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By: Jamie Collins
The words contained in the title above recently landed a random Google searcher on our blog. Couple that random search with the fact that I’ve been absolutely dying to write a post on this particular topic for the past several months, and the words, “how to dress like a paralegal” gave me a swift kick in the paralegal skinny pants. I’m here to share the 3 items that, in my humble opinion, every paralegal on the planet should own. While you may not wear or carry these items every day, you darn sure better own them.
While there are a variety of dress codes within the legal world, namely: serious business, business-casual, and uber casual, I am here to tell you that there is a “Trifecta” for paralegal attire which must be acknowledged. Whether you are an experienced paralegal or a student slowly climbing your way up the rungs of the career ladder one carefully placed high heel at a time, today, we’re going to address “The Paralegal Trifecta.” Here goes:
ONE: A nice suit. For many of you, this suggested item will seem so incredibly obvious that you will have no idea how it made the number one slot. (I’m totally with you on that. Truly. Keep reading…) But I am consistently amazed by the number of paralegals I have encountered during the course of my career who did not bother to own a suit. I use the term “did not bother” because that truly seems to be what it is. They do not bother to buy one.
When I’ve worked alongside you for a year and you don’t have a suit, I understand you are probably saving up money for one and will get one, in time.
By years 2-3, I’m starting to wonder if you have any idea that you even need a suit to thrive in a business world – much less the legal arena where you will be surrounded by people wearing suits on a regular basis, if not daily. This is especially true of anyone working in litigation. (x 30,000)
Now by the time we hit the 5+ year mark and there is still not a single suit to be had in your work wardrobe, I really begin to wonder about you. I question whether you take your job seriously.
(I am guessing you know at least one person who has made you wonder each of these things at some point. Hence, the reason it is number one on today’s list. Even though it kills me.)
Whether your office is “major” business or business casual makes absolutely no difference. Do not hide behind a dress code or offer it up as an excuse. Let’s say you work in that uber casual office where a sweater and jeans will get you by on most days. Perhaps you work in an environment where people generally don’t wear suits and you can get by wearing dress slacks and a nice, button-down shirt. But if you had a job interview or incredibly important meeting tomorrow, you would need a suit – casual office policy or not. Please, for the love of all that is legal, buy at least ONE nice suit. Black is a great choice. Stick with a solid suit or subtle pattern that is conservative in appearance.
(Why is it I feel like there are experienced paralegals out there right now, in droves, affirmatively nodding their heads with me in this moment…)
My favorite place to buy suits is Stein Mart – you can buy a $200+ suit for about $100 without a coupon or sale. That said, I had to work my way up to the nicer suits. I initially started out purchasing $50-60 suits from stores like Kohl’s or JC Penny’s. And you better believe I looked for sales and coupons…still do. Make a mental note when buying a new suit as to whether it is dry clean only or washable. If you do not have money for dry cleaning (it does add up), always search for suits in the latter category. Shop smart. But please do shop for at least one suit!
If you do not, the others will begin to wonder about you. They will wonder if you take your job (and self) seriously. Think of it as an investment in yourself. Because it is.
Image you will convey in that suit? Priceless.
TWO: A Padfolio. Think of this as an accompaniment to your suit. Where it goes – your padfolio goes. These two items generally go hand-in-hand, much like conjoined twins. Important interview? Big meeting? Paralegal event? Arrive with both items – the suit and the padfolio. Unless, of course, you know the dress code is going to be business casual, in which case your padfolio can go it alone.
A padfolio serves two primary purposes: (1) It keeps you organized and gives you a sturdy base on which to take notes when you find yourself in less than ideal writing situations; (2) It helps you to portray a more poised, polished, professional image upon first sight. I can’t begin to tell you how much I adore my padfolio during the process of jury selection. I am usually seated behind my attorneys’ table, so it makes for a stable writing surface and allows me to appear far more “with it” and organized than I otherwise would, feverishly scribbling down notes on a flimsy notepad teetering across the top of my lap, sliding left, sliding right, and if I’m lucky, sliding back to center…with a glimmer of notepad-rollercoaster-wrangling sparkling out from behind my eyes.
When selecting a padfolio, go with a solid color or one with only a faint pattern, that is conservative in appearance. Great colors to choose are: black, brown, gray or navy. Most will have a slot for you to insert a regular sized notepad, a few pens, and your business cards, in addition to having some extra space to store (did I say “store,” I really meant shove…) documents.
Hint: I recently bought an intern of mine a really nice looking, black padfolio from Target for around $15.00.
THREE: An Oversized Handbag or Briefcase. I want you to imagine yourself in a courtroom for the first time. You will need to bring the following items along “on your person:” legal sized charts for voir dire/jury selection, several note pads, a handful of assorted pens, highlighters and fine-point felt tip markers, large post it notes, small post it notes, a few granola bars, a bottle of nail polish (ladies), your wallet, a fabric softener sheet in case your hair is flying crazy static into the wind, car keys, breath mints or gum, your parking stub, your cell phone, chapstick or any other essential make-up items, a few pages of witness contact info., and several other items I am probably not thinking of in this moment.
That pivotal moment your attorney turns to you in need of a pad of post it notes because he can’t seem to readily locate one of the half dozen pads you placed in front of him at the table earlier that day? ‘Tis done. That fun moment when your legal team has officially used up (or misplaced) the armada of notepads sitting before them? ‘Tis done. This mini arsenal of supplies will make you look like a trial-need-fulfilling ninja. Only instead of throwing those little pointy stars, you’ll be whirling hightlighters and voir dire charts through the air. Wa-chaw.
When selecting an oversized handbag, select one that is solid in color: black, brown, gray or navy, and ensure that it will fit at least a regular sized notepad. You can always fold and clip the pages of any legal size documents (so long as they aren’t being filed with the court or aren’t that important), but you will need to fit notepads in your handbag or briefcase. You never know when you might be called over to a witness in the hall, approached by an expert or an attorney who begins to share really important, unexpected information with you in the hallway…or even in the bathroom. (Yes, this has actually happened to me.) You will be glad you have an arsenal of supplies tucked under your arm in this moment – I can assure you.
Do not be one of those paralegals entering the courtroom wielding a regular handbag (or no bag at all), clearly not fit to carry all of the items you must have as the legal team’s concierge and legal-tactical assault ninja. Wa chaw. Where you go, a bounty of necessary supplies goes.
The Paralegal Trifecta – you heard it here, folks. Retail therapy all ’round! Shop like you mean it.
I confess, I am feeling much calmer and happier for having written this post. If you feel calmer and happier for having read it, please share it.
Wishing you an absolutely fabulous day working among those brave, resilient souls in the legal trenches just prior to sliding out that door in your high heels or slippery soled oxfords on this paralegal holiday otherwise known as “Friday.” Happy shopping, my friends! Just tell your husband or wife the TPS Founder said you MUST go shopping. It’s a career requirement.
(And to you experienced paralegals – you’re welcome).