We've all been encouraged to believe that appearances don't count. It's what's inside that matters, or so the narrative goes. This is certainly important in personal relationships, but the truth is that for attorneys, outward appearances do count. And they count more than you might expect.
Clearly, you can't win a case based merely on what suit you choose or how you style your hair. Your knowledge, skill, and experience are what get you the victories that define your career. However, your appearance can be a deterrent for potential clients, taking you out of consideration without regard to your actual abilities. You are out of the game before it even begins.
Your appearance can also influence juries and judges and affect how much trust and faith they place in you.
Think you are above all this? That your legal genius will carry the day? Think again. Clients come to you with their lives or businesses in disorder – your sharp and poised image is important staging to set them at ease sufficiently to be open to your legal strategies and solutions.
As advisors to extraordinary American lawyers, we are on the front lines of law firm business development at the highest levels with a critical factor being both the talent and personal branding of individual law practice leaders. Recently we watched a truly gifted attorney quickly elevated from back-room genius to managing partner–rainmaker of a 50 lawyer firm, with a few simple fixes to his appearance and image.
Similarly, a remarkable civil rights attorney went from a small dusty office to a regular spot on the national stage by substituting a wardrobe befitting his brilliance for his former broke law student image. He kept his authenticity in this sector with wire-rimmed spectacles and pony tailed mane, but an impeccable tailored suit tastefully accessorized was an immediate career elevation.
Mergers and acquisitions lawyer? Lose the tie, elevate the suit, and you stand out as someone important in a room filled with legal clones. It’s subtle and powerful, and we see it every day.
Finally, this career and law practice edge is the least expensive and quickest bit of marketing you can do. Law firms obsess and spend fortunes on branding the group while the lawyers give little thought to branding themselves, and this starts with their appearance.
Image and appearance are critical and gating elements of remarkable career success.
Why Appearance Matters – Science and Psychology
You can't escape genetics. Although we as humans are able to analyze and reason, we are also biological creatures who are hard-wired for survival in the savannah. Our ancestors survived because they were able to make accurate snap judgments about the situations they faced. If you see a flash of yellow in the bushes, assuming it's a lion and hightailing your family up a tree will result in survival and success for your species.
On the other hand, if you see a snake and take the time to get to know it and find out if it's feeling predatory that day before climbing the tree, you are much less likely to survive.
Snap judgments got humans where we are today and have allowed us to create a world where we don't actually need them, a world where careful consideration, research, and reasoning are the most common roads to success. Even though we know that people are more than their appearances, our biology still causes us to create first impressions and to make decisions based upon them.
In the first 10 to 30 seconds of meeting or seeing someone, our brain scans their appearance and begins to draw conclusions about the person.
It isn't intentional, but we all do it. And because those impressions are not conscious impressions, they tend to linger, completely coloring our opinion of the person in question.
At the very least, a first impression can create a bias that has to be overcome. At its worst, it can lead someone to accept that first impression as an accurate assessment and act in accordance with it. Suppose a potential client forms a first impression of a lawyer that he is not smart or not successful. In that case, the lawyer has to debunk that opinion before he can begin to sell the client on his expertise, skill, and experience.
On the other hand, a first impression that a lawyer is smart, successful, and trustworthy creates an immediate underlying assumption that this attorney is the right choice. The client already has confidence in this lawyer and will continue to feel optimistic about him unless the lawyer does something professionally that contradicts that.
Creating an appearance that allows a client to initially assume you are the intelligent, reliable, flourishing professional that your practice shows you to be will get you an immediate buy-in from the client. Now you needn't spend time trying to overcome a negative first impression. Instead, the client starts off with a positive opinion, and your conversations and services simply reinforce that.
Your appearance should support your track record. Show people who are by the way you dress and present yourself.
Clothing Impacts Impressions – A Powerful Legal Marketing Tool
If you're shaking your head and thinking to yourself that you're just an average looking guy with a whipsmart brain and thus have no chance at a good first appearance (or that it doesn’t matter), think again.
