This story, as well as many other terrific ones can be found in Brad Fregger's book, One Shovel Full - Telling Stories to Change Beliefs, Attitudes, and Perceptions.
How I, Chihoe Hahn, Personally Changed the
Only in the most facetious manner could anyone, would anyone, so boldly assert (and open themselves to criticism from attorneys, no less) that he or she personally changed the dress code of the entire legal profession in America during the mid 1990ís. So I wonít, seriously. But, to the extent that anyone would suggest such a causal relationship, I do. And I do so not because I really believe it; truth is, Iím not sure. Instead, I think itís one way of explaining how a real mass change occurred: casual dress becoming the norm for big firm attorneys. Iím sure there are other far-fetched, equally implausible ways of explaining this change. But this is the only version that paints me as a folk hero. So hereís my story and Iím sticking to it.
The setting: mid 1990ís and the day of the great technology IPOís and merger and acquisition deals. Every deal and every client was going to change the world, and you really believed it (at least I did). I was a third year corpo-rate and securities attorney at one of the leading firms in Silicon Valley. (I wonít name names so as not to embarrass such a respected firm for hiring someone who would write something like this.) I wouldnít say I was climbing the ladder, itís more like I was a very small part of the ladderólike a fraction of a rungóworking long hours and doing whatever it took to get deals done.
During those days, everyone was expanding, and fast. Our law firm was growing, too Ė so much so that by the time we moved into our brand new, dedicated, state-of-the-art firm building (most local firms shared office buildings with other tenants), the firm had already outgrown it. That meant that Ė well, I donít know all the things that meant because I was only a lowly associate and wasnít privy to the partnersí thoughts Ė but what it ultimately meant was that some attorneys and staff had to leave our great, new firm digs and go back to the old offices. There simply was not enough room. Someone had to be "annexed."
As you can imagine, no one wanted to go. Going to the annex would mean limited interaction with other members of the firm, no quick trips to the new gourmet cafeteria in the new building, and no easy access to the mail room for FEDEX cutoff or to WP (the word processing department and, incidentally, my vote for the title to Grishamís next novel). But still, someone had to go. As fate would have it, the working group that I was in was chosen to be annexed. On the upside, it would mean a larger office. But on the downside, it meant less integration with the rest of the firm -- a definite negative. The fallout from the decision to send our group "over" did lead, however, to an attempt by the firm to make us "whole" to the extent possible. That meant personal assurances that we would not suffer from a career standpoint; we would still be able to work with other attorneys on various important projects, and we would not be "forgotten" when it was time to make partner.
This was very important for many of the others in my group; my perspective, however, was slightly different. Simply put, I was concerned primarily with the proposed perks. Starbucks coffee was a start Ė back then it was still a novelty and seemed strong. Our own frozen yogurt machine helped as well. But, for me, the real selling point was the promise that we could dress casually so long as we werenít meeting with clients. What? No suit? I could tack the tie to the old corkboard unless venturing out of my large office. That was enough. Deal. We would go; provided, however, that the aforementioned perks would be delivered in a timely manner.
The first day there we were greeted with a drawer full of gleaming foil Starbucks coffee packs, a new kitchen, nice big offices, frozen yogurt and the best view in town (a hint for you Silicon Valley aficionados). And, we were dressed casually. Ö Jason and I, that is (letís just call him Jason since that is his actual name). As it turned out, none of the other associates had come in that Monday in khakis or tie-less. My first thought was that I had somehow messed up, and that I would be reprimanded, socially and/or professionally. My annual review would start with, "Yeah, we said it would be casual, but you actually didnít wear a suit." Actually, casual dress had been going on informally (without a firm policy in place) for quite a while on Fridays. But this was a Monday. There we were, Jason and I, and not a suit betwixt or between us Ö well, you get the picture.
After a few stares and "youíre kidding me" looks from partners and associates, and some outright "youíre not gonna make partner" cackles by certain associates with names like "Jon," I quickly ducked into my office. Later that Monday morning, Jason (who had worn jeans!) and I went into his office, shut the door, and proceeded to discuss this serious matter. We sat there, comfortably in our casual clothes, and agreed not to give in, not to break under the pressure. We would both unwaveringly dress casually because it was more comfortable and, more importantly, because that was the deal.
It must have been two weeks before the next associate came in, on a Monday, in khakis. Later that same week, another associate turned, and then another. The following week, a partner without a tie appeared on the scene! Our "annex" was casual!
Word soon got out to the rest of the firm that we had gone casual. Firm wide, a few attorneys began to wear casual clothes on days other than Fridays. Soon, nearly every-one was casual. Next thing we knew, other firms in Silicon Valley, to stay competitive, were offering policies of casual dress. Soon after that, New York firms were going casual, etc., etc.
Now that the technology bubble has burst and the economy has slowed, firms are no longer doing everything they can to keep associates and continue growing. The leverage has probably changed, and Iím not sure what the dress code is currently.
In any case, thatís my story of how I (well, okay, Jason and I) changed the dress code of lawyers across the country. Is it flawed or incomplete? Yes. "Scientifically" or logically proven? Not close. And, finally, for all of you bold, courageous rebels out there who are considering writing your own stories and building your own place in the legal or corporate world, and doing things your way, just know this: I left the firm shortly thereafter, and I would never have made partner in a million years.
Copyright 2002, Chihoe Hahn. All rights reserved.