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Lawyers, If You Want to Get Ahead, Dress the Part

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By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on March 24, 2016 3:59 PM

Allow me to rehash a few clothing-centric adages for a moment: dress for success, dress for the job you want, not the job you have, the suit makes the man, the pantsuit makes the presidential candidate, etc. You've heard them all before, but there's some serious truth behind those platitudes.

Clothes don't just change how people look at you, but how you look at yourself. And there's research to back it up.

Want to Feel Like a Leader? Wear a Suit

Last September, California State University psychology professor Adam Rutchick published a study that looked specifically at "the cognitive consequences of formal clothing," or how dressing sharply changes the way we think. The take away? "Putting on formal clothes makes us feel powerful, and that changes the basic way we see the world," Rutchick said.

Dressing in formal clothing tended to make people think more broadly and abstractly while increasing their feelings of power. Rutchick isn't the only one to find that our outfits can shape our outlook, either. Another study showed that when people put on a white coat that they thought was a doctor's, they were more attentive. (When they thought the coat was a painter's, there was no improvement in their attentiveness.)

So, if you want to feel like a boss, start by dressing like a boss.

Want to Nitpick? Drop the Formalwear

Of course, not all of what we do as attorneys involves abstract, broad thinking. That's where the other half of the study comes in. In Rutchick's study, those less formally dressed "tended to focus on more immediate, pragmatic concerns," according to NPR.

So, if you have to spend the night sifting through the Code of Federal Regulations, editing and reediting documents, or cite checking a brief, maybe leave the three-piece suit behind. (Don't start wearing sweats to the office, though. Please.)

But remember, it's all relative. How formal or informal you feel depends on those around you. If you wear a basic suit every day to your white shoe firm, you're unlikely to feel as much of a boost when you suit up or dress down. The key, Rutchick notes, is simply to be dressed better than those around you.

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