Bar News - September 7, 2007
‘You’re wearing THAT?’ Tips from an image consultant
By: Dick Dahl
Editor’s note: This article first appeared in the July 2, 2007 issue of LawyersUSA and is reprinted with permission. The introduction has been edited due to space constraints.
Five years ago, Kim Hunter, an image consultant from Tustin, Calif., created her own company – Imagine…the Possibilities – after working for 15 years in the corporate world as a senior human resources executive and finding herself oftentimes frustrated by colleagues’ inability to maximize their appearance.
“I saw people not get ahead because they didn’t know how to put themselves together,” she said. “It’s not as easy as going to Nordstroms’s and buying an expensive suit.”
In her new capacity as image consultant, Hunter works with lawyers and other professionals, providing advice on how they can get ahead professionally by making better choices about how they look.
She often talks to groups of lawyers in firms or at bar gatherings and has created a presentation she calls “Nine Essentials: Image Ingredients for Success.”
LawyersUSA recently spoke with Hunter about those nine ingredients.
1. Consistent impressions make a difference.
First impressions never get erased, Hunter said.
“If a young woman comes to work her first day wearing a low-cut blouse and showing cleavage, that’s what people are going to remember,” she said. “They’re not going to remember the great suits she wore after that.”
Oftentimes, she said, lawyers will dress to make an impression for one important event and then fall back on more mundane fashion practices. “But you make an impression every day, and people forget that.
And even though many law firms are now business casual, the principle still applies with them, she said.
“I’ve noticed that many people think business casual means no standards. But whether you have on a suit or khakis and a golf shirt, there should still be a standard with which you dress, meaning that your hair is still cut every three weeks and that your shoes are still shined.”
2. Make sure your clothing messages match your professional goals.
Dressing well is one thing. Dressing strategically in order to influence the way people respond to you is another.
“For example, if there’s a lawyer who knows that everyone is intimidated by him and he knows that he can’t get people to talk to him because they don’t feel comfortable, he would need to send a message with his clothing that he’s a little more approachable and a little more friendly. He could do that by changing the colors that he has on; maybe instead of a charcoal dark suit he could wear a lighter gray. He could wear a brighter blue shirt instead of the crisp white shirt.”
“For women, it’s all about the accessories. Do they have on a pearl necklace or do they have chunky beads around their neck? The pearl necklace says, ‘I’m very conservative, very traditional,’ whereas if the woman has on a chunky, ethnic necklace, it would say, ‘I’m a creative thinker and I’m much more willing to be different.’”
3. If it doesn’t fit, have it tailored.
Clothes start off fitting, but people tend to be blind or stubborn when their weight changes and the clothes fit differently, she said. The change is most noticeable, and potentially embarrassing, with weight gain because fabric starts to pull.
“For women, the place you typically see is the bust line. So do you want everyone focusing on that? For men, it’s the belly. They let their belts out, and it looks like they’re keeping score with the notches on their belt. They know this; they just don’t think people will notice. But they do.”
4. Gain credibility; dress current.
“People get stuck in, ‘I wore it 10 years ago and it worked then, so why shouldn’t it work now?’”
But lawyers who dress in outmoded styles send a bad message.
“They lose credibility,” Hunter said. “People look at them and they figure, ‘If you look out of date, how do I know your knowledge isn’t out of date?’”
Hunter emphasizes that she’s not saying lawyers should aspire to be trendy dressers.
“I’m not suggesting that people be GQ. I’m suggesting there’s something better than Oxford cloth shirts, burgundy paisley ties and blue suits.”
5. Image detractors are career breakers.
A lawyer might wear the best suit in the world, but some other small thing can ruin the effect.
For men, Hunter said, the two leading image detractors are improper tie length and droopy socks. Ties should end at a man’s belt buckle, but Hunter said that 80 percent of men wear ties that are too long or too short.
Many men don’t pay attention to their socks, either, she said.
“When men cross their legs, people see their hairy legs. So instead of someone listening to you, they’re looking at your hairy legs.”
For women, she said, the biggest detractor is perfume. “Even if you think it’s great perfume, people might not like it; they might be allergic to it. Save it for the weekend.”
6. Impeccable grooming is required maintenance.
Like image detractors, grooming falls by the wayside for some lawyers.
Hunter said men should shave every day. She said women should wear “natural face makeup.”
“A lot of women don’t like to hear that because they’d prefer not to wear any makeup. I always say a woman not having her makeup on is the equivalent of a man not shaving.”
Hunter has found that fingernails are one of the most overlooked grooming areas. “You point to your client and you say, ‘Can you sign here?’ and the cuticles are raggedy and the nails are uneven and, God forbid, dirty.’”
She strongly advocates that men get manicures. “It’s socially acceptable now and you can get good manicures for 10 or 12 dollars.”
Finally, lawyers should take very close looks in the mirror to examine the state of “all those hairs that grow. Ears, nose, eyebrows. It’s distracting and you lose credibility.”
7. Increase your effectiveness with the impact of color.
Dark colors communicate power and light ones portray friendliness. A lawyer who wants to change the perception that people are afraid of him might opt for a light yellow tie. A young associate who looks sweet and cute could wear darker colors to come across as more serious.
Lawyers going before juries should start the trial wearing dark colors. But jurors want lawyers to dress differently each day of a trial, and lawyers can subtly move toward lighter colors as the trial progresses.
8. Good manners can turn into good business.
“If people look great, but they don’t know how to comport themselves or work through a business lunch, the whole image falls apart.”
There are distinct rules of etiquette that apply to law firms, and Hunter counsels her clients on what they are.
“For instance, do you know the proper way to introduce a client to your boss? Whose name is said first?”
Answer: The client.
9. Dress from the inside out.
A perfectly groomed lawyer in a superbly matched suit and tie can still come across poorly if he has bad posture.
“Stand up straight. You will gain so much confidence, you will look so much more important and it will take five pounds off your middle.”
One final word of advice from Hunter: Smile. If you can.
This final hurdle to maximizing lawyerly appearance can be the toughest, Hunter said. People can tell when a smile is fake, but how do you instruct someone on how to become genuine? In fact, maybe with some lawyers there’s only so much an image consultant can do.
“I can dress you to the nines,” Hunter said. “But if you’re a negative cantankerous individual, people are just not going to have a positive feeling about you.”