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.
“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.”
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.
“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.
“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.
“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.•