The ties that bind

Lawyers tend to be amongst the more formally dressed members of society. There is a style of attire favoured by legal types that I like to call “solicitor chic”; a dark suit, possibly very stripy, a shirt, tie and cufflinks. Barristers tend to go even further, with tunic shirts and detachable collars so that they can swap them for winged collars and bands to go with their wigs and gowns when they appear in court.

Yet things gradually change. Black jackets and striped spongebag trousers used to be de rigeur, expcially at the Bar, but are rarely seen nowadays. Hats, usually of the Bowler or Homburg variety are long gone.

Now Parliament is joining the trend towards being tieless. The Speaker of the House, John Bercow, has ruled that MP’s need not wear a tie if they are speaking in the chamber. Not surprisingly this has had a mixed reception.

The legal profession is one the last bastions of tie-wearing. I can think of one former partner who is always dressed so smartly that it is rumoured that he wears a tie with his pyjamas in bed. However, not long ago, I noticed that most non-legal business people that I encountered were no longer suited and booted. Should I join the trend and throw off my suit and wear jeans to work?

I was wary. Once over a decade ago, just as dress down Fridays became commonplace, the firm where I was a partner decided to try out dressing down on New Years’ Eve. I came to work in chinos and a nice jumper that Mrs Armstrong had given me for Christmas. All was fine until 2.30 when I got a phone call from the court to tell me that the husband of a client had been arrested for breaching an injunction and that the District Judge was going to consider whether to commit him to prison that very afternoon. Could I please come to court?

I was aghast. My nearest suit was miles away and I had no time to go home and change. I considered commandeering my trainee solicitor’s suit, but I didn’t think that her skirt would suit me. I had to go to court as I was. When the judge came in (a judge of whom it was oft said that he made the Pope look informal), he was wearing a wig and robes, the correct formal dress for a District Judge appearing in open court. I should have not been just in a suit, I should also have been wearing a gown, a winged collar and bands, not chinos and a Christmas jumper. It went downhill from there.

So, I decided to do some market research into what my clients through about this. I went to a number of networking events and when I stood up to introduce myself and say something interesting about my work, I asked for a show of hands on the tricky question of “When you go and see solicitor, should he be wearing a suit and tie or can he be dressed down?” (Yes, yes, I know, there are also women lawyers, but not many of them wear a tie so I wasn’t asking about them).

Given that most of my audiences were dressed very casually, I expected the answer to be that they would be ok with the solicitor dressing down. This is the twenty-first century after all. However, to my surprise, almost everyone felt that they wanted the solicitor to suit up and wear a tie.

So, now my policy is that I wear a suit and tie whenever I meet clients, and of course when I go to court. However, if I have no appointments, then I wear jeans and an open neck shirt, so if you turn up without an appointment, you’ll just have to take me as you find me.

I do wish I could wear a hat though. I look rather good in a bowler hat. I once went to function where I had to be hatted. I had a very nice Bowler hat that I had obtained for a fancy-dress party so I put that on and thought it looked rather fetching. Mrs Armstrong took one look at me, in my pinstripe suit, white shirt, silk tie and Bowler and said “Ooh, you look like that bloke in that old TV programme!”

Flattered, I said “Do you mean John Steed in The Avengers?”

“No” she said, “Mr Benn.”

2 July 2017

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