Review

‘Skinny ties are for Hoxton bars’: We review the former BLP trainee’s fashion advice so controversial the firm banned it

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Katherine Cousins, now an associate, turned her tips into a book

Judging by its inoffensive title and front cover, you may not think that Successful Solicitor: Get Ahead of the Game as a Junior Corporate Lawyer is full of material that was censored by the author’s firm. And yet, it is.

Katherine Cousins, a City solicitor, had in 2013 written a fashion blog for the then-named Berwin Leighton Paisner‘s intranet during her time as a trainee. This came about, she tells us, “following a chat I’d had with a member of the graduate recruitment team that vac schemers were turning up dressed far too casually for a City law firm”.

However, she saw her efforts pulled by the firm (which has now merged and is called Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner) over concerns it was inappropriate — a fact that caught the press’s attention. Cousins continues:

“After the firm/press reaction, one of my very good friends was trying to make me feel better and said something like: ‘People write funny, controversial things every day that don’t make the national press, it was really well written. You should write more.’ I put it to one side to focus on being the least problematic trainee of all time for the rest of my TC, but it stuck with me.”

Now, five years later, Cousins’ once-censored fashion advice lives on in the pages of her 115-page debut title, which she wrote over the course of two years on her morning commutes and on weekends. It includes “all the tips, tricks, hacks and lessons I’ve learned”. But, given its backstory, it’s the fashion and beauty know-how we couldn’t help but skip to.

A number of quotes from Cousins’ book

“Like it or not,” she says, “your clothes make an impression and you don’t want that impression to be ‘Does he understand how to use an iron?’ or ‘Nice to know she likes red bras’.”

Her blunt advice for men, then, is to punt for a “dark blue, charcoal or grey” suit — “black is only for funeral attendees and bouncers” — and smart shoes that are “not too pointy” nor worn without socks. As for shirts, “avoid checks and stripes” and remember: “Skinny ties are for Hoxton bars, not the office.”

To female lawyers, Cousins advises going for as expensive a suit as you can. Marks & Spencer and Whistles are both namechecked. But a word of warning from Cousins about ASOS and Topshop: “Outside a fashion magazine, a jungle print short suit is not office appropriate.”

Other titbits of advice for women include investing in non-VPL knickers and non-patterned hosiery. If you colour your hair be aware “roots look scruffy and unprofessional”. Oh, and: “Do not wear false eyelashes to work. You’re not a nightclub dancer.”

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When you’ve got your necessarily totally-devoid-of-all-personality look down, readers can turn over the page to find competition lawyer Cousins’ advice on “how to avoid ‘associate’s belly'” caused by a toxic mix of “high billables, little sleep and canteen food for every meal”. You can combat weight gain by drinking one of your meals, moving around the office even if only to get a coffee and squeezing in workouts where you can, Cousins says.

Though advising readers who are worried about weight gain to work out is hardly revolutionary, following all the tips included in Cousins’ book, published by Buggle Publishing, at times seems quite unachievable. Being proactive when seeking work, knocking on doors, not saying no, “skipping lunch, cancelling drinks or working till midnight” — it sounds like a life many would not want to lead.

But Cousins — who studied international relations and social anthropology at St Andrews — in the first few pages of her book stresses you don’t have to be perfect to be a successful corporate lawyer. She says:

“I have cried in the toilets on multiple occasions… I’ve left my phone off for days when on holiday and I’ve read the FT for two hours and listed it as ‘business development research’ on my timesheets. I’ve also worked 80-hour weeks, finished urgent tasks from the Eurostar/my hotel room/the start line of a marathon.”

Despite this, Cousins has had a glittering career as a junior lawyer thus far. She ended up at Baker McKenzie in Brussels, Belgium, on qualification and is now a solicitor at Constantine Cannon — “I’m human. And I’m an excellent lawyer,” she says.

And sometimes even excellent lawyers have “gotten far too drunk at graduate recruitment events”. Cousins explains:

“Being a trainee can sometimes feel like being on a two-year freshers week. You are expected to participate in graduate recruitment events and these will almost certainly involve drinking large quantities of dreadful, cheap wine without any dinner.”

Making a drunken fool out of yourself and having the hangover from hell the next day, thankfully, isn’t inevitable.