You can't change the shape of your nose or the strength of your jaw (without surgery -- and even so probably shouldn’t), but you can create a positive first impression that is formed on your appearance by dressing and accessorizing yourself in a way that makes a highly positive impact on a client or jury.
The first impression about an attorney's ability is guided more by sartorial choices than by mere facial or body characteristics. In fact, how you dress and present yourself is actually more important than any immutable physical characteristic.
Your clothing and grooming represent the conscious choices you've made, and in the world of first impressions, these are assumed to reflect your intellect, abilities, and personality.
In fact, clients are more likely to respond positively to an attorney who is well-dressed, neatly groomed, and polished but who may not be a Tom Cruise look alike than they are to an attorney who is the spitting image of George Clooney, but sports a baggy, ill-fitting suit, with scuffed old loafers, messy hair, and a beaten briefcase. Clothing can overcome physical characteristics and tells the client's or juror's brain who you are as a professional and what they should expect from you.
By choosing clothing that presets the client or juror to anticipate a successful, trustworthy, and intelligent professional, you've achieved an edge in your career.
A Suit of Armor: A High-Value High-ROI Wardrobe Choice
You already know (or should be aware) that there's no question that you must wear a suit in your professional life, especially any time you have contact with a client or will be in court, in a meeting, or on a Zoom call. To maximize your success, which suit you wear matters more than you might think.
While it's true that a good suit could last 20 years, in practice any suit that's even five years old is out of style and has likely relaxed its shape and lost its cachet. Evaluate the suits in your wardrobe and purge those that do not meet reasonably recent style requirements.
Your professional wardrobe should be made up of high-end, well-made suits from known and respected designers. Always dress as if your client can see the label. American style tends to be a bit baggy, but European style is closer fitting and more tailored.
For the best look, walk a fine line between the two. A suit is that loose and saggy does not convey an image of success and cutting-edge abilities. By the same token, a European suit with pants so slim they resemble leggings does not send a message of established wisdom. The best look is a suit that is somewhat form-fitting but leaning towards a traditional fit.
Avoid the hottest trends until they become established and mainstream. Your goal is not to look like a model from a men's magazine. Suits should be conservative, not flashy. The best suit is one that fades into the background while supporting and enhancing your image. Studies have shown that people do assess the fit of a suit, and it affects the choices they make about the person wearing it.
Study participants indicated that they assume an attorney in a well-tailored suit will provide them with accurate, reliable information. They also indicated they would prefer to work with or look at (in the case of a jury) a person in this type of suit.
Suits that are navy, gray, or tan are acceptable colors. Avoid anything red or burgundy, light or bright blue, white, black, or green. Plaids and stripes are fine, so long as they are subtle.
While a form-fitting suit is the goal, it's important to consider your body shape. A heavy-set gentleman needs a suit that complements his appearance. The best choice in this situation is to find a good tailor who can customize a suit to flatter your body.
Another goal is to create an appearance that looks healthy. When people see someone and judge them as overweight, their assumption is that the person is unhealthy, which many assume is linked to a lack of intelligence and competence, even though many people who take care of themselves and are smart have health problems that lead to extra weight. The goal is to redirect the assumption.
Instead of a client or jury deciding you are unhealthy and incompetent, you want to dress to show them you are smart, confident, and successful. Well-made, expensive (although not insanely so) clothing that is carefully tailored to your body type will present that image.
Suit styles to avoid:
- Bright colors
- Wide lapels
- Loud patterns
- Tight pants
- Double breasted suits
- Pleated trousers
- Boxy styles
- Jackets that end before your hips or do not cover your pants zipper
- Large shoulder pads
Colorful Choices – Ties and Pocket Squares
While your suit choice must be conservative and within a small color palette, ties are where you can add color to your wardrobe.
Traditionally ties have been a place where men can show their personality a bit; however, avoid any themed ties, such as those with logos (such as for sports teams, however, understated university ties are acceptable, particular Ivy League), images of hobbies (like fishing), or holiday designs, unless they are extremely subtle. While your interests and interests are important to you, a client or juror may react negatively to them.
