Final Frontier For Generation Gap in Attire

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"Dress for the job you want, not the job you have," is an old maxim worth repeating. Even - no, especially - in today's dressed-down workplace.

"Business casual" has been de rigueur in most business circles for the last decade or so. But for a client meeting or a court appearance, just as for a job interview, dress slacks and boating shoes won't make the grade. That fact is apparently lost on many suit-averse young professionals, even at the most prestigious and high-paying law firms in New York and Washington, D.C.

Harvard Business School isn't immune, either. When Gretchen Neels, an etiquette consultant and former executive recruiter, visited the school to coach MBA graduates, only about half showed up wearing suits, Neels told The Wall Street Journal. One arrived in cargo pants and his cell phone rang during the interview, prompting the consultant to tell him he came across as "a jerk."

A recent WSJ "On Style" column featured the views of partners at various top-drawer law firms - all quite critical of young lawyers' forever-casual attire - along with quotes from young attorneys who at times came off as clueless about the consequences of their clothing choices.

The contrast with partners and managers is eye-opening: They lean toward tailored suits from Brioni, Gucci and Dolce & Gabbana, and status wristwatches. That means something. The New York law firm Manatt, Phelps & Phillips recently handed a "plum assignment" to "a polished, professional-looking associate," passing over a more experienced colleague who was seen as "brilliant" but hadn't complied with advice to improve his grooming and attire.

"Young lawyers don't like to hear that it's anything but their intellect," Manatt, Phelps Partner Renee Brissette told the Journal. Even, he added, when faced with credible evidence to the contrary. With eyes wide shut, a 25-year old part time lawyer and current law student asserted that clothes affect his job assignments "Not at all - it's really based on work product."

When we asked around, a partner in the asset management group at another top-tier New York law firm, Wilkie Farr & Gallagher, told eFinancialCareers associates there do not dress down.

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