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The Big Uneasy: Lamentations on Dressing Like a Lawyer

Jane Santos

Like it or not, as a first-year law student and future lawyer, some small part of Santos has to take that compromising step toward dressing corporate.

Only one week into law school and I already felt morally and fashionably compromised. My big crisis didn't result from the intense workload and competition I'd been dealt. Instead, I practically had a nervous breakdown over whether to buckle down and buy one of those horrific suitcases on wheels to cart around my gigantic textbooks that, unfortunately, are as heavy as the rock of Gibraltar.

It's hard to believe that I could have deliberated so much over whether to carry around a cumbersome notebook backpack or the more efficient but intensely dweeby suitcase on wheels; but deliberate I did. I deliberated like Abraham did over whether to sacrifice Isaac on Mount Moriah. In the aisles of Office Depot, I walked up and down with one of those huge padded laptop backpacks that when packed full of books, makes you feel like a beleagured caribou in the rice paddies of Southeast Asia.

In the end, I went with the advice of older law students whose spirits had long ago been broken by the clarion call of professionalism; the practical won over the fashionable. I broke down and bought one of those damn "rolly bags", a tender euphemism prescribed by law students desperate to cutesy the fact that they are carrying around what is essentially a huge briefcase on wheels. I told myself that I was too old to be governed by juvenile feelings of self-consciousness and reasoned that I would save myself from becoming an embittered hunchback by going with the suitcase on wheels.

Of course, that isn't to say that rolling around this damn suitcase everywhere isn't really, really embarrassing -- a feeling which is only heightened by the fact that people have a field day with my newfound accessory. Everyone from the doctor at my last appointment to random folks on the bus are all about making fun of the suitcase with Bob Sagat-esque humor. It usually comes in the form of, "Wow, that's some suitcase you've got there" or "Are you going on a trip?" or "Hey that's a big suitcase." Yuk, yuk. But I don't blame them in the least for their chortles. I mean just a few weeks ago, I was like everyone else accessorizing with snappy little things like tote bags and purses; and now my world has devolved to one where my most conspicuous accessory is big black business luggage.

Hearing that thing rolling behind me makes me feel like Orpheus of Greek mythology probably felt, tormented by the sound of Eurydice's footsteps behind him, knowing that she could be lost at any moment to Hades' dark underworld. On that note, what really underlies my exaggerated melodrama over the petty fashion compromise I had to make is that the suitcase is a constant reminder that there's no turning back now, and that whether I like it or not, as a first-year law student and future lawyer, some small part of me has had to take a step towards looking corporate.

Even the teeniest step towards dressing the part of that dark corporate underworld has been really hard to swallow. I deeply aspire to work as a public interest lawyer, but know I can't do that without first sucking it up big time and working a corporate job to pay off my insane debt sure to come from law school. Like many before me, I, too, will have to break free from the bonds of indentured servitude from that loan wench, Sallie Mae.

Law students have optional sessions available to them, such as: the most effective ways to handle staggering debt; how to brief cases and; how to maintain one's mental and physical health while under the duress law school. But I need a session on how to cope with dressing like a lawyer. All along, I've been bracing myself for the debt, the enormous workload, the alienation from my friends; but one thing I neglected to think about, was just how debilitating it will feel to have to dress like Margaret Thatcher on a daily basis. I've been getting lots of tips on HOW to dress for success during job interviews. For instance, one older law student told me, "The people who are dressed the nicest get the best jobs." But so far, no one's offered any tips on how to deal with the fact that wearing those kinds of clothes, every single day, totally blows.

I went searching for style counseling online in hopes of allaying some of my growing hysteria, hoping I would find a Yahoo discussion group for unconventional lawyers that really prefer wearing jeans and Dead-Head T-Shirts. Instead, I stumbled across some corporate fashion expert named Susan Dunn who had some words of advice for me and other future professionals that want to someday work for non-profit organizations and find power suits morally reprehensible. (In fact, I think I'd rather wear culottes than a power suit.) In her article, "The Dress Code, Handled with Emotional Intelligence", she put it bluntly saying, "If you're a free spirit who likes to express herself through wardrobe and accessories, don't work for a conservative law firm." No. Really? Susan Dunn didn't really help me at all. In fact her words leave me feeling bleak, since probably 99 percent of law firms that aren't non-profits are by their very nature, conservative.

