LAW FIRMS TRADE IN THEIR SUITS AND TIES FOR KHAKIS

A few years ago, law firms around town instituted Casual Friday as a concession to associates and partners working with more laid-back clients like entertainment and dot-com executives. It also proved to be a good way to keep and attract young associates coming out of college.

But for more and more firms, Casual Friday has expanded to every day of the week.

"It's a function of the way the business world is moving," said Tom Wisialowski, vice chairman of Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker LLP's Los Angeles office. "Most of the dot-com companies and real estate developers and that type are casual anyway. It's only a matter of time until it becomes the norm."

Paul, Hastings switched to an everyday casual dress policy after experimenting with a Casual Summer last year. The summer policy was popular with associates and partners alike, and now about 85 percent of the lawyers take advantage of the new rule, Wisialowski said.

Larry Teplin, a partner at Cox, Castle & Nicholson LLP who heads up the litigation group, said his firm voted to dress casual all the time because lawyers don't see many clients in the office.

"If we go out of the office to meet with clients, we can dress up if we need to," Teplin said. "There haven't been any bizarre problems, like jeans, or uncreased pants, or T-shirts."

Cox, Castle has also instituted special jeans-are-OK days for employees who have made contributions to a charity supported by the firm.

Before opting to make the change, Cox, Castle's office manager conducted a survey of other law offices around the country. When he found that some of the largest and most prestigious firms in New York had gone casual, such as Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft and Darby & Darby P.C., the firm voted to make the change.

Most law firms and employment experts agreed that the new wave of dot-coms led the way for the dress-down trend.

"The dot-com client is definitely impacting this," said Lisa Mead, assistant dean of the USC law school. "These people tend to dress casually and want their attorneys to look like them. It seems to have started with Silicon Valley attorneys, where every day is casual. There's also a new generation of lawyer it's a generational thing as well."

Jeffer, Mangels, Butler & Mamaro LLP switched to casual business dress every day because it wanted to be more attractive to Internet executives.

"We're getting something like two inquiries a day from dot-com companies," said Frank B. Moon, director of marketing. "Clients want to work with people who are more like themselves."

Law firms don't just want to imitate the dot-coms they want to prevent their associates from fleeing to them.

Sharon Gerber, an attorney search consultant for the Jameson Group, said most of her clients are associates looking for corporate assignments rather than law firms, and a lot of them are looking to work for a pre-IPO company or a dot-com.

"(Casual dress is) a nice little non-monetary benefit, but I'm not sure it's the only benefit," Gerber said. "It just gives them one more thing to be happy about. Definitely more of the law firms are moving in that direction."

What exactly is casual dress at law firms around town? That's a little unclear, but there are certain rules: no jeans, pants must have creases, women must wear stockings with skirts (but they can also wear pants), ties are optional, and polo shirts are no-nos.

"(Casual dress) may mean different things to different employers. That's going to create some stress for students and employers," said Mead, who in addition to being assistant dean at USC's law school heads up the school's career services department. "It's a little confusing. Casual for a lawyer is different than for a student. For that reason, traditional dress can be preferable. A suit is easy to figure out."

Not everybody likes casual dress, and there can be some drawbacks.

"I think it's terrible," said the executive director of one of the largest law firms in Los Angeles, who is unhappy with the idea of any casual day. "The worst part is, it's spreading to other days of the week (besides Friday). It looks unprofessional, but a lot of my colleagues like it it's definitely popular."

Wisialowski himself says he is more traditional and wouldn't dream of dressing down. "I tend to be really conservative. I'm a tax lawyer, so I tend to have meetings with very conservative people," he said.

Then there is the problem of going to court. Judges frown on attorneys who aren't wearing professional attire. Most lawyers in a casual work environment make sure to check their schedule for court appearances or meetings coming up the next day, so they will be dressed appropriately.

Still, lawyers can be caught off guard if they don't keep an extra suit and dress shoes in the office for surprise appointments.

Just the other week, Larry Teplin at Cox, Castle had forgotten about a business meeting he had set up for the afternoon, and went to work dressed in khakis and a shirt. He had to drive all the way home to change into a formal suit and tie for his meeting with a client.

Teplin tells the story of Lionel Richmond, who was a partner with a labor law firm that always had a casual policy. Because labor lawyers always go to court on short notice, the firm kept one dark-blue blazer and a plain blue tie hanging on the coat tree in the lobby.

"It wasn't so bad when the 6-foot, 4-inch guy had to go to court, but it was pretty funny when the 5-foot, 2-inch lawyer had to wear that jacket to court," Teplin said.

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