Eating something filling and fatty before an event (Cousins says oily avocado on toast is “a perfect pre-gaming snack”) and going for “clean alcohols” like vodka and gin are just two of her recommendations.

“Do remember to drink some water between rounds,” she says. City lawyers are far from perfect, but: “calling in sick with a hangover [the next day] is absolutely and completely unacceptable.”

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67 Comments

Anonymous

“Skinny ties are for Hoxton bars, not the office.”

I’d love to see the clip of her boyfriend. A massive thick knotted tie is a horrendous look unless you are over the age of 55.

(18)(49)

Anonymous

No striped or checked shirts? Ridiculous.

(30)(10)

Anonymous

Sounds like someone just stocked up on skinny ties for their first year vacation scheme.

(90)(0)

Anonymous

Not even in the legal profession. Ha. Jokes on you. Mug.

(1)(37)

Anonymous

“HE DOESN’T EVEN GO HERE!”

(18)(1)

Anonymous

There’s quite a gap between skinny ties and fat ties.

(11)(0)

Anonymous

You’re fat.

(0)(4)

Anonymous

She’s right about skinny ties. They shouldn’t be seen on anyone over the age of 17. I’ve lost count of the amount of cheap black suits I’ve seen. If you are going to wear a black suit, it had better be Saville Row quality. Best to play it safe and just avoid.

Pointy shoes and squared off shoes look like you bought them last minute for your first appearance in the dock. Buy some decent oxfords.

And for the love of God, learn how to actually tie a tie properly.

(72)(6)

Anonymous

What is “properly”?

You’re not one of those ‘Windsor knots are a sign of good breeding’ tossers are you?

(18)(4)

Anonymous

No, I am not one of those guys. By properly I mean not having a lose tie know an not having it hanging down to your knees (or stopping at your belly button).

Make it a decent length, and tighten it properly.

(16)(1)

Anonymous

Ah, thank you. I agree.

I’d add that cheap shirts are a bad look too. I don’t mean ‘not Jermyn Street’; I mean really obviously cheap shirts with bad collars, bad fit and terrible fabric.

You can get four decent shirts for £100 from TM Lewis, Tyrwhitt etc. There’s no excuse.

(11)(3)

Anonymous

*loose tie knot…

Typing too quickly + auto correct. My bad.

(2)(2)

Anonymous

Absolutely spot on.

TM Lewin suit in the sale, four shirts and rain coat – £400 easily, all in

No excuse not to look the part

(11)(9)

Trumpencuck

“Not having it hanging down to your knees” – I wear a boxy black suit and have my tie hanging down to my shoes in honour of my one true love and emperor of mankind.

(6)(1)

K&E rat.

2 knots are a neccesity. Otherwise, your tie will just fall apart sooner or later without you even noticing, Trust me, I learnt it the hard way when I’ve been told to fix my tie by a Grad recruitment lady prior to entering the interview room.

(1)(0)

Anonymous

Windsor knots are for working/lower middle class people.

(1)(2)

Monty Don

I saw you wearing a Trinity knot in Cosmos the other weekend.

(1)(0)

Anonymous

Spelling errors also don’t look good on you.

(1)(0)

The crown

I’d rather dress with personality than look like a drone. Providing you aren’t scruffy after you pass the interview
you should definitely these tips out of your life and be you. They say clothes maketh the (wo)man, but this advice maketh a really superficial and toxic working environment which is why her firm told her to cut the shit with her blog. I’m proud to work with male barristers that wear long hair and black nail polosh to be frank and I would never objectify a female colleague by exering my expectations over her appearance. This book is a bit of a nail in the coffin for feminism.

(48)(53)

Anonymous

People who say they “dress with personality” are usually immature and very boring.

(24)(3)

Anonymous

looking like a drone is a defensive tactic. You don’t know how the partner or (more importantly) the client will take to a particular item of clothing and as a trainee or NQ, you do not have the ability to say “my work speaks for me”.

So for the first couple of years, dressing in a manner that is unlikely to create any negative impressions is good advice. After those first couple of years, you can get away with what you want to wear and how you want to behave because at that point, your supervisors and some clients know the quality of your work.

