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Great advice from The Lawyer Whisperer

July 11, 2018

What is the proper attire for a job interview?

Julie Q. Brush

To wear, or not to wear: that is the question.

On the surface, it may seem like a trivial question or perhaps a shallow one, but it is not. Personal presentation…including a candidate’s attire in a job interview is critical and can heavily influence whether a candidacy shifts into second gear…or stalls out. So professionals should be mindful of this aspect of interview prep and choose their wear wisely.

So what is the right dress protocol for the interviews of today?

Many moons ago, the standard interview uniform for lawyers consisted of a dark suit, white shirt, conservative tie, black socks and wingtips (for men) – and a dark skirt suit and white blouse with pantyhose and pumps (for women). But today’s world has become significantly more casual – with an athleisure wear revolution right around the corner.

Your pitch perfect interview attire will depend on the following: your geographic region, type of employer with whom you are interviewing (law firm v. company), industry of employer with whom you are interviewing, public or emerging growth company, culture/dress rules unique to the organization itself. There are spectrum extremes, but most dress protocol sits smack down the middle. Employers who expect a traditional suit and tie are ever shrinking, but they do still exist. Others sit on the opposite end where shorts and flip-flops are the norm. But the overwhelming majority of employers adhere to the new common dress standard for interviews:

Polished Business Casual.

If you are scheduled for an interview and are not sure what to wear after using the Lawyer Whisperer Polished Business Casual Guide, contact your recruiter or HR professional in the organization with which you are interviewing and inquire. If a suit and tie are required, they’ll let you know. You may also receive a message that their organization/culture is casual so you should feel free wear whatever you want: jeans, sneakers, sweats…whatever floats your boat. DO NOT FOLLOW THIS INSTRUCTION! I repeat: DO NOT FOLLOW THIS INSTRUCTION! Regardless of what an employer may say and how earnest they may be, wearing jeans, sneakers, ripped clothing and other casual items for a day at the ballpark does not put your best foot forward – and will solidify your place in the ding pile and company cocktail chatter history. First impressions are powerful and in order to make your best in an interview, you must personify polish and professionalism. What you wearis essential to that narrative. Outside of the spectrum extremes, most every employer will advise a “business casual” look for your interviews. So as you contemplate your ensemble, use this Polished Business Casual Guide below:

For Men

The Dos:

  • Pressed Khakis
  • Dark solid colored trousers in black, navy or gray (front flat panel is now the popular style for men). Make sure pants are not too short!
  • Crisply pressed solid colored shirt (white or blue). Lightlypattered shirt ok (i.e. light window pane).
  • Dark colored blazer: Navy blue preferred.
  • Black or brown leather belt
  • Black, navy, brown, gray socks. Solid or muted patterns. No wild patterns.
  • Dress shoes. Preferably brown or black leather. Note: people notice shoes! So make sure yours are in good shape – buffed, well structured and clean.
  • Note: All clothes should fit properly – not too baggy or tight.
  • Note: If the weather is excessively hot, wear a white shirt to avoid sweat marks.

The Don’ts

  • Tie
  • Loud colored and bold patterned shirts
  • Tattered pants
  • Nice sweater ok? No. While it may be ok for some employers, it won’t be for others – and you won’t know which side of the line this company will fall. So avoid the risk and leave the sweater in the drawer.
  • T-Shirts
  • Hoodies
  • Loud pants (bright colors, loud patterns)
  • Jeans
  • Shorts
  • Athletic wear or athleisure wear
  • Belts with images on them (sailboats, whales, anchors, college logos)
  • Cufflinks
  • Sneakers
  • Sandals, flip flops, huaraches, Birkenstocks

For Women

The Dos

  • Nice slacks – dark or neutral colors.
  • Knee length skirt (do not go above the knee). If you choose this option, make sure your legs are shaved and moisturized.
  • Nice blouse/top. Long, mid-arm or capped sleeve length. No tank tops. Colors should be conservative, but a little “pop” of color is ok if it is an accent.
  • Business appropriate dress/shift. Not too loud or frilly. Dark or neutral colors. Wrap dresses are a nice option. Paired with a fitted blazer completes a professional look.
  • Blazer is optional (matching or not). Colors should be conservative. Black, navy, dark brown, charcoal gray and neutrals.
  • Pantsuits are a bit dated, but can be acceptable if they are well tailored and simple.
  • A nice buttoned front cardigan sweater works too. Again, conservative colors.
  • All clothes should fit properly. Not too baggy, not too tight. Not too low cut.
  • Be mindful of undergarment lines and try to minimize.
  • Well-maintained, low/mid-heeled shoes (1/2 inch – 3 inches).
  • Jewelry in moderation. Same for make-up.

The Don’ts

  • Jeans
  • Shorts
  • Super short skirts or dresses
  • Big patterns on clothing
  • Athletic wear or athleisure wear
  • Unless you have foot issues, avoid flats – they just look too casual.
  • Semi open toed shoes are ok IF your toes are presentable.
  • Excessively high heels/stilettos (if you have trouble walking in your heels, they are likely too high)
  • Thick nude colored pantyhose. There’s nothing that says “dated” to a switched-on hiring manager like nude hose. With this said, some women need the leg cover up, so if you must, make sure they are as sheer and undetectable as possible.
  • Too much make up
  • Too much jewelry

This should go without saying (you’d be surprised what employers tell me about interviewees), but you must also be well groomed for your meeting. Shower, shave, moisturize, brush your teeth, brush your hair, pluck/trim any wild facial hair, go light on the hair gel and for the love of God, skip the cologne and perfume. There is nothing but downside to wearing fragrances to an interview. It is the one thing that tends to make the strongest impression, literally.

You didn’t ask, but I’ll also mention that you should show up to your interview at least 10 minutes early. Use the restroom and tidy your appearance before your meetings. Smile and be enthusiastic and friendly to everyonethe minute you walk in the door (your interview starts now!). If anyone offers you coffee or water, accept one or the other – and say thank you (be considerate and don’t leave your dirty cup on the table without asking where you can dispense of it). When meeting your interviewer, stand up straight, smile, give a firm handshake and make good eye contact. Bring a pad of paper, a pen and a business card. Take notes. And after the meetings, send a thank you note or email to everyone you met.

In a job interview, the way we “present” ourselves is critical to the first impression we make to employers. So it is important to be mindful of attire and appearance in the interview process. I know that some of you may be thinking that the importance of appearance when interviewing for a job is shallow and superficial – and that it shouldn’t matter. And in a Utopian world…you’re right, it wouldn’t. But we don’t live in such a world. So in order to compete effectively in the legal profession, dressing appropriately matters. So as you prepare for your next interview, dedicate the time and effort to make the best impression possible – and use the information above to guide you as you perfect your dress for success.

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