Happy hours to formal balls: Decoding law school attire

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GUEST BLOG Makenzie Way,
1L at the University of Pennsylvania Law School

Being a law student inadvertently means you will be attending a variety of events – everything from firm happy hours to formal balls.

Unfortunately for our budgets each event carries with it a different dress code, meaning a trip to the mall may be in order. In an effort to make your shopping more streamlined, and your sanity levels remain in check when you get that event invitation indicating “cocktail formal” as the dress attire; I’ve compiled a list of the dress codes you’ll likely encounter, and the outfits to go with them (for both men and women).


Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean you show up in your favorite leggings or ripped jeans and t-shirt. You do still need to be presentable, but it does mean you can leave the blazer and dress pants at home.

Men can wear dark jeans or chinos with presentable shoes, such as deck shoes, and a polo shirt or knit sweater.

Women can similarly wear dark jeans, chinos, or a summer dress, with flat shoes or boots, and a plain top or sweater with minimal jewelry.

Business Casual

Normally reserved for networking happy hours, or day-time conferences, the business casual look is more rigid then the previously listed casual, but more flexible then business formal.

Men in these situations have two options. Option one includes chinos or dark jeans, suit jacket or tweed jacket paired with a dress shirt and business shoes or loafers. Option Two substitutes the casual pant for a dress pant and white dress shirt combo minus the jacket, and excluding a tie.

Women can likewise opt for a casual pant or skirt paired with a dress top, heels, and blazer, or can incorporate dress pants / pencil skirt with a dress shirt minus the blazer. Here women also have the option of wearing a semi-casual dress, with or without a blazer (according to the formality of the dress) paired with shoes.

Business Formal

You’ll encounter the business formal invite for a number of networking events, on campus interviewing, off campus interviews, or student organization events and galas.

Men should opt for a full suit (pants, jacket, dress shirt, dress shoes, matching belt, and tie). Suits should ideally be tailored to fit, and the belt should complement or match the shoes.

Women Should likewise wear a full suit with heels or fancy loafers. There are unfortunately pros and cons for pants suits v. skirt suits, and much will depend on the job you are aiming for, or the event you are attending. Many firms for instance prefer the “traditional” pencil skirt, I for one support the divergence from tradition and the blurring of gender lines so long as the suit is presentable and well fitting.


Most are aware of the cocktail formal dress code, and while you may think cocktail events are reserved for attorneys, I’ve attended a surprising amount of cocktail attire events during my 1L year.

Men should opt for a full suit in either black, charcoal, or navy. Again, the belt should match the shoes and cuff links may be worn for fashion purposes.

Women generally women will be safe with a “little black dress” paired with heels, a clutch and complimenting jewelry. If a dress doesn’t seem up your alley you can also opt for a fashion forward black pant suit, or a skirt and fancy top combo.

Cocktail Formal

Who knew cocktail formal even existed? I for one had to call my mom to get clarification on the difference between cocktail, cocktail formal, and formal attire. Though the difference is minimal, it is quasi important if you want to ‘fit in.’

Men, full black suits or fashion forward print suits, paired with dress shoes or statement loafers are the attire for these events.

Women can trade in the little black dress for a more fashion forward, formal gown. Long gowns would likely be going too far, however if you think short bridesmaid dress, or red carpet worthy outfits (excluding those long gowns) you’ll be on the right track. Again, clutches are appropriate, as are heels and complimentary jewelry.

Black Tie

Black tie events are rare, but if your school hosts a barrister’s ball you may encounter one of these.

Men will require a full tuxedo, including shoes, bow tie, and cuff links. Tuxedos generally require one week for advanced rentals, or up to a month if you plan to buy since hemming is required.

Women generally opt for a long gown, paired with heels, clutches, and complimentary jewelry. Again, plan to buy your dress early as you will likely need to hem based on your height and the height of your heels.


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