I cruised Amazon in search of self-help books on how to deal with the agonies of professional dressing and came up short. While it appears that there are an abundance of books out there with titles along the lines of How to Dress for Success and Dressing to Make an Impression, and How to Dress to Get Your Dream Job, where are the books called Oh Man, That Sucks You Have to Buy a Briefcase, or Oh Man, that REALLY Sucks That You Have to Start Dressing Like You Are Condoleeza Rice's Personal Stylist.

A website run by the Executive Communications Group offered a complete list of Fashion Do's and Don'ts that seemed consistent with everything else I've observed and heard. The list of Fashion Do's gave a merry introduction to the stifling world of corporate dressing that entails black and navy color palettes, suits, silk blouses, flawless grooming, conservative hairdos and make-up, and most horrific of all, pantyhose -- that anachronistic woman-torturing device lauded by Puritans and probably Dick Cheney, too.

Moreso, I saw the list of Fashion Do's as code words for REALLY EXPENSIVE CLOTHES. What weirds me out is that I'll now be required to drop a lot of money on office and interview appropriate clothes, more than I have ever spent on clothes in my entire life! My rolly-bag alone cost a whopping 80 bucks, and it doesn't even have the best turning radius, either. Used to buying most of my clothes at thrift stores, I have no idea how to segue into buying clothes at stores like J. Crew or Ann Taylor. Are there any lawyers out there at all that shop at thrift stores? Good God, what if I get mistaken for an investment banker or worse, Alan Greenspan?

The Fashion Don'ts for corporate professionals weren't very surprising but were still depressing. I can now look forward to being ostracized for sporting clothes that speak "loudly", have busy patterns, shimmery fabrics, hair that falls in front of your face, any colors that are too bright, mismatching, light-colored shoes, conspicuous jewelry, and clothing that isn't tailored well. Basically, all things youthful, like bowl haircuts, disco dresses, red lipstick and big metal RUN D.M.C chains are out of the picture. (They may be out of the picture, but not out of my heart). I guess this also means that I can't wear white v-neck t-shirts and aviator glasses and have crazy bird's-nest hair like Dr. Gonzo, the cracked out lawyer played by Benicio Del Toro, in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

Indeed, professional business attire embodies a range of principles and connotations that are really disconcerting. For example, the philosophy behind professional clothing is that clothes should command respect and authority. I'm all about respecting myself, and respecting others, but suddenly having to go out of my way to "command" those things sounds so sultan-ish. I don't know how I feel about wearing clothes that are on par with the introduction to that Cypress Hill song, "Insane in the Brain" you know the one that goes: "Who you tryin' to get crazy with ese? / Don't you know I'm loco?" I don't want people to think that I'm going to get crazy on them like Cypress Hill. Nor do I want to look like someone who uses the phrase "I'll call you to touch base with you". I'd prefer not to have my clothes convey intimidating messages of power. Urban Outfitters currently sells t-shirts that say "Trust me, I'm a lawyer", but I think they should really sell shirts that say, "I'm a lawyer but please don't think I'm an asshole".

These are most of the concerns I've been shuddering about in confronting the fashion reality of conservative attire. I just wonder if I'll always feel like I'm living some incongruous alternate deviant lifestyle, dressing in completely yuppie lawyer clothes by day; and dressing like a colorblind but whimsical homeless lady by night. Yeah, it's petty to worry about what kind of clothes you'll have to wear in your career, but it does make a difference in terms of career and lifestyle happiness. I won't deny how jealous I am of other professionals like � doctors and professors � who get to walk around in comfy, pajama-like scrubs and cozy, Woody Allen-esque corduroy blazers with elbow patches.

In the rudimentary stages of my law school career, the only thing I guess I can do is brace myself for the fact that I'm going to have to make even bigger fashion compromises in the future. I'll have to make sure that those fashion compromises don't slip into moral compromises. That means that even if I have to put on a suit that makes me look like Margaret Thatcher, there's no way in hell I'm ever going to think like her.

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