I am a Miss Manners fan. So much so that I often read her books to no particular purpose—for sheer enjoyment, not because I am seeking answers to a particular question. I like to think I already know the answers; I always agree, after all, with everything she says. But maybe that’s just because she’s incredibly persuasive, and I’m reinventing my own reality as I read.
In any event, in the way of the truly wise, Miss Manners has a way of opining about matters I didn’t even know I was seeking wisdom about. The other night, as I was thumbing through her A Citizen’s Guide to Civility, I found this compelling exegesis:
Symbolic rules of etiquette are totally arbitrary, which is why people often assume they can be violated with impunity. This is a mistake. Everybody scrutinizes such things as clothing, nomenclature and gesture for symbolic content all the time . . . .
Following the conventions of the society is taken as a measure of respect for it. No one, not even those who are most vehement in claiming to have sartorial freedom from symbolism, would hire a trial lawyer who wore pajamas (which would serve the practical function of covering the body as well as a suit) to court, or submit to an operation by a brain surgeon who wore a Dracula sweatshirt in his consulting room. Don’t even think about flouting symbolic dress conventions if you want a career in the law, the military, diplomacy, the church or athletics. All of these professions have particularly strict etiquette rules, and compliance is taken to symbolize adherence to the particular values that these professions require: fairness, obedience, respect, piety or valor.
Judith Martin, A Citizen’s Guide to Civility 35-36 (Three Rivers Press, 1996). Now, how did Miss Manners know that Early Interview Week was all but upon us? What better time for discussing appropriate lawyer attire?
Now, there are those who may dispute the appropriateness of my weighing in on this question. After all, consider my milieu. Academics, even those at professional schools, are not typically fashion-forward, often clad in a manner that is in fact just one step above pajamas. And more than one student over the years has suggested that I am failing to carry out some portion of my work responsibilities as exhibited by my marked lack of success in bringing one faculty member up to snuff. What do you want from me? I was a coconspirator in the forced-donation to the 2008 Student Funded Fellowship auction of the poor man’s 1980s-era teal and fuchsia ski jacket (rumor has it that the winning bidders—to the tune of $1,000, if I recall correctly—later immolated their purchase in a ceremony on the Quad). I may have failed, but I went down swinging.
Anticipating the potential skepticism, though, I decided to outsource. I have surveyed various people in a position of unalloyed authority: lawyers in all parts of the country who have been both the givers and receivers of many, many interviews. The passion my question evoked was considerable, suggesting that Miss Manners is truly onto something. One’s fashion faux pas are, it would seem, not simply being elided over by a gentle and forgiving lawyerly audience. They have noticed, and they were almost alarmingly eager to weigh in.
Now, to be honest, I stacked the deck. I only asked people who I know get themselves pretty agitated about this topic. The fact of the matter is, the bar is not incredibly high here. You need to look presentable. You can ignore vast swaths of the amazingly strongly worded advice below and be perfectly safe in your presentation. But where’s the fun in reading that version of advice? That is not the Miss Manners way. (Along those lines, many of my advisors went out of their way to say that they didn’t think people should be denied a job just because they dressed “wrong”; people should be hired based on brains and talents. I suspect that Miss Manners would strongly disapprove of this soft-hearted, nay, cavalier attitude.)
Mind you, dealing with people who have strong feelings on fashion can get super-fraught. Divisions run deep. I, for example, admire men who wear wingtips, but one of my advisors thinks they are too casual. That, people, is crazy talk. Likewise, I can think of no better shirt for a man wearing a suit than a white button-down long-sleeve oxford shirt , but again, this advisor demurred in favor of a straight collar, once more claiming that the former is “too casual.” Guess what? He and I are enemies now. (Speaking in the third person about himself, this advisor sent me to this website, and then “rested his case.” Whatever.)
For the record, all of my advisors made clear that this advice relates solely to an interview setting (as well as to, say, U.S. Supreme Court arguments), not to everyday attire at work. Once you get the job, you may find that implementation of the rules may very well be quite lax, if not entirely nonexistent. But when you’re in the position of importuning, signaling through strict adherence that you have mastered the rules is a worthy undertaking. And even if you’re interviewing in a laidback office, dressing formally is a clear gesture of respect that will not be taken amiss.
I have here provided just the advice that everyone could agree upon. And don’t be annoyed with me because it’s so bossy and opinionated. I’m just the messenger. Well—okay. I also loved the message. So fine, go ahead and be annoyed with me.
The overarching point is this: if you wear the right uniform you won’t be noticed for your clothes; you’ll be noticed for your brains. And that, at the end of the day, is the goal.