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Should future lawyers avoid wearing brown shoes?

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Unwritten rule touches a nerve

As lawyers shed the loungewear and head back to the office, a long-running sartorial debate has re-emerged.

Pre-lockdown, brown shoes had become quite the hot issue. For some, the unwritten rule that frowns upon wearing said coloured footwear with a work suit is a mechanism to deter those outside the club from entering the legal profession. For others, it’s a simple style choice favoured by a few older lawyers that is not to be taken too seriously.

The matter was reignited over the weekend when a QC fired off this tweet (either poking fun at brown shoe wearers or mocking the no brown shoe rule, depending on your interpretation):

Amid the likes there was a fair bit of pushback. One labelled the tweet as “sneering”, while another wrote:

“You might as well say don’t apply for pupillage @1kbwChambers unless you’re the sort of person who “gets” that there are unwritten rules that identify those who aren’t one of us.”

James Roberts’ chambers colleagues, however, leaped to defend their family law chambers mate. Philip Marshall QC announced:

“This is ‘social’ media. Wit, humour, irony, sarcasm, satire and repartee are still allowed.”

While another 1KBW man, James Turner QC, wrote: “IT WAS A JOKE”, noted among other things that brown shoes are “not for wear with a dark suit at work” and insisted that critics of the tweet had failed to grasp its “nuance” and “subtlety”.

Secure your place: The October 2021 UK Virtual Pupillage Fair

For aspiring lawyers without connections, the row must have been at best confusing and at worst conveying the message that the legal profession is a place of baffling insider codes.

In recent years the solicitors’ branch of the profession has taken steps to move away from recommending certain types of formal workwear as law firms have tried to make themselves more accessible to bright students without professionals in their family. One global law firm even took the step of pulling a blog from its website that had claimed that “skinny ties are for Hoxton bars” and that men should punt for a “dark blue, charcoal or grey” suit — “black is only for funeral attendees and bouncers”.

But the bar continues to have a reputation for favouring unofficial standards of dress and behaviour. Not being formally documented, no one is quite sure what they are, and the extent to which they still apply, but alongside the shoes and suit stuff they’re said to include barristers not shaking hands with other barristers, barristers not taking their jackets off in front of solicitors and barristers not taking their bags into court.

Brown shoes, trainers or even no shoes are welcome at the Legal Cheek Virtual Pupillage Fair 2021 on Saturday 9 October and the Virtual Law Fair 2021 earlier that week on Tuesday 5 October. Both are free and open to all, and between them feature over 100 leading firms and chambers.

65 Comments

Sartorial Steve

Yes.

(32)(3)

Royston

They should avoid brown nosing as well.

(0)(0)

Observer

Brown shoes are casual attire, not smart. If your office promotes a casual dress environment then I don’t see the problem. If this is not the case then stick to black.

In the past I have observed others wearing brown shoes to work/formal occasions (weddings etc) but said shoes tend to be combined with a polyester suit, black belt and the recruitment industry.

(100)(12)

rec con

stfu man, I earn mad dolla, way more than u .

my brown shoes r epic

(12)(19)

Observer

Edit: … but said shoes tend to be associated with a polyester suit, black belt, the recruitment industry and ‘rec con’.

(12)(4)

BrownShoeInTown

P*ss off you septic tank, brown shoes are incredible

(8)(26)

Mr Tyrwhitt

Yes. Oxfords, Oxford Semi Brogues or if you are a bit more senior, penny loafers. Black in each case for business dress.

(17)(3)

Anon

James Turner does come across as a bit of a prat

(9)(28)

No thanks

God, what a bunch of snobs. ‘Rules’ like this are why people think the bar is so stuffy and elitist.

(28)(61)

Pumphole

Good luck being heard sans wig and gown mate!

(6)(2)

Anonymous

When I go to see my doctor, I expect him / her to be reasonably dressed as I am seeing a professional person in his / her professional capacity. One reason for the dullness of dress at the Bar being a good reason I realised when marshalling with, as he was then, the late Donald Farquharson J: barristers dressed in “uniform” of dark suits white shirts wig and gown were so indistinguishable that one focused entirely on what they said, not on anything they wore. Shoes, doesn’t terribly matter as not seen unless walking in / out, but there has long been a rule of not wearing “brown in town”. That may well be old fashioned but if you are going to wear brown to Court, why not trainers; if you think trainers are orff (yes, spelling deliberate) we are not arguing if there is a line, but where to draw it. If there is no line for you, I would not want you representing me in trainers, torn jeans, extensive body piercings etc.. At the least such items would be ditracting

(4)(0)

Northern Barrister

It’s plainly a joke. Some people are such cretins. You talk about brown shoes like it’s a God given right. They are worn badly by fashionless men, and look appalling for work. All this ‘oh well don’t apply for pupillage at 1KBW’ – give me a break.

