Dressing for job interviews

What not to wear

Dressing for interviews: we’ve seen students at law fairs in pyjamas, leather shorts, and a t-shirt saying ‘f*** the system’. We recommend a more considered approach for interview – and law fairs too.

Interviews are meant to test your potential as a lawyer, not your dress sense. But this is a judgemental world and a competitive legal market, and interviewers are swayed by subtle detail, from the limp, sweaty handshake right down to the clodhoppers on your feet. Looking the part at interview shows that you care, and that you understand a client's expectations of what a lawyer should look like. We caught up with a few recruiters from top law firms to share ideas on what to wear at interview. Their top tip? “It's always best to be smarter than you need to be.”


Fix up, look sharp

This conservative profession leaves little wiggle-room for men: “I would always suggest a full suit,” says Burges Salmon recruitment advisor Frances Lambton. “Steer clear of anything too trendy,” advises Dentons' HR officer for trainees, Alex Mundy. “I've encountered a few candidates wearing slim-leg trousers and a skinny tie, and while some interviewers won't mind that, you might be meeting a very old-fashioned partner who doesn't go for that kind of thing.” Choose the colour and cut wisely – we’d suggest avoiding the likes of Topman and H&M and their skinny numbers – and stick to more conventional shouts like M&S or one of the big department stores.

Lambton says, “men should always wear a tie and should never have an unbuttoned top button on their shirt.” Making sure the shirt’s white or pale-coloured (but know the firm before you choose pink) is basic. Tailoring and grooming snobs – law firms have their fair share among the partnership ranks – can get absurdly shirty about shirts. So don’t let a button-down collar decide your fate and keep your look classic: a stiff collar and cuff-linked cuffs extending just beyond the jacket sleeve.

Don't be tempted to express yourself through your shoes; go for standard dress shoes, and aim for black, polished, and free of holes, tassels or buckles.

“Steer clear of anything too trendy.” 
Alex Mundy, Dentons

Some recruiters we spoke to were horrified by bold ties or even a hint of red sock, while others saw these as opportunities to show off your personality. We would side with Mundy, who says: “You want to be remembered for the quality of your answers, not your socks.” To that end, we suggest picturing a stormy Antarctic scene: expanses of gleaming white snow, a pale blue sky, dark grey clouds and glossy black penguins. No, we haven't gone completely off-piste; the colours in this picture are the ones that are always safe to pick from when choosing an interview outfit. Aim to look crisp as a polar frost.

That means showing up freshly shaven or neatly groomed, avoiding overpowering aftershave, and toning down fussy hairstyles too. Celts going into battle used to spike their hair so stiffly you could impale an apple on the spikes, but in the softer struggle for training contracts or pupillage it's wise to go easy on the gel.


Suits you, madam

Our sources agreed there are three options for women interviewing for training contracts or pupillages: a skirt suit, a trouser suit or a plain dress with a jacket. In every case the jacket has to button up comfortably. If your top and bottoms don’t match, at least make sure colours and fabrics don’t clash. If you opt for a trouser suit, steer clear of skinny or drainpipe cuts. If you go with a skirt suit or dress, make sure the skirt is knee-length. The same neutral colour palette outlined above ('Arctic Blast'?) applies here: stick to blacks, blues, whites and greys.

It should go without saying that revealing isn't the way to go. Our sources issued warnings against tight trousers, bodycon dresses and short skirts, and mentioned that if your shirt gapes at the buttons when you move your shoulders, it might be wise to go a size up.

You get the picture; go conservative. Apply this rule to your shoes, too, and sidestep your boots, ballerina flats or stilettos, and go for court shoes or lace-up brogues instead. These should be dark-coloured and close-toed. Heels aren't a must, but if you do wear them, make sure you can walk in them. “They shouldn't be too high, as on a long assessment day you may be walking to room to room,” Shoosmiths graduate recruitment manager Samantha Hope warns. Think three inches tops.

On that note, “consider road-testing your clothes in your house before you go,” Hope continues. “If you're buying new clothes for the day make sure they fit well and are comfortable. I've heard about assessment days where people do activities building things with Lego or where you might have to be active, so make sure you can move around easily.”

When it comes to hair and make-up, keep 'professional' as your watchword rather than 'pretty'. Consider tying back your hair if it's long, particularly if you’re prone to fiddling with it, though don't show up with a 'do that will require constant attention or distract from what you're saying. If you wear a hijab or other headscarf, make sure it's a dark colour that matches your suit. Stick to matte styles and muted colours on the cosmetics front – this includes nail varnish – and avoid strong fragrances.

“Consider road-testing your clothes in your house before you go.” 
- Samantha Hope, Shoosmiths

As for accessories, refrain from donning loud hair-clips and jangly jewellery. Keep any necklaces or earrings simple, and if in doubt, leave them off entirely.


Finishing touches

There's no use cobbling together the perfect interview outfit if you don't also make sure it's in a good state. Men and women alike should try on their outfits beforehand to make sure everything fits and nothing needs to be dry-cleaned, steamed or pressed. Shoes should be polished, and trousers and shirts ironed. As Frances Lambton tells us:Unironed shirts, or coming in with creases or stains, make it look like you've not really tried.” Finally, give your jacket a good going over with a clothes brush or some masking tape to get rid of errant dust and/or cat hair.

Extreme examples of inappropriate interview attire are rare, though one recruiter recounted an incident with “a girl wearing what looked to me like jeggings.” Still, there are plenty of less offensive faux pas waiting to trip you up – “There seems to be a trend for bright socks under men's trousers that are a little too short,” Alex Mundy sighs – so if you're unsure about any aspects of your attire, take Frances Lambton's advice and “ask the opinion of somebody you trust, ideally someone who works in a professional environment on a day-to-day basis.” When it comes to vacation schemes and mini-pupillages, there is a little more latitude with dress, though of course you should still err on the conservative side, particularly on the first day. “Then see how other people are dressed and aim to be on the smarter side of that day to day,” Lambton suggests.

Get everything right and you'll be remembered as 'the one with the brilliant idea about brand development', not 'the one who dressed like something out of Harry Potter'. It's all about projecting confidence, and a great first step to that is wearing an outfit that's smart, well fitting, comfortable and appropriate. The moment you get out of that crucial interview, you can go back to sporting crop tops, stained trackies and Homer Simpson socks to your heart's content – all at once if you dare.