(0)(1)

Anonymous

She sounds like an pompous idiot

(41)(20)

Anonymous

I think this is needed. I’ve been on insight days to city law firms and I’ve seen skinny ties, brown shoes with black suits, brown belts with black trousers and other atrocities

Whilst they don’t personally offend me these things do matter to other people and subconsciously/consciously people are taking note

I’m still at university and naturally the academic sphere of lectures does not cover how to dress like one but it is something that many people do not know about, in particular people like me whose parents didn’t work in jobs like this and thus cannot pass down the information that the Oxbridge old-money incrowd seem to know from birth

(46)(8)

Katherine Cousins

Thank you. That was exactly what I’d hoped people would realise – I don’t come from money and I did have to learn this from a book/watching what other, more senior lawyers wore. Rightly or wrongly you are being judged and I didn’t want to see a lovely person miss out on a TC/NQ role, because their background didn’t furnish them with this kind of knowledge.

I go on to say you can and should develop your own personal style at work, but when you’re a trainee/NQ your clothes are not what you want people to notice you for. That ought to be your work!

(67)(6)

Learn early

On the point about not coming from money: This is probably why people really should do vac schemes and minis as early as possible. I was lucky that by the end of 2nd year at university, I already knew what was “right” in the office. No one would have told me if I hadn’t worked it out from the minis and vac schemes.

(9)(0)

Anonymous

So many of us aren’t lucky enough to secure a vac scheme at a big firm, so several (like myself) wind up going in blind to smaller firms that usually adopt the same rules. It makes for quite a culture shock. Since graduating my uni has started bringing in legal mentors for mock interviews where they go over these sort of office politics/style/mannerism expectations. Hopefully that helps the newer students going forward.

(6)(0)

Anonymous

To be honest, I was surprised my firm (City top 30, for context) wasn’t more formal. I assumed it would be ties at all times etc.

(0)(0)

Anonymous

Well, the legal world needs more people like you. There’s enough of the inherited blue blood personality in the profession. Do us a favour, jump through the pretentious hoops to get your foot in the door, but don’t maintain them for the sake of tradition once you’re in a position of influence.

(10)(0)

Katherine Cousins

Thank you for your kind words. That was always the plan and so far it’s going quite well!

(2)(0)

Anonymous

Well this is awkward. My kind words were for the initial anon post at 9:47am.

But hey, if it brings you joy and is also relevant to you then… I don’t know… keep up the good fight?

I’m just gonna go shine my brown leather shoes now.

(2)(0)

Katherine Cousins

Haha! My mistake. Enjoy your shiny, brown shoes 🙂

(2)(0)

Anonymous

Good lawyers don’t need to dress well.

(12)(31)

Optimistic from Royal Tunbridge Wells

True, you can be a good lawyer and also have a reputation for dressing like a complete clown.

Thing is, do you actually want the clown reputation?

(24)(0)

K&E rat.

I’d rather be a clown than a pretentious prick. The amount of people I see wearing expensive suits when they clearly can’t afford it is ridiculous. Hate fakes more than anything.

(3)(11)

Anonymous

I had a principal who regularly wore jeans and an untucked shirt to meetings with banks, but they didn’t care because he was so good. In fact, it was sort of a part of his ‘personal brand’ (to use some management speak) – this hyper intelligent scruffy lawyer. You do have to be incredibly good to get away with that though.

(4)(0)

Katherine Cousins

Same, and it worked for him. You’re right you have to earn that, though, with brilliance and time. Not sure it’d be a good move on your first day/week/year…

(2)(0)

Anonymous

At our firm (large regional) we have a dress down everyday policy and then we wear whatever is appropriate for our clients.

If I’m seeing startups, that means jeans and a t-shirt, if I’m seeing someone for the first time, shirt and a jacket. It’s definitely the way forward.

At the end of the day, we are all lawyers. If you can’t be trusted to decide what is suitable to wear then how in the hell can you be trusted to decide what is suitable advice to give.

(1)(0)

Anonymous

LOL at all of the people defending skinny ties and shit flickers.

Go ahead and turn up on the first day of your TC wearing a black suit and a skinny tie and see where it gets you.

Like it or not, Cousins is right about the fact those who you want to impress do notice these things. I absolutely agree that it shouldn’t matter, but unfortunately it does.

