The legal world was rocked last week (OK, slight exaggeration) by what is now known as ‘Vardie cardie gate’ (or ‘Vardigan gate’, to use its formal name). An email written by well-known family law firm owner Ayesha Vardag was leaked to the press, in which she berated staff for wearing cardigans or ‘winter woolies’ that would look more in place round a fire than on high flying lawyers. She also condemned other sartorial no-no’s such as ‘super-tight trousers’ and pointy or brown shoes (‘no brown in town’)

Mo’ money, smarter lawyers?

To be fair to Ms Vardag, she appeared to be trying to deliver a legitimate message in a slightly jovial, tongue in cheek way. Her basic point being that lawyers who charge hundreds of pounds an hour working for wealthy clients cannot afford to look scruffy.

Now, it’s fair to say that, for most of us, standards in relation to appearance have slipped somewhat in lockdown. Most of us are, by now, opting for comfort over the ultra-polished style that Ms Vardag recommends. By the way, for those trying to work out what her term ‘executive hair’ actually means, I suspect it’s more the tight bun a la Ms Trunchbull from Matilda and less of the Shakira-style flowing locks.

Comfy cosies 

For many of us, dropping a bit of the formality has been a natural response to the horrors of this year. And as the news continue to drag us down, the weather gets colder and we retreat back into lockdown, the comfort that cosy cardigans, hot water bottles and hot chocolate bring makes them this season’s ‘must-have’ items.

It’s also true that the mickey-taking that has ensued as a result of cardie-gate has provided us with some much-needed respite from all the grimness. God knows we all need a laugh, and this was manna from heaven for a legal community struggling with either overwork or not enough work, a court system in disarray and a gloomy (and therefore tightly wound) client population.

Dressing for ‘success’

The wording of the email may have left something to be desired, in particular the suggestion that female lawyers should appear ‘discreetly sexy’. But is it fair for us to have a chuckle at Ms Vardag’s expense and deny that any of the rest of us have any expectations around dress?

Isn’t it the case that Vardags’ clients would want and expect their lawyers to look a particular way; smart and sleek and, dare I say it, discreet? And that such well-heeled clients would doubtless complain if they felt that their lawyer who they’re paying thousands each month to looked like they’d just rolled out of bed or were on their way home from Glastonbury?

Having worked in a Central London law firm myself, I think that the truth is that versions of this situation must go on in firms pretty regularly (albeit in a slightly more low-key fashion).

Standing out or fitting in?

Traditionally, law has never been a profession that’s particularly into self-expression. It’s a hierarchical, conservative world where one ‘know one’s place’ and where you’re not considered to be ‘senior’ until you’re about ten years away from retirement. And encouraging staff to adhere to a particular dress code is a part of all of that.

But there’s an important point here about expressing individuality.

The truth is that even lawyers who consider themselves open-minded tend to balk at first when faced with change.

Many of us, if we’re honest, have at some stage raised an eyebrow at a trainee coming to a court hearing in a brightly coloured suit or a junior with large visible tattoos and piercings. Or even felt affronted by an outspoken new hire going against the grain and expressing contrary views in meetings with important clients. It seems many of us seem to have an inner cautious fuddy-duddy, no matter how well-hidden.

Excessive deference?

The thing is that encouraging homogeneity in appearance isn’t just limited to that. It is also associated with homogeneity in attitude and views. And we already know that we have a problem in the legal profession in a lack of diversity in backgrounds, schooling and privilege.

Malcolm Gladwell, in his book ‘Outliers’ shared his theory that, in countries where deference to authority formed a strong part of the culture, the rate of airline disasters were higher than others. He concluded that junior officers were less likely to feel able to mention it if they didn’t agree with a decision taken or a view held by their superiors. Thus, mistakes were less likely to get picked up and potential crises averted.

Gladwell referred to the concept of the ‘Power Distance Index’, created by psychologist Geert Hofstede, which is a measurement of “how much a particular culture values and respects authority’ and so dictates how comfortable juniors feel contradicting their bosses.

I think law, generally, has a high ‘Power Distance Index’. Those higher up the food chain are revered and, in many cases, feared. This is shown by the well-publicised Solicitors’ Disciplinary Tribunal cases about juniors making mistakes, feeling too scared to tell their bosses, then trying to cover them up, leading to dire consequences.

Speaking out

Many junior lawyers work within a culture where it’s already difficult to express their views or concerns. And being prescriptive about attire further hammers home the message that it’s good not to be different, not to rock the boat, not to question things. It’s better to all be the same – in the way we look, in our views, our approach and our beliefs.

Some would say that’s what having a ‘strong brand’ is all about. But it runs the risk of stifling juniors’ ability to contribute to debates, because they think that the ‘right’ answer is always the one their boss has come up with.

We all have blind spots and diversity of thought in teams is crucial, particularly in a profession that needs to move away from fixed ideas and become more flexible and inclusive. Experience is to be respected but sometimes those newer to the job have fresher perspectives and can fill in the gaps that other, more seasoned professionals might not see.

Get your snuggle on

So it’s possible that there may be more profound reasons for getting your cardie out of the closet. Get snuggly and use the ease of wearing your woolies to help you get comfortable expressing your views, no matter how stupid you might think you’ll look. You probably won’t look stupid. You’ll probably just look well cosy.

*Outliers – The Story of Success – Malcolm Gladwell, Penguin (24 June 2009)

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