believes it gives him more instant credibility with his audience. But on reflection he may also be giving himself a performance boost . . . .

Posted by: joanheminway | Aug 15, 2016 7:20:29 AM

That explains what happened to me. I began my career as a lawyer in off-the-rack suits from Sears and I think I've worn a tie twice in the last ten years. I thought I was failing solely on the merits, but it turns out it was both the merits and my attire.

Posted by: Steve Bradford | Aug 15, 2016 7:38:30 AM

Too funny, Steve. Nice to hear your voice again here on the BLPB. I've missed you. And yes, this has made me think more about connections between my wardrobe choices and my performance, too.

Posted by: joanheminway | Aug 15, 2016 8:22:57 AM

Great post Joan! I definitely feel more confident when I "dress for success." I also think there's a gender issue here. Men have a fairly standard uniform to turn to. Women have more choices; sartorial decisions are more fun, but also more fraught. And then there is the example of bar associations recommending professional dress codes with rules mostly aimed at women (no short sleeved dresses or jackets, no peep toe shoes, etc.). Actually, there was a whole discussion from the Memphis Bar Association (I believe) on the dangers of "toe cleavage" from women in the courtroom. And finally -- there are class issues. There's the suit of course. But fit, fabric, cut, color -- all of these things are subtle signs of social standing, taste, etc. Just buying a suit off the rack from Sears (as one of your other commenters remembers) may not be enough. It's a difficult subject to broach with students. When I was just out of law school and working hard to pay off my student loans, I bought a lot of not so great fitting suits from the thrift store. (It was also the 1990s, when thrift store shopping was the hip thing to do). It took me a while to figure out that wearing this stuff to work negatively affected perceptions that people had of me.

Posted by: Lucy Jewel | Aug 15, 2016 10:44:58 AM

Hey, Lucy! Thanks for all these great thoughts. They add measurably to the conversation.

I know that you are right about the gender issues--especially, but not exclusively, for courtroom lawyers. I remember reading years ago that a judge held a female lawyer in contempt for wearing shorts (a split skirt with a matching jacket, in actuality, as I recall) in his courtroom. Made my blood boil.

And the class issues are palpable, too. I know that men who wear short-sleeved shirts in professional environments are often discounted/disparaged. And in my pre-employment poverty, I had some very inexpensive suits that stood the test of time (mostly bought at Alexander's in NYC), but they were very non-standard. I was privileged to work in a firm, however, where some creativity was permitted (and sometimes viewed as a sign of an entrepreneurial attitude that was valued) and work was evaluated on merit.

Of course, these perceptions of others do impact how we view ourselves. So, picking the wrong clothing--a shirt or business suit that we feel special in but that signals something completely different to others--may or may not have a performance boosting effect. There's clearly much more that can be explored in this area . . . .

Thanks, again, for weighing in.

Posted by: joanheminway | Aug 15, 2016 10:57:11 AM

Are you familiar with Amy Cuddy's work? (see; see also (TED talk)). Her research shows that certain poses improve both self-perception and others' perception. Unsurprising that clothes would do the same.

Posted by: Matthew Bruckner | Aug 16, 2016 10:55:24 AM

Thanks for these references. Off the top of my head, I do not think I have seen this research. I will look forward to reviewing the linked items. Perhaps another post will result . . . .

Posted by: joanheminway | Aug 16, 2016 11:07:09 AM

Robes may even make a law clerk feel like a judge:

Posted by: Haskell Murray | Aug 18, 2016 10:35:52 AM

Interesting. Maybe I should try that next time I volunteer to judge a moot court team . . . . I think I could use a little performance and confidence boost for that activity! :>)

Posted by: joanheminway | Aug 18, 2016 10:40:12 AM

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