Volume 12, no. 1
Just How Casual Can You Go When Meeting a Client?
By Seth Marcus
I enjoy socializing with my clients. For me it serves the dual purposes of strengthening professional relationships and permitting (dare I admit it?) the chance to get out and have a little fun. But occasionally an unexpected question of etiquette arises. While these issues seldom place me in serious jeopardy of losing a client, I feel a certain pressure to avoid both the professional and personal discomfort that would result from making a fool of myself. Perhaps an illustration is in order.
The other day a client invited me to play squash at his sports club—an invitation I eagerly accepted. After a competitive match, which the client won by the smallest of margins (an ideal result) he asked me to join him for a steam. Of course I agreed, but was immediately confronted by one of the most challenging problems of my legal career: to towel or not to towel? That was the question. Do I go with the option that projects strength and confidence? Or should I follow the principle of maintaining decorum at all costs? Perhaps the middle ground (always somewhat cowardly) of following the client’s lead was the way to go?
In wrestling with this dilemma, it occurred to me how deficient is the guidance available from existing authorities of what constitutes appropriate dress (or undress, as the case may be) when meeting informally with a client. Our stock in trade as lawyers is our credibility, which can be enhanced or diminished by how we present ourselves. Projecting social awareness by dressing appropriately for a given situation can be an important part of our overall presentation. But once we leave the extremes of dressing like a total slob or wearing a suit and tie no matter what, there really are no bright-line rules.
In thinking through the problem of how to dress when meeting informally with a client, it seems to me that it is the social mandates, not the professional ones, that predominate. Dress for the event. A cocktail party is generally a sports jacket, slacks, and a collared Oxford. Golf is khakis and a collared T-shirt. Jeans are fine for a sporting event (but avoid the team jersey) unless the event includes a cocktail party in a luxury box. (See “cocktail party” above.) If you’re at a complete loss for what the accepted custom and usage are at a particular type of event, ask a friend, a colleague, or, if truly desperate, your mom.
As for my steam room dilemma, fortunately, credibility permitted me a range of options, so I followed the advice of the famous courtier: to thine own self be true.
Seth Marcus is a commercial litigator and trial lawyer practicing in Manhattan. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.