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Tie optional

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On a hot Friday afternoon, Bruce Kehoe showed up at the office in jeans, Nike athletic shoes, and a striped polo shirt – not the typical outfit for a busy personal injury lawyer. Kehoe had been working on a car accident re-creation for most of the day; otherwise, he said, he wouldn’t normally wear Nikes to work, not even on casual Friday.

Attitudes about law firm attire have changed since Kehoe first joined Wilson Kehoe Winingham 30 years ago. And they changed even more so after partner Harry Wilson died in 2004.
 

wilseon kehoe Bruce Kehoe (IL Photo/ Perry Reichanadter)

“On the occasions when I would come into work in my jeans and golf shirt, Mr. Wilson would say, ‘Mr. Kehoe, are you practicing law today?’” Kehoe said, emulating Wilson with a booming voice.

Kehoe paused for a moment, smiled, and said, “Casual clothing for Mr. Wilson was, he’d take off his tie.”

Relaxed requirements

Mary Coffey, director of administration for Woodard Emhardt Moriarty McNett & Henry, said that her firm has observed casual Fridays for at least 10 years.

“I think that we sort of started when the job market in general became more accepting of casual Fridays,” she said. “Generally, it seems like the business environment has grown a little more casual over the years. We’re not 100 percent suit-and-tie the rest of the week; it varies by attorney.”

At Lewis Wagner, every day is casual day – a business practice that managing partner John Trimble learned about when he had a job interview at the firm in 1979. He said that Robert Wagner welcomed him to his office dressed in white pants, topsiders, and a yacht captain’s hat.
 

wilson kehoe Edward D. Thomas, Lewis Wagner associate. (IL Photo/ Perry Reichanadter)

“And I had worn a three-piece suit,” Trimble said.

While firms may have eased dress codes through the years, “casual” is a word that people may interpret differently, and sometimes employees need a gentle reminder about the boundaries of good taste.

“We do have a description of what is inappropriate in our employee manual, and that is distributed to mainly the staff and associates,” Coffey said. “Anything that looks like beach attire is certainly not appropriate.”

T-shirts with writing or messages are not permitted at Coffey’s firm, either – with one exception.

“Colts jerseys on blue Fridays, of course, are exempt,” she said.

Client and peer expectations

Kehoe said if his firm is handling a particularly serious case and expects those clients in the office on Friday, management may cancel casual day.

“You have to meet somebody’s expectation,” he said. “When you have clients in, you want them to know you respect them.”

Kehoe describes the firm’s clientele as “ordinary, blue-collar hardworking folks.” And with that in mind, the firm takes steps to make clients feel at ease.

“We don’t want oriental rugs on our floor, because our clients aren’t comfortable in that kind of environment, as a general rule,” he said.

Attorneys know that no matter what their firm’s dress code may be, they may occasionally need to appear before a judge or at a function that requires more than khakis and a polo shirt. Kehoe said he keeps at least a few shirts, ties, and suits in his office, in case of emergency.


wilson kehoe (From left to right) Lewis Wagner staff Gi Maddox, Erin Koontz, and Melissa Kiesler sport sandals and fresh pedicures on casual Friday.  (IL Photo/ Perry Reichanadter)

“If a federal judge or magistrate calls, I’m not gonna say, ‘You know, it is casual Friday, your honor,’” he said.

At Lewis Wagner, many attorneys keep at least a suit jacket on-hand. But they need not worry about outside attorneys passing judgment on their outfits during a routine workday.

“We have always strategically been in a building where we are the only law firm,” Trimble said.

The clothes don’t make the man – or woman

Kehoe said he sees no connection between the way a person is dressed and the quality of his or her work.

“Good people do good work – and they can do it in a three-piece suit, or they can do it in a shirt and slacks,” he said.

Trimble echoed that sentiment.

“The view of the firm has always been that our clients hire us for our legal abilities, and we dress up when we need to dress up, and business casual is the best way to work,” Trimble said.

Debbie Shrum, legal administrator for Lewis Wagner, said that employees at the firm reap the rewards of a relaxed dress code.


wilson kehoe Law clerk Annie Alonso poses for a photo at Wilson Kehoe Winingham. (IL Photo/ Perry Reichanadter)

“It’s a financial advantage for primarily the staff – they don’t have to spend the money on dress clothes for the office and have casual clothes for home – they’re interchangeable for the most part,” Shrum said.

Kehoe said that allowing employees to dress casually is a way to show them that management appreciates them.

On the same Friday when Kehoe had worn his Nikes to work, law clerk Annie Alonso breezed through the lobby, smiling broadly, wearing rubber-soled sandals, jeans, and a cardigan. She agreed to pose for a photograph.

“I promise you,” Kehoe said with conviction, “her work is superb.” He reiterated that casual dress does not translate to a casual attitude about professionalism.•

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  • sartorial devolution
    Casual is fine but I'll pass on the flip flops and dungarees. Khakis is about as far as it should go towards "casual."

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  1. From back in the day before secularism got a stranglehold on Hoosier jurists comes this great excerpt via Indiana federal court judge Allan Sharp, dedicated to those many Indiana government attorneys (with whom I have dealt) who count the law as a mere tool, an optional tool that is not to be used when political correctness compels a more acceptable result than merely following the path that the law directs: ALLEN SHARP, District Judge. I. In a scene following a visit by Henry VIII to the home of Sir Thomas More, playwriter Robert Bolt puts the following words into the mouths of his characters: Margaret: Father, that man's bad. MORE: There is no law against that. ROPER: There is! God's law! MORE: Then God can arrest him. ROPER: Sophistication upon sophistication! MORE: No, sheer simplicity. The law, Roper, the law. I know what's legal not what's right. And I'll stick to what's legal. ROPER: Then you set man's law above God's! MORE: No, far below; but let me draw your attention to a fact I'm not God. The currents and eddies of right and wrong, which you find such plain sailing, I can't navigate. I'm no voyager. But in the thickets of law, oh, there I'm a forester. I doubt if there's a man alive who could follow me there, thank God... ALICE: (Exasperated, pointing after Rich) While you talk, he's gone! MORE: And go he should, if he was the Devil himself, until he broke the law! ROPER: So now you'd give the Devil benefit of law! MORE: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil? ROPER: I'd cut down every law in England to do that! MORE: (Roused and excited) Oh? (Advances on Roper) And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you where would you hide, Roper, the laws being flat? (He leaves *1257 him) This country's planted thick with laws from coast to coast man's laws, not God's and if you cut them down and you're just the man to do it d'you really think you would stand upright in the winds that would blow then? (Quietly) Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake. ROPER: I have long suspected this; this is the golden calf; the law's your god. MORE: (Wearily) Oh, Roper, you're a fool, God's my god... (Rather bitterly) But I find him rather too (Very bitterly) subtle... I don't know where he is nor what he wants. ROPER: My God wants service, to the end and unremitting; nothing else! MORE: (Dryly) Are you sure that's God! He sounds like Moloch. But indeed it may be God And whoever hunts for me, Roper, God or Devil, will find me hiding in the thickets of the law! And I'll hide my daughter with me! Not hoist her up the mainmast of your seagoing principles! They put about too nimbly! (Exit More. They all look after him). Pgs. 65-67, A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS A Play in Two Acts, Robert Bolt, Random House, New York, 1960. Linley E. Pearson, Atty. Gen. of Indiana, Indianapolis, for defendants. Childs v. Duckworth, 509 F. Supp. 1254, 1256 (N.D. Ind. 1981) aff'd, 705 F.2d 915 (7th Cir. 1983)

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