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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.