Denver Bar Association
November 1999
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Undressing Dress Codes

by Molly Osberg

Maybe it was Art Underwood, retired attorney at Sherman & Howard, who set the tone for a more casual dress code at the office. Rumor has it that Underwood occasionally went to work on hot summer weekends in the 1970s wearing only his boxer shorts.

Regardless of the cause, The Docket has found that legal firms are accepting casual-dress summers, dress-down Fridays and even theme days for special occasions in their offices.

While some firms refuse to budge from their mandatory suit requirements, the majority of law firms are comfortable in Dockers, Polo shirts, Levis and Nike Airs. In the age of Ally McBeal, it’s not unusual to spot white socks, lower necklines, toe cleavage and collarless shirts. Nowadays, the unwritten rule at many law firms is to dress to impress if clients are expected, but to work in comfort otherwise, without the burden of starched shirts and tailored suits.

Following are a few of the findings:

Large Firms

As expected, Holland & Hart is decked out in suits and ties for the majority of the week. On Fridays, however, even Denver’s largest firm manages to have a casual day where khaki pants and nice blue jeans are more than welcome. Another large firm, Gorsuch Kirgis, observes the suit and tie rule when clients are around, but otherwise will most likely resort to tie-less shirts, nice pants and casual skirts. While Gorsuch Kirgis lacks a skirt length requirement, the critical eyebrow raising keeps the McBeal look to a minimum.

Holme Roberts & Owen; Berenbaum Weinshienk & Eason; and Sherman & Howard, like many others, are edging toward a more relaxed atmosphere and enjoying casual Fridays, without the jacket and tie or nylons and high-heels. According to Ronald Zall, managing shareholder at Berenbaum Weinshienk & Eason, dressing down on Fridays is a great way to wind down for the weekend. "People here love casual Fridays. They’d like to have casual dress Monday through Friday because nobody likes to dress up these days," Zall said. "I don’t see us having more than one casual day a week, however, because it’s still important that people get dressed up for clients."

Baker & Hostetler is one of the few firms with absolutely no casual day. In fact, the attorneys abide by a mandatory suit policy every day to look sharp for their clients, even if clients aren’t expected.

Cooley Godward couldn’t be further from Baker & Hostetler’s formal ways. Working at Cooley Godward means, unless clients are rumored to be near, wearing jeans, khakis and "absolutely no ties, ever." Granted, they’re located in Boulder, but it’s not uncommon to see an array of Birkenstocks among the 30-plus employees at the firm. Recht & Pepin are also firm believers of casual garbs. No dress code is found there and (again with the exception of client meetings) jeans, sandals, and sometimes T-shirts and shorts are a part of normal office attire.

Readers Offer Their Own Stories:

“I once had a middle-aged, male judge (in Denver County Court) offer me some advice following one of my first jury trials. He suggested that I consider pulling my hair back in a bun or putting it on top of my head somehow. (I was wearing my long blonde hair in a frizzy perm in those days. Please, no comments on my taste.) He also suggested that I invest in a pair of ‘horn-rimmed glasses’ and that I trade in my 3" pointy pumps for a pair of ‘more sensible shoes.’ I was crushed by this criticism of my ‘style,’ until I passed the Honorable one on the street one day and saw what he was wearing under that black robe.” —Anonymous

“My women colleagues and I are self-conscious about what we wear in the office. One of my best friends is an attractive woman who constantly asks me if her skirt is too short or her sweater too tight. While her dress is appropriate and stylish, women have to be constantly wary of the ‘leches’ in the office who are ‘less sophisticated human beings.’ This is especially true when as a younger woman attorney, you want to be given the next big case, not the elevator eyes (staring one up & down).”—Anonymous

Have a story you’d like our readers to hear? Anonymity is guaranteed. Let us know at kbries@cobar.org or call Karen Bries at (303) 824-5303.

Medium and Small Firms

Medium and small firms varied little from the dress codes above. The mode of dress ranged from strictly formal attire to relaxed comfort wear.

At Wells Anderson & Race, formal garb is a must. They reserve blue jeans for weekends. When asked what would happen if an attorney stepped over the line and went casual for a day, the response was that "they just wouldn’t do it." Wells Anderson & Race wants to show its clients that they’re serious down to the threads about their work.

Powers Phillips ("Bitches from Hell") and Minor & Brown adhere to the more common norm of dressing in suits, dresses, ties and nylons Monday through Thursday, and relaxing their outfits on Fridays. Both firms allow jeans and tennies on Fridays.

At Banashek & Strauss, jeans, shorts and "hemp pants" are everyday attire. Few Nikes are found here, but there are always a pair of Birkenstocks or clogs in the office. According to Derek Strauss, the office has a BDU closet (Battle Dress Uniforms), where he and Jon Banashek each keep five suits, 10 shirts, a few pairs of dress shoes and 30-40 ties for court appearances. "It’s just more comfortable if you can wear to the office what you wear in your house," Strauss said. "I think a lot of people are afraid of attorneys and afraid of not knowing what’s going on. The way we dress puts our clients more at ease and they love it."

Dress codes are not defined by firm size. Instead they are, in most cases, regulated by the types of clients the firm has and the liberal or conservative views of the firm big wigs.

According to Brooke Wunnicke, Of Counsel at Hall & Evans, lawyers continue to dress in their Sunday best for court, but in most offices dress has become less formal. Wunnicke, who started practicing law over 53 years ago, has seen three-piece suits and tailored blazers replaced by jeans and casual clothing over the years.

"We have casual Friday’s at Hall & Evans, but I still wear suits," Wunnicke said. "I don’t object to casual days, but dressing up is just a habit. When I go home at night I’ll take my jacket off but stay in the day’s clothes until I go to bed. I’m more comfortable in suits than in any other clothing."



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