Women lawyers wearing pants: part III

Many of today’s women lawyers are pushing back against their employers and judges who prescribe antiquated and unsubstantiated dress codes for their offices and court rooms. Other women lawyers have said both publicly and privately to me that “they are appalled that this discussion is even going on.”

And while I sympathize with the desire to strike a blow for gender equality in the legal profession’s dress codes, knowingly picking that fight while you’re standing before the bench on behalf of your client is not only unwise, it’s arguably unethical. There is a time and a place.

The nature of our profession means contending with the reality that our courthouses and boardrooms remain home to a significant population of troglodytes, even in 2014.

Unfortunately, the same seniority that has contributed to the lack of advancement of women in the legal workplace has also made many of them the kings of their particular hills. If your circumstances require that you practice law on that hill, be prepared, to some extent, to do as the king decrees. The existing powers that be don’t seem too concerned about the fact that less than 5 percent of law firm managing partners are women.

In some cases, and when circumstances permit, it might be time to find another hill. That’s what ultimately worked for Pennsylvania attorney Debra Nathanson, a lawyer who was scolded by a more senior woman lawyer at an Atlanta firm for wearing short sleeves under her suit jacket at the office. I covered the details of Debra’s story in my last blog, Women Lawyers Wearing Pants: Part II.

“I started looking for a new job within a couple of months of that incident,” Nathanson said. “I returned to Philadelphia after I realized that all of the firms I interviewed with in Atlanta were [the same way].”

I hate to admit it but when I was a young lawyer (two decades ago), I used to wear a navy blue skirt suit with a long-sleeve neutral-colored blouse and navy blue closed-toe heals to court. My hair was pulled back so that I would appear older, more sophisticated and smarter (or so I thought). It wasn’t until I gained a little bit of confidence that I started wearing pantsuits in which, to this day, I feel less vulnerable and more self-assured.

That’s just the way it was and we went along with it. In fact, Roberta (Bobbi) Jacobs-Meadway, an advocate for gender equality and recipient of the Pennsylvania Bar Association Commission on Women in the Profession Anne X. Alpern Award for mentoring of women in the legal profession confessed that there was a time when she “insisted the female attorneys in the office wear skirts or dresses.” She said, “I had a concern about meeting the expectations of clients for what business attire was, as well as the expectations of the court.”

Bobbi went on to say, “At some point about 25 years ago, I saw changes and dropped the no pants suits in the office dictate. The world did not end. Clients did not leave. And we still won and lost cases.”

The last of the chauvinistic old guard are on their way out. Some of their apprentices might have picked up their outmoded attitudes, but most of them can at least recognize that expressing those attitudes in public or turning them into official workplace policy is highly unfashionable. It’s also becoming increasingly bad for business.

Women’s total share of the talent and institutional knowledge in the legal field has never been greater than it is today and will continue to rise. As that influence grows, the competitive advantage that accrues to firms which properly recognize the value of diversity in the legal workplace take center stage – leaving in the wings the issue of women wearing pants.