Feature

Would you be sent home from a law firm for refusing to wear high heels?

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Female lawyers’ need to look the part — a pressure that won’t go away

Heels1

A cursory glance around any City law firm and you’ll see a lot of female lawyers wearing high heels.

They are a staple feature of female business dress, and one that’s attracted press attention this week after a receptionist at PwC — accountancy firm and number one graduate employer — was sent home from work, unpaid, for refusing to wear shoes with two to four inch heels.

Indeed, inspired by the receptionist’s experience, Siobhan Fenton, a masters student at Cambridge University, wrote an opinion piece in The Independent this morning in which she recalled:

[A recent graduate] began work at a top law firm and was inducted into a ‘sexy formal’ workwear code for women who were expected to totter from courtroom to courtroom in stilettos.

If we look back a few years, we will remember that in 2008 Freshfields took a hammering in the nationals for reportedly advising its staff to “embrace” their femininity by wearing heels.

One veteran lawyer, who trained in the City in the nineties, tells Legal Cheek about the time a corporate partner made clear he “was definitely not impressed” by her choice of footwear, a pair of comfy flats.

But that was then and this is now. In that time law firms have become increasingly focused on and committed to gender equality. These comments sit rather uncomfortably alongside more recent pronouncements of gender inclusivity and diversity in the workplace.

As the veteran lawyer went on to say:

That was a generation ago. I would be very disappointed if that kind of attitude was still pervading the corporate floor.

So is it? Could you really be sent home from a law firm for refusing to wear high heels today as Fenton’s anecdote would suggest?

Highly unlikely. Of all the law firms that responded to Legal Cheek, including Irwin Mitchell, Allen & Overy, Ashurst and Hogan Lovells, all were very clear that they have no formal policy on high heels in the workplace.

Marilyn Stowe, partner of her namesake family law firm, was particularly clear that she “wouldn’t dream” of imposing a dress code, and certainly not one that makes wearing high heeled shoes compulsory. She explained:

High heels are a real pain to wear all day, they’re not easy to walk in, especially around London on the uneven pavements and it’s easy to trip. In the office or court it’s more important to concentrate on the job not how good your legs look.

And the message from chambers is similar. 5 Paper Buildings barrister Olivia Potts told us that she doesn’t know of any compulsory dress codes at the bar, while criminal barrister Felicity Gerry QC admitted to Legal Cheek that she had even worn flip flops in court when heavily pregnant.

So a repeat of this week’s PwC shenanigans in a law firm context doesn’t look likely, but that doesn’t mean female lawyers don’t feel an unspoken pressure to don a pair of high heels in the workplace.

Stiletto shoes shout glamour (one look at Amal Clooney makes this clear), they instantly upgrade an outfit. We spoke to a partner at a west end boutique firm about her experiences of law firm culture and she hit the nail on the head when she told us:

Though law firms as employers are not going to insist on heels as part of strictly enforced dress code, I do think that within the legal profession there is a sense that if you are not wearing heels you are not making the effort. It’s all to do with your professional image.

So it’s an implicit pressure; not one that can be attributed to nasty law firm bosses or outdated dress codes, but it’s coming from somewhere. And while our PwC receptionist managed to prompt a change in policy following this week’s intensely negative tabloid press, the pressure on female lawyers to look and feel ‘glamorous’ does not go away, especially if it is the lawyers that are putting this pressure on themselves.

60 Comments

Anonymous

I find that the offensiveness of workplace codes such as this are generally inversely correlated to the impressiveness of the people enforcing them. I’d walk out and never come back (if I was a woman that is)

(14)(4)

Anonymous

I’m a man. It’s a hot day today. I’m wearing a tie wrapped tightly around my neck. I’m uncomfortable. I should sue my employer.

(27)(62)

Anonymous

Wearing a tie that makes you hot does not compare to the sort of medical damage wearing heels on a daily basis does – including deformed feet, bunions, weak ankles that lead to breaks and lower back problems.

The NHS treats thousands of women every year for problems relating to regular high heel wearing.

(73)(6)

Anonymous

Women can wear sensible heels- I’m not suggesting 6 inches. But looking like a lawyer is part of the job. There’s advantages and disadvantages to being either gender.

(6)(42)

AZ

Im overweight and have some spine problems i cant wear high heels at all. So a tie which makes you hot you say?

(14)(9)

Plus size

This post has been removed because it breaches Legal Cheek’s comments policy.

Anonymous

So bloody ban them then!

(0)(0)

elizagbeth@bentley.com

Are you serious? Have you walked around in heels for a full work day?

(34)(5)

Anonymous

Can you help me buy a posh car?