(55)(15)

Bazgani

So you found a harmless joke tweet from a lawyer on twitter, made a lame fuss about it which got about six likes, then wrote a boring blogpost about how his tweet “touched a nerve”.

Work hard law students, or you might end up like failing Alex Aldridge: failed barrister, failed journalist.

(48)(5)

Gutpunch

Fuarkkkkkkkkk, shots fired!

(5)(3)

Legal journalist who is not linked to Legal Cheek, believe it or not

Whatever you might think of Legal Cheek, Alex got the site off the ground and made it not only profitable but able to sustain a team of journalists. Saying he has “failed” as a journalist is pretty difficult to sustain.

By all means weep into your brogues about it.

(23)(37)

Anon

Nice to have Alex’s mum join the chat.

(40)(1)

Anonymouse

The “no brown shoes” cliche is generally parroted by people who have little understanding of the nuances of style.

Yes, if you want to look super smart and are wearing english tailoring with a tie then go black. Probably more relevant for the bar than any office job (solicitors included). In my experience, the challenge is avoiding being overdressed, rather than trying to look smarter.

Brown shoes with a suit are an established business staple on the continent, and even for formal occasions a dark brown can work as well as black. Most lawyers in the top firms will be surrounded by colleagues and work with clients who are international/cosmopolitan and don’t share the stuffy views of the bar.

(23)(37)

Anony-mouse (the 1st)

Noting your use of the moniker Anonymouse and noting also that I have been writing under the (confusingly) similar moniker Anony-mouse for quite some time now. For the record, mate.

(2)(2)

Helpful Henry

“Brown shoes with a suit are an established business staple on the continent, ”

That’s completely irrelevant, since what’s done on the continent in no way translates to what is done here. Linen suits in formal settings are common in Italy and France, but you’d be laughed out of the room if you tried wearing one to a law firm in this country.
You might as well point out that shorts can be worn in a formal setting in Bermuda – again, it is irrelevant to dress standards in the UK.

(16)(1)

Anon

Well tailored navy suit and black oxfords – can’t go wrong anywhere in the world. Smart silk tie on hand for more formal events.

(38)(1)

Fashionista

As a female, I have never understood this sneering view of brown shoes with blue suits.

If being deeply unfashionable and oblivious to style is synonymous with being a good lawyer then there is no hope for humanity.

(21)(27)

Random passer by

That’s great. I wonder how things would go down if as a man I commented on women’s clothing and what they wore in 2021? Perhaps I would be cancelled for even expressing an opinion. But no doubt you feel it is your place to express an opinion on this.

Brown shoes should never been worn with a smart (dark coloured) suit. Perfectly acceptable with a tan suit and chinos (with a jacket) which tends to be during more relaxed occasions.

(20)(13)

Bob

“Brown shoes should never be work with a smart (dark coloured) suit”.

Why? Our better-dressed colleagues on the continent do this. The general rule is shoes should be darker than your trousers, so you won’t see an Italian wearing tan shoes with their Cifonelli suit but dark brown with navy and mid-grey are perfectly acceptable and generally more stylish.

It’s a bit odd to still apply a very old piece of conventional wisdom (that related to English tailoring many years ago) to suits in general – most of which will be designed on the continent or heavily influenced by continental design.

If you turn your nose up at brown shoes with suits I hope you also only wear English bespoke with a lapel width of 3.5”or thereabouts.

(13)(17)

Random passer-by

Better dressed colleagues on the Continent? I’ve never seen a Frenchman wearing brown shoes with their suits. The French wear dark suits with a white shirt and dark tie, only with dark shoes. I’ve worked at a French firm and company, and interact a lot with their lawyers and executive level staff. The only other nation that could possibly be referred to as better dress is Italy, and honestly I don’t know too much about there. No other nation in Europe could be described as better dressed than us.

Regarding your last point, apart from the reference to bespoke, it pretty much applies to my suit choices. Only British tailoring for me, I find Italian suits too light weight and the cut is not right.

I don’t come from a posh background but have learned how to look sharp from observation and reading online. Shiny baggy suits with brown shoes and unnecessary pocket squares are not for me.

(17)(9)

Helpful Henry

“Why? Our better-dressed colleagues on the continent do this”

Because – shocker – different countries have different dress standards. Why not wear a linen suit, as is acceptable in formal situations in italy? Why not a bow tie, as in parts of the far east? Why not a three piece suit?

(2)(0)

Who cares?

I like how brown shoes look and I don’t care what others think.

(14)(21)

Kirkland NQ

I find no one cares what colour shoes you’re wearing if they are carefully caressing the gas pedal of a brand new Lambo.