There are a few specialized exceptions. If you practice in a particularly narrow field of law, a tie that reflects that field can be acceptable if it is a subtle design. For example, an attorney who handles only child custody cases can wear a tie with children on it. An attorney who handles only patent law can wear a tie with blueprints on it and so on.
Because your suit is subtle, your tie is center stage and can function like a billboard. Use that billboard to send the message you want.
One of the most important aspects to consider when selecting a tie is color. Many studies have shown that colors have a significant psychological impact. Corporations have been playing off these for years. The McDonald's logo uses colors that stimulate appetites. Best Buy has a logo that creates a happy, positive feeling. Hospitals and therapists’ offices use calming pastels to impact a patient's moods.
Color psychology must be one of the tools in your toolbox. Leveraging the impact color creates can help you move your personal brand forward and dynamize your career.
Research shows certain colors are more helpful for an attorney to wear than others.
Pay attention to politicians. When there is a presidential debate or a presidential speech, the tie is chosen very carefully. As a rule of thumb, when a politician is wearing a red tie, he asserts the impression of power and lets you know he is in control. When he is wearing a blue tie, he signals that he is trustworthy, and you can take what he has to say to heart.
- Purple Red is traditionally considered a power color. It marks you as the aggressor who can intimidate the people you are working with. Red conveys confidence. This might work on cross-examination in a trial, but in general, it creates an adverse reaction from the jury and from potential clients. Instead, purple has been found to harness the positive response that red creates and builds on it. Purple signals energy and confidence and suggests the wearer has wisdom, credibility, vigor, stamina, determination, and aplomb. Be careful to choose a true, almost royal purple (not a lavender) to get this effect.
- Gray Gray elicits thoughts of stability and strength. Colors in the gray palette are very calm and reassuring. This color communicates to clients that you are reliable, that you have experience, and that you are someone who stays the course. Note also that a gray suit paired with a gray tie creates a very streamlined appearance that generates an impression of capability and trustworthiness for heavier men. Also, a gray-haired man in a gray suit and tie presents a fully coordinated image that inspires confidence.
- Blue Blue is the other color that should make up the bulk of your tie selections. Colors in the blue palette create feelings of calm and peacefulness. Attorneys should wear dark or navy blues, which impart a message of integrity and control, which arises from the calmness and peacefulness the blue family creates. An attorney with a navy suit and a navy tie is clearly someone with experience and knowledge, and ultimately, is someone who is believable. This can be key when working with a jury.
Shoes Frame Your Journey
Shoes have distinct personalities assigned to them by clients and juries. Of course, the most important thing about shoes is that they are comfortable (not painful, because this will influence your body language) and fit well (so your gait appears measured and normal in them). However, your shoes’ style and the condition are a significant portion of the first impression you create.
Shoes should be conservative, so avoid flashy colors or fashion statements. Brown and black are the best colors to select for optimum image control. They should look expensive but blend in with the rest of your clothing. Avoid patent leather or anything too shiny. Oxfords are one of the best choices, but loafers could work if not too casual.
Of course, depending on your geography, high-end cowboy boots could be the best choice for you.
Choose a thin sole. Thicker soles tend to look more like something a traveling salesman would wear. Stay away from exotic skins, white or light-colored shoes, and never, ever wear sneakers or clogs to important meetings and certainly not to court.
Your shoes should be well-cared for, without visible scuffs or scratches. Regular shoe shining services will keep them in the best condition and send the message that you are careful and dependable.
Watches Tell More Than Time
The true sign of success used to be a large gold Rolex watch. Any attorney sporting one on his wrist sent a message that he was an elite and supremely successful professional. Today, a large, flashy watch creates a strong and completely wrong immediate impression with clients and jurors.
This style of watch is now considered pretentious and undermines the image of respectability that the wearer may assume it presents.
A watch should be sleek and understated which signals intelligence and savvy decisions. An extravagant watch (or other jewelry) signals that the wearer lacks intelligence or is more interested in money than in building a respectable career.
An option to consider for a watch is an Apple watch, FitBit or other smartwatch like Samsung Galaxy. While these watches are not a luxury status symbol, they make a clear statement about intelligence, adaptability, and organization.