(4)(4)

Anonymous

I too tediously wear a tie and a shirt with the top button done up all day. Expected to wear a blazer if I’m with a client too. There are women on equal level to me who wear simply an open shirt, skirt and a low-cut heel. Feminist’s are far too quick to criticise- there are disadvantages to working uniforms for both genders.

(15)(32)

Anonymous

Hahahahahahahahahah. Life must be so hard for you with all the disadvantages your gender has to bear.

(21)(11)

M

“Feminist’s”? Are you sure you’re a lawyer with that apostrophe abuse?

(16)(5)

Anonymous

Did you know that sex discrimination works everyone. It’s nothing to do with feminism it’s direct discrimination, it’s law, the law on sex discrimination is for all genders. If you really feel discriminated against because of your gender you have every right to raise the issue with your employer.
The same goes for age, race and religion, everyone is covered.
There are also many rights for disabled people, such as reasonable adjustments. You shouldn’t have to suffer in silence if you feel affected by your job in any way.

Look up Equality Act 2010 for more information on your rights as an employee

(7)(4)

Anonymous

Wearing a tie doesn’t make walking hard or uncomfortable though does it?

(5)(2)

Anonymous

It makes a great deal of everyday tasks rather uncomfortable.

(1)(3)

Anonymous

If a man turned up without a blazer or tie then they’d be sent home, no doubt. Lawyers need to look the part.

(10)(33)

Anonymous

Why does wearing heels equal looking the part?!

(47)(5)

Anonymous

What do you propose they wear- converse? I’m not suggesting a large heel, but a dark shoe that’s slightly elevated at the back makes a woman look far more professional.

(5)(29)

M

Smart flat shoes are totally possible. I understand lawyers can lack imagination, but flat does not equal trainers.

(18)(1)

Anonymous

Yes, because being professional is about how we look, not about how we think, what we know or are able to achieve.

(3)(4)

Anonymous

I turned up without a blazer for an interview and still I landed an NQ job in a US firm.

It all depends on you and the circumstances really.

(7)(4)

Anonymous

well aren’t you a billy big bollocks!

(10)(1)

Anonymous

Newsflash: Americans don’t know how to dress properly.

(7)(2)

Anonymous

Feminist issue hits the press…KK makes it about lawyers….bingo, new article for LC.

(10)(14)

Anonymous

Suits. Clean, crisp clothes. Smart and appropriate attire. Absolutely all of those are a necessity. As a female being told on day 1 of starting a Training Contract or Pupillage that you are expected to wear heels, only skirt suits (god forbid trousers!) and makeup your face and hair is going slightly beyond the pale of the male dress code of “dark, formal suiting” in my opinion.

(26)(1)

Anonymous

Makeup is a necessity too nowadays, irrespective of whether or not one looks smart. God help those pupils on 12K!

(3)(1)

Pedant

Beyond the pail surely?

(0)(2)

Better informed pedant

It’s “pale”, actually. Look up the etymology.

(6)(0)

Anonymous

What have insects got to do with this?

(1)(1)

Danger Mouser Chief Agitator & Rabble Rouser

Or the Irish, for that matter.

Anonymous

Is that apostrophe correct? Or am I being retarded?

(4)(2)

Anonymous

It is totally incorrect. What do you expect.

(3)(0)

Anonymous

Yeh i figured, i guess i just expected more.

(1)(0)

Not Amused

A two inch heal is not ‘high heel’. A two inch heal can be a perfectly sensible court shoe.

A high heel is a stiletto. And yes, i have worn both.

This is not an issue. It is part of a modern phenomenon, linked to trigger warnings and Charlotte Proudman. It is a generation of self obsessed control freaks, desperate for attention and special treatment.

It upsets me because this small cadre are all a lot of people see of that younger generation. But i meet them. I know that the vast majority are not like these narcissists. They are a fully comendable and extremely hard working generation. The media need to focus on them and not on the small number of nutters.

(12)(34)

High Heels make me Not Amused

Surely this can’t be NA.

Surely.

(6)(1)

Anonymous

NA is a woman, she has hinted at this in the past

(2)(1)

Anonymous

She has also said she’s Scottish. A female Scottish barrister practising in E&W? Can’t be many of them.

You’re outed, Morag McSporran QC.

(4)(0)

Sue Tup

A high heel policy is certainly too oppressive but having witnessed Counsel donning a pair of Ugg boots at a Crown Court there must surely be a limit to how far the modern ‘smart attire’ can be watered down. It’s a Court and not your bestie’s living room on a hungover Sunday.

This is not solely a female issue either, far too many gents swan around a formal setting in short sleeve shirts and without a tie. Frankly this is a look best reserved for your grandfather on a mild August evening.

(14)(3)

The Don

Currently cringing at my desk as you described my choice of attire for today. Slightly harsh.

(7)(0)

Anonymous

I believe that ties are unnecessary unless in court or meeting a client, and I wouldn’t look down on an office junior for not wearing one while doing the grunt work.