(21)(26)

Back, Sack, Crack & Co

I’ll hand it to you – first moderately funny Kirkland comment I’ve seen in a long time.

(18)(6)

Ditcher Quick & Hyde NQ Phatman

No.

(3)(2)

Poor guy

Unfortunately that says a lot more about your sense of humour than this terrible joke

(1)(0)

Anon. Brown Shoe User

Nothing wrong with a nice pair of brown shoes with appropriately coordinated suit.

I’m just waiting for one of the Kirkland people to come on and talk about their beige Ralph Lauren chinos and Brown D and G loafers they bought at the weekend from Bicester Village…

(8)(17)

Mehmeh

Kirkland drones do not understand the word “weekend”. They think it refers to the time when their former friends seem to not be at work when they are.

(4)(0)

Trinny and Susannah

The “unspoken” rules laid out:

– Suits should be double breasted or 3 piece. Wool, not polyester. Charcoal or Navy (the shade should not contrast too much from your gown). Double vented, not single. Save pinstripe until you have tenancy.

– Shoes always black. Oxfords, not Derbys. Brogueing to a minimum. Rubber soles are OK if you’re travelling a lot. Avoid for the Court of Appeal or smart chambers events. Polished to a high shine.

– White collar on shirts. Plain white until you are senior enough to have a coloured torso. Double cuffed.

No brown in town. It’s for the country.

I trust we can move on now?

(40)(10)

Anon

Were these rules written in the late Edwardian period?! No wonder the bar has an image problem as a closed shop for stuffy public school types.

(8)(21)

Trinny and Susannah

Quite possibly. But the bar maintain an antiquated form of dress so it is no surprise that more modern suiting styles do not look good.

There is good reason for these rules.

Dark suits with little contrast against the gown blend in to the uniform. Think what you like about the unusual getup but one of the advantages is the appearance of anonymity. This is undermined if a suit is too visible.

Double breasted and three piece suits ensure a high break in the jacket fastening. So, your white bands don’t get lost against your white shirt.

Double vented jackets shape better against your seat and make you look like you have a stronger back. You look like you stand taller.

Generally, any louder additions (e.g. coloured shirts or pinstripe) should be left to more senior colleagues practitioners because you don’t want to stand out when you are making mistakes.

Black, high polished shoes fit in with the remainder of the outfit and demonstrate you take pride in your appearance. If you wear brown, you will look like a crow standing on a branch.

(25)(5)

Anon

What a load of old tripe. I can’t believe in 2021, when every barrister under the sun is desperate to market themselves and has their face plastered all over their chambers’ website we’re still subject to anonymity BS. Get with the times like everyone else and open the old boy’s club doors!

(5)(22)

Yawn

Old boys’ club. There is more than one of them.

Anon

Double breasted or three piece? I think that’s a bit much, mate. Honestly, anyone wearing a double breasted jacket nowadays is to be avoided as a posh weirdo.

Everything else – black shoes, navy and grey suits – is fine.

(13)(3)

Pongo of Counsel

Not been in Court recently? I think you’ll find most barristers under 40 wear 3 piece.

Double breasted is an approaching retirement thing.

(4)(1)

Anon

3 piece looks like you’re dressed for a wedding.

(2)(10)

anonymous

Wearing a 3 piece suit to a wedding is what the lower classes do. Morning dress is what should be worn.

Anonymous

If you roll up to the office in a three piece suit and you are not in your 60s at the very least, you will get laughed out of the city. Yeah, the bar is a bit more common to find them, but it’s still not the usual thing to encounter.

Double breasted is a thing of the past too – again, unless you are of a certain age, or a flashy dresser.

(4)(2)

Rotund of Counsel

Don’t know where you’re at the Bar, but the criminal
Bar is defo three-piece territory unless you’re over-60 in which case double-breasted seems to be the norm.

(5)(0)

A nonny mousse of Counsel

Striped trousers in London is bad form unless you’re in Silk.

They are only appropriate for junior counsel on the Midlands, Northern and Wales and Chester circuits for junior counsel, where they can still be seen on a fairly regular basis.

Court coat anywhere for non-silk is inappropriate.

(3)(0)

Anon

OK boomer

(5)(7)

Yawn

Good to see that clichéd ageism is still rife among the unimaginative.

(5)(1)

Al

But what if you practice west of Ascot?

(0)(0)

Sodge

Hessian sack and clogs.

Plus wig, gown and bands, obvs.

(1)(0)

Sodge

Black bands for capital cases likely to result in a hanging in the village square presided over by the local Lord Chief Magistrate.

(0)(0)

Anon

The last time I wore shoes was February 2020.

(16)(1)

Anon

Does anyone know any of the unwritten rules for women?

