By Erin Binns.
Grab your wallet . . . it’s time to invest in your career. Qualifications and academic accomplishments alone don’t generate offers. You need to look the part, too. Legal employers value appearance and will judge you for it. If you opt not to wear a business suit to an interview, there’s a good chance that the interviewer may pass on you. What if the quality and fit of your suit looks cheap and unflattering, hair and nails aren’t groomed, and shoes and socks don’t convey a professional demeanor?
Adages like, “You’ll never get a second chance to make a great first impression” are tossed about so commonly in the context of interviewing it’s easy to dismiss the message’s importance. Research has established that first impressions are formed quickly and with indelibility, and that after we form impressions, we work to affirm them. How you present yourself and your documents during job searches and early employment matters. Invest accordingly.
I spoke with several students to get input on needs and experiences in obtaining interview essentials. The amount you ultimately spend will be contingent on personal circumstances such as whether you already own a professional wardrobe, the location of your job search, etc., but the average student should budget for wardrobe expenses. The expenses will vary depending on your location’s cost of living, access to various retailers, and definition of professional attire. Be prepared to spend several hundred dollars on the basics. Look for opportunities to save money and be a cost-conscious consumer.
There are five expense categories for which you’ll need to budget: attire, accessories, personal grooming, travel, and application materials.
Interview attire is foundational to building a first impression and isn’t the place to cut corners. Cheap fabrics and ill-fitted suits will be noticed and give you the appearance of playing the character of a lawyer rather than being a lawyer. You can’t borrow a suit; it needs to be tailored to you. Having said that, you don’t need to head off to a clothier and invest thousands in a custom suit. You can buy off the rack. The key to doing so and looking good is fabric and tailoring.
Men and women should start their wardrobe with two suits in dark colors that are traditional in cut and style. One student shared, “I bought two suits the week before starting my 1L year because I assumed I would need them during the interview process eventually in law school—the cost of which were $600 (buy one for $400 get the second suit half off).” If you don’t anticipate significant interviewing in the immediate future, you don’t have to invest in the two suits at the same time.
Often, tailoring is including in a suit’s cost or an additional service available at a small additional cost. Where the suit doesn’t include tailoring, or it is not available, hiring a private tailor can add an expense of $50 to 100.
Dress shirts and blouses can change the way a suit looks. It’s recommended that you buy three shirts/blouses as foundational pieces.
Shoes, belts, leather portfolios, ties, jewelry, socks, hosiery, and handbags make the list of accessories. This category of expenses includes the “must haves” like quality leather shoes to the preferences of individuals. Expect to spend a good amount of money on shoes regardless of gender. Select a color of leather that works with both suits.
Leather portfolios for use in interviews are also must-have items. A sleek portfolio compliments a professional look.
Expenses unique to women include the purchase of four to six pairs of hosiery and a leather handbag/tote to use for interviews that would carry their portfolio, keys, and other essentials.
Men need color-coordinated dress socks and two to six ties. A leather belt that matches the color of leather of a man’s shoes is another essential item. There was a trend in male respondents noting that they “permanently borrowed” belts from roommates. This approach may not be the best. Beyond the impact on your friendship, if your waist sizes are different, the belt will show wear at more than one notch, which is tacky.
Students took different approaches to hair, with one male buying a $30 clipper set to maintain “a smooth head” to another gentleman investing in a $50 haircut during each week of the peek interview season. He noted that, “A haircut is one of the most underrated expenses. Your haircut says just about everything a person needs to know about you and often times it can give you a boost of confidence that is quite noticeable to others.” Confidence is key when interviewing, so if a haircut generates it, so be it! Sarah shared that she paid $200 for a cut and color prior to fall recruitment season, which was comparative to other female students.
Eyebrow grooming and manicures were on the list of nearly every woman and averaged $30 (without tip) per service. Women also shared their investment in make-up. The average expense was $75 for women updating makeup to achieve a day-time professional look.
Add dry cleaning to your list of expenditures for personal maintenance. Shirts and blouses should be laundered and pressed regularly when interviewing frequently. Suits do not need to be dry cleaned as regularly. Dry cleaning service costs range significantly based on location, so do investigate to properly account for this expense.
Planes, trains, and automobiles should be budgeted for as well. Travel expenses had the greatest variance amongst job seekers. Students focusing on out-of-state employers incurred high costs of air travel and car rentals. Students with more local job searches incurred expenses for subway tickets, gas, or parking fees. In the context of second interviews at larger firms, travel may be expensed by the interviewing employers, but outside of fall recruitment employers, the cost of travel belongs to the interviewing student.
Travel was an area students admitted they didn’t think much about in advance with the exception of those booking flights. Gas and parking costs add up unexpectedly.
Documents and correspondence
Résumé paper, coordinating envelopes, labels, and postage averaged about $50 total. The reliance on electronic applications defrays this cost but etiquette still calls for having hard copies of application materials on hand and printed thank-you letters being mailed.
Job searches are expensive, especially when balanced with tuition and books. Identify your expenses based on the scope and circumstances of your job search and plan accordingly. Advanced budgeting can minimize the wallop a job search has on your finances while ensuring you’re presenting your best professional self. n
Cost-saving and budget-friendly tips
- Budget in advance and shop early so the expenses can be incurred over several months
- Shop stores having sales on professional attire or shop outlet stores of high-end clothiers so you can have the look of quality on a student-loan budget
- Add the items you need to birthday and holiday gift lists
- Invest in one high-quality pair of shoes (rather than several cheap pair) and care for the shoes with polish and cleaning to extend their life
- Diversify your look with shirts/blouses, ties, and jewelry, which can cost less than suits
- Spot-clean suits to minimize dry cleaning costs
- When possible women should purchase coordinating jackets, skirts, and pants to generate different looks with minimal pieces
- Borrow a leather handbag or leather portfolio from a family member or friend if the items are in good condition
A Quick Look at Attire Expenses
Because attire costs vary by location, Student Lawyer used Amazon.com to develop the range students could expect when making their budget.
- Suits: $150–600
- Dress shirts: $20–50
- Belts: $20–50
- Shoes: $50–120
- Ties: $25–70
- Socks: $15–30
- Portfolios: $20–50
- Suits: $120–500
- Dress Shirts: $30–60
- Belts: $20–50
- Shoes: $40–150
- Hosiery: $10–40
- Portfolios: $20–50
- Handbags: $35–120
Erin Binns is director of career planning at Marquette University Law School.
Vol. 42 No. 8