(50)(1)

Anonymous

Charcoal or greys don’t suit darker complexions. So our only option is black or navy

(4)(7)

Anonymous

I think you mean “[C]harcoal or greys don’t suit me”. I am a person with dark complexion and look pretty good in a grey suit 🙂

(28)(1)

Anonymous

Another ROF-exclusive grab

(8)(0)

Load of grillocks

Where does she stand on brown in town?

(3)(3)

Anonymous

Right, as a North American now living in the UK I find this to be the dumbest fashion rule to date. If you wear black shoes with a navy suit in any other part of the world, people will look at you like you need water wings to eat soup.

Black or Oxblood shoes with charcoal suits. Brown or Oxblood with navy suits. Black or Brown with standard/lighter grey suits. As long as it’s a darker brown leather, it will be formal enough in the rest of the civilised world. Lighter tan leather or even suede is a little too country-esque. Pair them with jeans or a light blue summer wedding/weekend suit. Not work appropriate in most major cities.

This rant aside, it is unfortunately still an expectation to wear black shoes in the City. I try to maintain my deviant upbringing by rocking brogues. Still black though.

(10)(10)

Anonymous

Are you sure? I asked an American friend (New Yorker) who reckoned the same ‘rules’ apply there. Maybe it’s different on the West Coast and in Buttfuck, Idaho.

(3)(2)

Anonymous

Idaho has their own dress code: hard to match suits with steel toe or sandals.

Jokes aside, the London rules of dressing conservatively are the same in most North American big cities (no shiny suit or outlandish prince of wales check that can be seen a mile away), but the shoe pairings as stated above are accurate.

(2)(0)

Anonymous

I’m amazed at the number of people defending the use of skinny ties or black suits. Apart from striped shirts, she is mostly right. The amount of times I’ve been on vac schemes or open days and seen guys look either like second hand car dealers or like they just traveled from the nearest 1970s discotheque is astounding. As for some of the girls I’ve seen at these events, too many of them must be moonlighting as Ministry of Sound podium dancers. Though I suspect they’d be fine at a certain firm that rhymes with Bones Bay

(54)(0)

Anonymous

Skinny ties just look cheap, even though many are not! The same goes for suits with skinny lapels. Plus, they do not compliment the vast majority of body types. Could work if you’re 6 foot and 9 stone. Lawyers are all about attention to detail, and if you can’t recognise if your clothing choice compliments your body shape it will not bode well for you in interview.

I’ll never forget learning this the hard way: I’ve always been a bigger guy, and my parents bought my first suit when I was in my late teenage years. Skinny ties and suits with skinny lapels were really popular at the time (especially with all the Italian brands) so they bought me the whole outfit like that. The suit was expensive and fit very well with beautiful fabric, and the tie was also a brilliant material, but I looked ridiculous. I definitely got some smirks at a few of the first year open day events I went to.

(7)(0)

Not Very Happy Man

She is a stupid girl. Wear what you want. It’s 2018!

(7)(67)

Anonymous

Everyone should wear what they want. But, in the LLP model (especially at the big established brands) where the people deciding your future are a bunch of crusty old private school grey hairs, you have to consider their delicate sensibilities.

Hopefully they will have stretched modern medicine to it’s upper limits and die off soon, but until then, gotta keep the old balls happy.

(7)(1)

Lightning Strike

Agreed with everything in there. Thank you Katherine!

(11)(1)

Anonymous

Yet another desperate, narcissistic, attention-seeking wannabe…

(10)(20)

Anonymous

I agree with a lot of it but no black suits is a step too far. There is nuance for example the classic black pinstripe from a reputable tailor can look good. In addition, it is popular for example the commercial bar and in the city you see a black pinstripe often.

(12)(2)

TRUTH SIREN

Not being funny, it looks shit in 99% of cases

(4)(3)

Anonymous

I’d rather just work with nice, genuine people to be honest. I could’t care less what colleagues wear.

Try turning up in a 3 piece suit and tie for a meeting with tech and engineering clients, they’re going to think you’re absolute melt. You can look more of a scruff by over-dressing.

(5)(8)

Anonymous

Great advice, it’s very rare to get such needed information given away so freely. Mostly we have to learn the hard way, thank you Katherine.

