Work + Growth

Dressing the Part as a Summer Associate on a Budget

  • Dressing professionally and appropriately is essential for making the right first impression and fitting in from the get-go
  • Buying professional clothes doesn’t have to be expensive: Do your research to use price comparisons and take advantage of sales
  • Business casual is notoriously tricky; observe what associates and partners wear and follow their lead

After perfecting your resume, carefully crafting writing samples, and going through the ringer of on-campus interviews and callbacks, you got an offer (or a few) from one of your ideal landing spots.

While you deserve to pat yourself on the back and take some time to celebrate, your work is not done. As people have probably told you, being a summer associate does not guarantee you a permanent position, so you need to treat your internship as a ten-week interview. And in most interviews, first impressions and your appearance are extremely important. In order to make the best first impression possible, you’ll need to look and dress professionally. Keep this in mind when looking over your wardrobe before the summer starts. Do you have enough business casual outfits for regular days in the office? Do you have more formal outfits that are appropriate for court or important meetings?

If you’re like most law students, the idea of completely buying a completely new wardrobe for your summer associate position probably isn’t realistic. If you’re on a budget or simply aren’t eager to spend an excessive amount of money overhauling your closet, there are ways to improve your legal wardrobe and be prepared for your summer associate position without breaking the bank.

For the Men

At many firms, the days of strict dress codes are over and business casual is now in. While business casual doesn’t mean the same thing at every firm, business casual is certainly not an excuse to wear workout clothes or look disheveled or badly put together. When trying to figure out what business casual means or if you’re unsure whether your firm has a dress code, you should look at what the full-time associates are wearing. Business casual at most firms will usually mean some variation of dress pants and a button-down shirt. Depending on the firm, you also may be required or encouraged to wear a tie.

In order to avoid repeating the same outfit too often, you should try to create a rotation of a few shirts and pairs of pants that you can mix and match between. When shopping for button-downs, opt for classic colors like blue and white and try to select more comfortable and lighter materials that will work for warm temperatures. If you need to buy more button-downs or dress pants, you should first look on Amazon and shopping websites like RetailMeNot for printable coupons at clothing stores like Burlington, Men’s Warehouse, J. Crew, and others. Using Google or any other search engine, you can easily compare prices between sites and stores to find the best deal. If you know you need several pieces, look for package deals or bundles, as they’re usually less expensive. Stay aware of sales and clearance events and try to take advantage of them.

A must-have in your summer associate wardrobe is at least one suit. While you most likely won’t have to wear a suit on most days, you should always have one in the office or at home in case you get asked to go to court or to attend a more formal, important meeting. Having a suit in the office provides you with flexibility in case something unexpected comes up. The most important factor to consider when choosing a suit is the fit. If you’ve held on to the same suit since your high school graduation, you probably need a new one. Think of a suit purchase not only as important for your summer associate experience, but also as an investment for your future career.

Because fit is so important, you should never buy a suit online—that’s a recipe for disaster. When looking for a reasonably priced suit and other work-appropriate clothing, outlet stores are a solid place to find designer suits at unbelievably cheap prices. Outlets usually have quite a decent selection and can be more than five times cheaper than clothing at other stores. If there’s no outlet store near you, try a Macy’s or Men’s Warehouse. Both these stores are great options for buying good quality suits at reasonable prices—and they have frequent sales. Remember: When choosing a suit, your goal is not to stand out but to fit in. Don’t buy an oddly colored suit or anything made of a shiny fabric that may distinguish you in the worst way.

For the Ladies

When it comes to dressing the part as both a summer associate and a lawyer, women have it a lot tougher than men. While men can usually get away with varying combinations of dress pants and button downs, women must carefully walk the line between what is considered acceptable and unacceptable. And the meaning of business casual is often even more unclear. That’s why it’s extremely important that you keep an eye on what other full-time female associates and partners are wearing. If they’re wearing it, that means it’s probably acceptable.

Do you feel your wardrobe is ready for a summer associate position? What do you think you need to add or update?

Nonetheless, you should still lean conservatively when putting outfits together. As a general rule, you should go for darker colors and tailored clothes. A sheath dress with a blazer or a cardigan and dark pantsuits are just two types of outfits that will help you blend in regardless of your firm’s dress code. Remember, your summer associate position is not the time to show off your fashion sense and your goal is not to be remembered for your cute outfits, but for your work product. Erring on the conservative side will ensure you won’t be memorable for all the wrong reasons.

When it comes to shoes, avoid open-toe styles and sandals. Heels are generally the norm at most firms, but don’t overdo it with four or five-inch heights. If you have a commute or have to walk in the city, it might be easier for you to leave a pair of heels at the office and change into them once you get there. If you need a break from heels or prefer flats, make sure your flats align with a professional look.

Just like the guys, you should have at least one dark suit in your wardrobe. A classic dark suit and a plain shirt work for more formal outings and court appearances. Whether you’re meeting a client or sitting in on a meeting with a partner, you can’t go wrong.

When shopping for a suit, cardigans, or dresses, don’t forget to price-check every item before you buy. A simple Google or Amazon search can help you make sure you’re getting the best price possible. Always look for and take advantage of sales and deal sites. Also, some stores offer discounts to law students, so always ask before you purchase if there’s some way you can save.

Sites like Ann Taylor and Loft frequently have sales and generally offer affordable, professional clothing that can build a base for your legal wardrobe. If you want designer clothes but don’t have the money in your budget, try Ebay and Poshmark. If you don’t mind wearing lightly used clothing and vet the vendors carefully, both of those sites can be great for finding well-made dresses at bang-for-your-buck prices.