V&E Gets a Dressing-down

Big law firms begin to go casual, filing the suits away

Good-bye, suit and tie.

After 83 years of being a poster boy for fashion conservatism, the Houston-based legal giant of Vinson & Elkins will be packing away the pinstripes. Late last week the old-line law firm shed its stodgy, formal dress code in exchange for a more casual approach.

V&E managing partner Harry M. Reasoner told the firm in a February 16 memo that the moment has arrived to change with the times. While none of the other notable law firms in Houston have abandoned strict clothing codes, Reasoner says many large companies are following the business-casual trend. Among them are Shell Oil Co., Enron Corp. and American General Corp.

However, big law firms have always been adamant about apparel being one of the stock tools of the trade: expensive dark suits, starched white shirts, traditional neckwear. The threat of sagging socks brought garters into play for some straitlaced barristers.

There are likely to be several, uh, appellate decisions before V&E's final dress regulations get ironed out. Reasoner's memo says simply that "Business casual may be worn whenever appropriate to a person's responsibilities and schedule for the day."

Reasoner himself showed up to work recently wearing a pair of slacks, loafers and a golf shirt. "I enjoy it. It's nice to not have to put on a coat and tie every day."

His memo says, "We must ask for consideration for some of our older lawyers who are still recovering from the anathema of 'casual Friday.' "

Jurors and judges shouldn't expect sandals and courtroom cutoffs anytime soon. Reasoner says his attorneys are likely to keep the standard suits at the office for those trips to the courthouse or to see clients. And they'll have casual clothes to change into when they return.

News of the new policy at the 83-year-old V&E raced through the hallways of other big firms. "At first we thought it had to be another one of those urban myths," says one attorney at a competing firm. "V&E? They had a dress code stuck back in the '50s."

Some lawyers at other firms predict that the rest of the big law offices will soon be, uh, following suit. "If they do it, we'll have to do it, too," an attorney at a rival firm says. "You've got to keep pace, and that's a perk, especially when it comes to recruiting."

Impacts extend beyond the law offices themselves. It would seem to be a major setback for upscale clothing outlets, but most managers say they already saw the changes on the horizon.

"I was a little shocked, but pleasantly surprised," says Dick Hite, co-owner and CEO of clothier Norton Ditto. He has been outfitting V&E attorneys for decades. "V&E is one of the last of the conservative firms. But this is the trend. The overall fashion industry has changed tremendously."

Hite wonders whether confusion will surface about what "casual" actually means. After all, he says, the options include business casual, dressy evening casual, active casual and even weekend casual.

"One person might see it as wearing a sport coat and tie, while another might mean white shirt, blue jeans and boots," Hite says. "Unless they are pretty astute about picking out these items, I'd be cautious at first."

The key, he says, is to realize that dressing casual doesn't mean dressing sloppy. "I still think people ought to look their best. And that doesn't always mean wearing a tie."

 
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