(6)(3)

Don't have a TC

Interview @ K&E for a vac scheme, I’m in a standard charcoal suit with a generic tie. A friend of mine turns up in a suit more silver than grey, with brown shoes/belt and a black tie (okay it wasn’t skinny). He gets it, I don’t. Okay he clearly did better than me in the interview, but I think/hope that goes to show that interviewers don’t really care.

(14)(4)

Anonymous

Interviewed @ Clifford Chance for TC meticulously dressed and failed. A fellow vac schemer wearing a worn-out dress which could have been even nice if ironed was interviewed and got it.
The interviewers really did not care in my case either.

(5)(0)

K&E rat.

An advice from an amateur associate on how a man should dress? Give me a break. People in city firms don’t even wear ties most of the time, unless they are going to an important meeting. Plus, nothing wrong with stripey shirts. Also, what’s wrong with pointy shoes? The woman needs to get her brain together.

(7)(7)

Anonymous

Been to a few experiences at (formerly) BLP. They’re a crusty bunch, and they like to recruit the type that is likely to continuously perpetuate the crustiness. Seriously, it’s a shop filled with stereotypes, so I’m not surprised someone who trained there finds these archaic insights relevant.

As with all large firms there are obvious exceptions: some normal humans have slipped through the cracks… some might even be considered nice people! I met one, so it’s not just a unicorn theory.

(9)(1)

Anonymous

A BCLP trainee here – I would say quite the opposite (they are few crusty pieces but mainly we are a rather crunchy bunch!

As a side note, I like to wear skirts with pattern and by no means can afford a female suit and am gliding through my TC without any problems.

(4)(0)

Katherine Cousins

Pleased you’re enjoying your TC, Anonymous, and your patterned skirts 🙂 I loved training and working at BLP and still miss it sometimes. I’m glad to hear it hasn’t changed too much and people are still fun and lovely!

(1)(0)

Career changer

I was an army officer for a decade before I retrained as a solicitor. Before Sandhurst, I remember being on a Royal Regiment of Artillery ‘familiarisation visit’ (like a vac scheme, but shorter), during which one of the officers mentioned to me one evening a number of the ‘rules’ about looking the part/fitting in (e.g. double cuffs; cufflinks; no button-down collars; light shirts & dark ties, not vice-versa; no hair gel; and polished shoes). His advice was very kind – he needn’t have bothered – and it was invaluable. You will be judged, consciously or otherwise, and you will either feel that you fit in, or you won’t. None of this is malicious, it’s just human nature. As Katherine Cousins comments above about her book:

“I don’t come from money and I did have to learn this from a book/watching what other, more senior lawyers wore. Rightly or wrongly you are being judged.”

I had the same experience, mutatis mutandis, my [last] career, and I was very grateful to the guys who tipped me off before I started it in earnest. To the people complaining: don’t hate the player, hate the game (but even that’s pointless). We are pack animals – unless there is a specific advantage to not fitting in, which is rare, you should try to do so. Most people are probably familiar with group/out group bias, but if not see https://www.google.co.uk/search?q=in+group+out+group

Incidentally, I bought Katherine’s book on Amazon, and thought it was great. Much was obvious, but that’s in large part because (a) I’m old; and (b) I learnt it the hard way by getting it wrong myself! With hindsight, I’d rather have had her book. I recommend it.

(14)(0)

Katherine Cousins

Thank you so much, Career Changer, for your thoughtful comment, but in particular your last paragraph, which has quite made my day!

(3)(0)

Anonymous

Vac Schemes are for geeks.

(2)(2)

Querf

I turned up to a A&O interview in an emerald suit with flares. Didn’t get it. What does that tell you?

(2)(0)

Anonymous

It’s one thing being smart, another thing having no personality. As long as I’ve got a tailored blazer in the office (and mine range in colour: black, blue, red, yellow) and a smart pair of shoes I don’t see what the issue is. Client relationships is one of my strong points and I think my more colourful, interesting look helps as they stop seeing you as a corporate drone and a bright, vibrant, intelligent person!

(0)(0)

Anonymous

Harvey Specter: “people respond to how we’re dressed, so like it or not it’s what we have to do”.

(3)(0)

Comments are closed.

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