Accessories to Boost Your Image
Your shoes and watch are significant clues for clients and jurors. Other accessories can contribute to the same overall picture you are painting.
Building positive first impressions is all about attention to detail.
- Socks Socks used to come in four colors: black, blue, gray, and tan. Today socks are available in every color and every pattern imaginable. The safest choice is to remain conservative in your color and pattern selection. Choose a sock that coordinates with your suit, not your shoes. A colorful, patterned sock can be an interesting addition to your wardrobe, but stick with blue, black, tan, gray, or purple.
- Jewelry A wedding ring (if applicable) is the best choice when it comes to jewelry options. This is a conservative and accepted option that shows you are a stable, successful, and reliable person. Cufflinks are acceptable if they are understated.
- Tie clips and tie bars These pieces of jewelry are now dated. You will create a more favorable impression with a high end, well-tailored tie without additional adornment.
- Glasses Glasses should be modern and sleek to achieve the best perception by clients and jurors who are assessing you. While dark, heavy frames are stylish if done correctly, they tend to be too fashion-forward. It is best to lean towards minimal frames to project an image of someone who is intelligent and on top of things. Reading glasses may be necessary, but if at all possible, consider alternatives (laser surgery, bifocals, or contacts) to avoid having to take glasses on and off to read to avoid being classified as "old."
- Belts Belts today come in a variety of widths – wide belts that go with jeans and skinny belts that go with fashion-forward dress pants. For the best impression, fall in between the two extremes. A leather medium width belt is the conservative option that labels you as steady and wise. Avoid large, flashy belt buckles. A belt should coordinate with your pants and blend into your entire suit.
- Coats A winter overcoat should be navy, gray, or black. A raincoat is best in traditional tan. All coats must fall at or below the knees. Make sure your coat is fitted to your body just as your suit is. A well-made coat labels you as organized, smart, and successful.
- Hats Hats fall into the same category as Rolex watches. Some time ago, they were considered a sign of status, but have instead become ostentatious. If you need a head covering in the dead of winter, choose something that matches your coat and has a small brim or is a newsboy style. Knit caps position you as young and inexperienced and are to be avoided.
- Pens Expensive, sleek, simple pens frame you as a successful intellectual. Cheap, free pens with slogans on them have the opposite effect. If you're someone who always loses pens, buy boxes of simple black Flair pens that are all the same and keep a box in your bag and one in your desk. [We personally love these for inexpensive flair pens and the TrueWriter® from Levenger for sleeker pens].
- Cellphone case Stick with unobtrusive, dark cases. Avoid anything shiny or metallic. If you need an Otterbox style because you tend to break your phones, choose the slimmest, darkest style you can find.
All of these accessory choices send a message to clients about your level of success and create assumptions about your competence level. Do not miss this easy opportunity to enhance your image.
When a client evaluates you, your history of success and finely honed skills are what they are looking for. However, technology has become a litmus test for any client or juror under the age of 50 in today's world. People in this age group view lawyers who are not comfortable with technology as less intelligent across the board.
Displaying competence and confidence with technology creates an impression of intelligence and capability.
At the very least, avoid all jokes about being inept with technology, being uncomfortable with it, or not understanding how it works. Assume that the people you are speaking to are competent users if they are under age 50, and be clear that you also are a regular user of technology.
While an office without a computer on the desk used to convey that you were so successful you didn't need to bother yourself with anything on a computer. Today, the lack of technology on your desk creates the impression that you don't know how to use it and haven't bothered to become informed. That said, having a laptop on your desk sends the right message, but if you use it during a client interview and have to hunt and peck as you type or are not able to swiftly and cleanly bring up whatever you are looking for, it's best to leave the computer off to the side.
A recent smartphone is a must. If you have an older model, consider upgrading even if yours is fully functional. Even if you aren't a smartphone power user, simply having the latest model you leave on your desk is a signal that you're tech-savvy, and you will appear up to date and canny.
Carrying Your Load – The Good Sort of Baggage
The bag or briefcase you carry with you is another important element that influences initial perceptions.