(2)(0)

Anonymous

For what it’s worth, as a Magdalen alumnus and former peer of Siobhan Fenton, she is a personality-free feminazi who will twist anything to suit her agenda.

(6)(13)

Corbyn. Sympathiser.

This comment is worth very little.

(1)(3)

Danger Mouser Chief Agitator & Rabble Rouser

I’ll say.

(0)(0)

Corporal Cocks

Take cover lads, rabid feminists and lefties incomiiiiinnngg!

*ducks into the trench*

(12)(19)

Filigree Siberian Hamster

Yes, well I assumed from the trench reference and the attitudes that you were writing from 1916, not 2016…

(16)(6)

Anonymous

Yes, I can see how scary it must be to have to worry about women working alongside you as equals.

(3)(0)

Anonymous

A while back A&O sent an email around to their female trainees telling them NOT to wear stiletto heels, despite several of their female partners having significant collections of similar shoes kept in their offices and wearing them around the office most days.

For a lot of firms you do have to conform to some kind of “look”. If it’s not heels and length of skirts in women, it’s tie colour, suit pattern or length of stubble/beard in men. Although it seems to only apply to people not in the partnership.

(1)(0)

Scouser of Counsel

Wow. I’m truly astonished that there are people on here who really think this is OK.

At the Bar we have it all, whether men or women- equal- uncomfortable bands, uncomfortable gown, uncomfortable wig but no effing dinosaurs telling female counsel to wear heels!

(20)(0)

Dave Angel

PwC Legal is a law firm, based at 1 Embankment Place.

(2)(2)

Anonymous

Let’s send dog poo there in Jiffy bags!

(3)(1)

Anonymous

Heels do not make an effort nor are they a necessity. dress codes require staff to look smart flat shoes are just as smart as heels. I’ve never worn heels at work and never had a comment. I’m a tall girl and if I was forced to wear heels I would be mortified i wear flats and I do think I look smart.

(9)(1)

Dirty cousin Frank

This post has been removed because it breaches Legal Cheek’s comments policy.

(1)(2)

Anonymous

I’m a man and I wear high heels every day as part of my law-themed drag queen persona, Mrs. Shirley (Inner) Temple.

(9)(0)

Danger Mouser Chief Agitator & Rabble Rouser

The ladies should no more be forced to wear high heels than I can be forced not to wear them. I am reminded on this occasion, actually, of an occasion where I had the extraordinary good fortune to see a niftly besuited Japanese gentleman strolling down the Strand to, I assumed at the time, a pressing meeting. He was attired from head to toe in what could only have been one of Saville Row’s finest, and perfectly finished off with a marvellous pair of bright red stilletos.

What a wonderful sight. He’s been my sartorial inspiration ever since, and I fully intend to approach the bar in nothing at all and only a pair of something by someone called Jimmy Choo. If any bugger gets in my way while I do so, I shall promptly shove its perfectly designed (and, hopefully, glittery) heel smack bang between the eyes. I suggest the ladies who would rather not wear them do the same to any cretin who says they have to.

Freedom!

(4)(2)

Lord Lyle of Paraphilia

I think female lawyers should have a dress code of high heels, net stockings , crotchless leather thong things with matching bodices and whips.

Good joke article LC

(1)(1)

Lawyeress

Let’s face it, lawyers of both genders need a uniform (like being at school). It would just be good to develop a uniform for female lawyers which did not require them to be sexy and/or in constant pain and at imminent risk of breaking ankles. Same applies to make-up. Hell, I’d infinitely prefer a jacket and tie.

(2)(0)

Anonymous

You mean like a school uniform with a jacket, tie, short pleated skirt, white socks and flat Mary-Jane shoes?

(0)(0)

Shirley

Heels = “femininity”

This is the City. Confirm or you’re out. Become an automation for the big bucks.

The Bar is home for eccentrics. Hence a QC’s flip flops. Mind you, try that shit at Arden or Hardwicke and see what happens.

(1)(3)

Anonymous

What are you suggesting would happen?

(0)(0)

G.B

Different items of clothing send different, established, messages. It is a convention that high heels = office smart, or “making an effort”. This doesn’t mean that the convention is right, or not born of a sexist place, but there it is. You can still send the message with flats, but might have to work a bit harder on what kind of flats or the rest of the outfit, as you are working against a convention.

People who put the “high heels” dress code in place are confusing the message with the specific item – nobody would be sent home from the firm where I work for not wearing heels, but if you turned up in flats that did not send a smart message (cardboard ballet pumps, looking at you) it would be frowned upon. Easy to reduce that to “boo hoo I was told I had to wear heels” not “I failed to put together an adequately smart outfit”

(2)(3)

Comments are closed.