This article was originally published by The Times.
Older readers might remember the excitement when “dress down Fridays” arrived in London law firms in the wake of west coast tech coolness. But “wear what you like” quickly converted into business casual, sartorial correctness set in and one uniform replaced another. Now you don’t even have to describe it as dress down — “It’s just ‘Friday’,” said a City lawyer this week.
So, in the midst of this summer’s heatwave, has every day become a Friday? “There is a more relaxed or comfortable approach to clothing at the moment,” says Gill Garrett, partner and director of finance and business support at SA Law. “Although we do not have a seasonal dress code for the summer months, comfort is definitely a factor and office temperature matters.”
Larger law firms in modern offices say their air conditioning has got the heat beat, but in recent weeks we have seen a shift towards lighter wear.
“Most employers take a sensible approach to office attire in extreme weather conditions, although most will still expect ‘office appropriate’ clothing to be worn in
client-facing areas,” says Adam Grant, employment partner at Wedlake Bell. “Placing sensible limits on what is allowed to be worn in the office is likely to protect employers from claims of harassment. If the requirement is for ‘business casual’, both male and female colleagues are likely to show more restraint in what they wear.”
Establishing a dress code for work in a law office does, however, raise interesting issues of culture and image — and not only at times of unusual weather. Miles Dean,
the managing partner of Milestone International Tax Consultants, works out of an office in Mayfair with many of his clients coming from local hedge-fund and creative
businesses, neither of which are known for wearing suits. As a result they don’t necessarily expect their lawyers to wear them either. “I’m fairly relaxed about what my
people wear to work,” says Dean. “it’s important for them to be comfortable.” But there are limits, he points out. “If someone came to work in a scruffy pair of trainers, then that wouldn’t be acceptable,” he says.
By chance, I have seen lawyers in scruffy trainers and heavy metal T-shirts, but only in barristers’ chambers. It is as if they relish the opportunity to rebel against the strict dress code of the court room. But Peter Blair, the chief operating officer of Quadrant Chambers, makes clear that while some barristers might come in casually dressed, they will always have a smart suit and shirt hanging behind their doors for client meetings or if they have to handle an urgent injunction.
“Most clients want and expect their barristers to look the part,” he says. “That’s why at least for the first meeting our barristers will always be fully suited and booted including a tie, if male. Depending on the individual there might then be a discussion about relaxing dress formalities, but it has to be agreed with the client.”
So although standards are much less rigid they are still being set and will incline towards the conservative.
Pemberton Greenish is an upmarket real estate and private wealth law firm based in Chelsea whose clients include many of the top estates in London. According to Simon Slater, the chief executive, peer pressure is the most significant factor in shaping what people wear. “It’s a pretty pukka environment,” he says, “so people don’t want to stick out from the crowd. We tend to mirror the clients.” That said, in the hot weather people have been wearing lighter clothes with fewer ties among the men.
“Mostly we let common sense prevail,” says Slater. “But we have no shorts or sandals — even here in Chelsea.”
The same applies at SA Law, where bare feet and shorts are also taboo for men and women. “There are more options for women,” says Garrett, “[but] our dress policy
does specifically say that there should not be any strapless garments or garments with very low backs or bare midriff.”
So permissiveness has its limits and also has to be consistent with equality legislation. “Dress codes can create a legal minefield and expose employers to potential discrimination claims, particularly on the grounds of sex, religion, disability and gender reassignment,” says Grant. “In May 2018, the government Equalities Office published an official guide entitled Dress codes and sex discrimination: what you need to know. One of the main warnings to employers was that dress codes must not lead to harassment by colleagues or customers, so any requirements on women to dress in a provocative manner are likely to be unlawful.
“Employers are likely to run into trouble where a dress requirement is viewed, first, as unnecessary and, second, [as] sexualising or stereotypical.”
The postscript to this is the growing number of transgender people transitioning. “Transgender staff should be allowed to follow the organisation’s dress code in a way
which they feel matches their gender identity,” says Grant. “The onus is on the employer to create an inclusive working environment.” That sounds cool.