While some people have a belief that an old, worn bag of extremely high quality is a sign of old money or social standing, the modern assumption is that if you're using a worn bag, you either can't afford a new one or you aren't detailed and perceptive enough to realize you need a new one.
The bags you carry with you should appear to be in good condition, well cared for (leather cases should receive the same care as your shoes), and should not be bulging or overstuffed.
The bag must be organized. Think of your bag as a way to demonstrate your competence and care in your profession. An attorney who has to dig through a bag to locate a file or a pen and has things falling out of the pockets with pieces of paper sticking up out of files appears to be disorganized and incompetent. Instead, your bag should be evidence of your smoothness, capability, and calmness.
You should be able to know exactly where everything is and pull it out with ease, almost as if you are performing a magic trick.
A messenger style bag is acceptable as long as it appears expensive and luxurious. Old style handled leather bags that have a large mouth that opens at the top are outdated. If at all possible, you should try to rely on a laptop instead of documents, reducing the bag’s size.
In complex trials, it may be necessary to transport large quantities of documentation. In that instance, have an associate carry the files.
Body Language Tells All
In addition to what you wear, how you carry your body creates a significant impression with potential clients and jurors. Suppose a person wears expensive, well-tailored clothing and has excellent sartorial style, but slouches, can't make eye contact, or has a nervous tic. In that case, all of the clothing’s messaging is counteracted by the receiver’s impressions from the body language.
Body language is perhaps even more important than how you dress because it communicates your emotions, biases, and inner thoughts.
In some cases, it can be helpful to work with a body language coach to learn how to improve your unspoken communication.
Body language mistakes to avoid:
- Slouching Poor posture is interpreted as a lack of self-confidence and an inability to be aggressive and confident. Be aware of posture while standing but also while sitting, as you do for much of a trial as well as in client meetings. It may be worthwhile to consider a new office chair that will encourage correct positioning. Additionally, the right shoe can encourage the most positive standing posture.
- Eye contact Many studies have demonstrated the importance of eye contact. It's important not only to make eye contact but also to make the correct amount of eye contact. Failing to meet someone's eyes provides the impression that you are dishonest, shifty, and unsure. Constant, unyielding eye contact is aggressive and dominating. There is a careful balance that must be achieved in making clear eye contact, yet breaking it enough, so it does not feel threatening. Juror specialists can be used to create a plan for specific juries, such as who to look at and for how long for each specific, unique jury.
- Nervous tics Swinging your foot, tapping your pen, rubbing your fingers together, or touching your face are messages that you are nervous, unsure, or not confident with what you are doing. These movements are also distracting and can cause a client or jury to miss the point of your words. Relaxed stillness presents confidence, which is the image you want to convey.
Grooming Completes the Package
It goes without saying the cleanliness (both personal and sartorial) is imperative but grooming must be impeccable to present the perfect image.
- Nails Five words – Professional Manicure -- no nail polish.
- Hair Your hairstyle should be similar to your suit: well-trimmed, suited to your body, and just modern enough not to appear stuffy and out of touch. Ultra-modern hairstyles, including shaved or buzzed areas should be avoided because they send a message that you are inexperienced and unreliable. A small amount of product can be used to ensure your hair retains the right shape, but never reaches the point of shininess. Messy hair presents you as disorganized. Sleek, controlled hair shows a client you are trustworthy. It goes without saying that comb overs are an immediate image killer.
- Facial hair A clean-shaven look is generally preferred, but a well-groomed mustache and beard may work in some regions. Stubble is interpreted as a sign that you are not meticulous, even if you intentionally create it.
- Teeth An investment in cosmetic dental work will offer benefits in your professional life if needed. Straight, clean, reasonably white teeth create a positive impression that leads people to think you are successful and educated. On the other hand, extreme whitening of teeth can create a negative impression of vanity and false sincerity.
Clients and juries make decisions based not only on what you say, but in reliance on the split-second impression their brain processes upon seeing you. There are significant opportunities to further your career and law practice success by tailoring your appearance to match the reactions you want to engender in your clients and juries.