Friday, January 9, 2009

Fashion and Intellect

As a senior partner of Freshfields (New York), I was sorry to see the Daily Mail/Marie Claire article on "Freshfields and fashion" rerun in this IntLawGrrls post. The press article -- seriously misreported and sensationally illustrated with a photo of "killer stilettos" -- would not warrant attention, but for its being read by some to suggest Freshfields is discriminating against women by mandating a fashion style to gain a competitive edge in the currently difficult legal market.
The facts:
Those familiar with the English legal system will recognize that the firm takes in large classes of "trainee" lawyers two times a year, most of them straight from university. As part of their intensive orientation, the trainees are offered a short session -- the group together, men and women -- on how to dress professionally. The focus is on how to make the transition from university dress to business attire, especially as firm lawyers in London must wear business suits every day. According to trainees and former trainees with whom I've spoken, what they most remember about the session is learning -- for the first time -- how quickly their intellectual skills will be judged or misjudged by their physical appearance. Although the London press has run unbalanced stories over the years, the trainees find the session professionally valuable and ask that the option be continued.
Being surprised at how often I have to advise young lawyers -- women and men -- on appropriate dress for appearances in international courts and tribunals, as well as in the office day-to-day, I cannot disagree with the concept.
Given that Freshfields has an official dress code in London -- covering both women and men -- that discourages skirts "more than one inch above the knee" and open-toed shoes, stilettoed and mini-skirted lawyers must be a rare sight indeed in our London offices. (photo credit)
But such facts would not sell fashion magazines and tabloids. Nor would stories on the extraordinary intellect and achievements of our women (and men) lawyers.

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