(0)(0)

Fashionista

No, because we don’t care what former public schoolboys think about our shoes and clothes.

(1)(16)

HMV LLP

You’re quite right, women instead police eachother’s dress. The number of snide remarks I can remember hearing female colleagues make about other female colleagues’ shoe choice, makeup style, hair etc…is off the charts. Far more than the comments men make about eachother’s dress choice.

If as you claim women’s fashion is such a free-for-all in law firms, then why do almost all female lawyers in city firms wear similar stuff?

(1)(1)

Housing Barrister

Dark suit (black, grey or navy), 15 denier tights, black shoes and pale shirt.

Court shirt or white top you can put you bib over when robing.

Sometimes if the winter I wear thicker tights.

Never wear heels that you cannot wear all day standing up

(2)(0)

Rae Ality

Unless you are slim and good looking, or Italian, then carrying off brown shoes is very difficult. It is more Farage than GQ.

(9)(2)

Anon

That basically excludes everyone in city law 🤣

(0)(0)

Anony-mouse

Anyone with an internet connection can find the “unwritten rules”, just see above comment. Just because someone is poor doesn’t mean they can’t learn the mores of whatever society / career they are joining and why shouldn’t they want to? I’m not from a posh background but I appreciate learning about conventional ways of dressing in the legal profession and to a certain extent I enjoy conforming to them.

(25)(3)

God of law

The only people who advocate against brown shoes are those who turn up to informal parties wearing a Fred Perry/Tommy Hilfiger polo shirt (they’ve got about 4 different colours of the same polo), Lacoste trainers and Hugo Boss jeans.

Probably also drives an Audi.

(4)(15)

Hackaforte

While we’re on the subject:

– No white dinner jackets west of Suez.
– No pre-tied bow ties. If you can tie your shoelaces, you can tie a bow tie.
– No wing-collared shirts with dinner jackets. They’re for white tie only, and then you should use a detachable collar anyway.
– Always leave the bottom button of your weskit undone.

(8)(0)

Casual Observer

It is incredible how much the “no brown in town” subject touches a nerve. I may be wrong, but I think it is a mix of implication of historic class discrimination (back in the day you might not know the “rule”, or perhaps can’t afford to get black leather cap toe oxfords as a young pupillage/TC interview candidate unless it was a norm as part of your independent school uniform) and a perceived suppression of individual identity. Or it’s just some people recently spent a fortune on interview clothes and now realise they bought the wrong thing.

But now, all of this information is widely available to anyone with internet access: black leather shoes are more formal than brown leather shoes, and the lighter the shade of brown the less formal it is. Oxfords are more formal than monk straps which are more formal than derbies. The more detailing e.g. broguing on a shoe the less formal it is. This is, for the most part, the accepted fashion standard around the world. Save for America, who think that semi-brogues/wingtip oxfords are more formal business attire, but then again go to NY and see all the suede monk straps with charcoal suits… pinch of salt.

Depending on the culture of your firm, and the type of clients you meet, the level of formality required should dictate the shoe and general clothing choice. A barrister or a finance lawyer taking meetings in bank board rooms is going to likely be at the top tier of formality. A small City or west end commercial practice with SME clients or regional conveyancer firms are typically more relaxed (unless it’s a “traditional” type of office culture). Of course, when interviewing anywhere for a TC it is better to show respect by leaning more formal. No matter the level of formality, everything being clean, well fitting, in good repair and shoes shined will always be required.

The important thing is to be able to navigate the culture and fit of the firm and the firm’s client base, because you can either be too casual or too formal and in either instance you will stand out for that and not the quality of your professional work.

(15)(3)

Anonymoose

It’s not like black dress shoes are only available in a small boutique run by the same family for generations in a secret backroom at Harrods where each pair is made by hand and costs ten thousand pounds a pair. Shoes are the same price irrespective of the colour. People should just stop bringing class into it and buy a damn pair of black shoes!

The same goes for wigs and gowns: just because they’re old doesn’t mean they HAVE to change for modernity’s sake. If it’s universally accepted that you’d look better in a pair of black Oxfords than what’s the fuss? The British tailoring industry is steeped in traditions the British ought to be proud of.

(3)(2)

Ryan

Morning trousers with court coat is the only proper way for a barrister to dress.

(3)(1)

Thracian Peninsular

Morning trousers outs you as a Northerner.

Court coat marks you out as a desperate wannabe silk (unless you are a silk).

(4)(0)

Anonymous

Fat men should wear 3 peace as no-one wants to see an overhanging muffin top being restrained by a white shirt.

(0)(0)

Anonymous

Essential pieces of kit for a Judge are a black cap and a Tena Men guard for any unfortunate emissions whilst passing death sentences.

(0)(0)

Comments are closed.

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