Courting confidence in the workplace

By Zoe Walker

Lawyer Merran Chisholm solves the workwear balance to blend practicality with elegance.

Senior Solicitor Merran Chisholm, wearing a dress from Ted Baker ($439). Photo / Babiche Martens
Senior Solicitor Merran Chisholm, wearing a dress from Ted Baker ($439). Photo / Babiche Martens

Who she is: Merran Chisholm, 38
What she does: Securities lawyer specialising in litigation, working in the public sector
What she wears: Court-appropriate suits, well-cut dresses that sit on the knee, touches of colour, groomed hair and makeup. Kate Sylvester, Ted Baker.

Senior solicitor Merran Chisholm's working wardrobe has evolved along with her career. She wore practical black suits and shirts while working as an insolvency accountant and moved to a formal approach for working at a law firm and appearing in court, "which has its own uniform in itself".

Without a lot of room to experiment with personal style, Chisholm says that the cut, style and fit of clothing became even more important, an approach to dressing for work that has stayed with her. Her current role as a securities lawyer, specialising in the enforcement of laws regulating the financial markets, allows her to wear more colour compared with the corporate blacks and navy blues of her past. She believes colour helps establish confidence and authority from the outset.

"The longer that you're in business, you realise that great leaders aren't wallflowers," says Chisholm. "They always stand out and they always dress with confidence."

How do you balance seriousness with stylishness?

It's about conveying an image of being sophisticated, but not over the top. There is a fine balance. I think if you're dressed in a sophisticated way you're more likely to act gracefully and use more refined language.

Dressing in a sophisticated way uses all the elements of cut, style, fit and colour in what you wear. I've decided that colour is important because I felt a bit constrained in the old days. I guess that balance is trying not to go over the top: if I'm wearing strong colours, I don't over-accessorise. You have to be subtle in other ways if you're going to do something that's quite bold.

Do you feel pressure to dress in a certain way to be taken seriously at work?

No, and I think that's probably because I'm more experienced. I think the pressure was more when I was younger; feeling pressured to look like every other lawyer. But now I feel like I know my trade and I don't feel that pressure to conform to a uniform.

What are the wardrobe no-nos for lawyers?

Having anything that's ill-fitting - being too baggy or tight. I think you can over-accessorise, too - big blingy necklaces or earrings are a no-no. Having your hair hanging around your face when you're in court or in a meeting; you need to have groomed hair. And one of my pet things is making sure that your fingernails look good. Lawyers always need to be recording their conversations with clients, or opposing lawyers, so you do take a lot of handwritten notes. I always notice when meeting with other lawyers whether they take care of their hands.

What does your working wardrobe consist of?

At the moment I really love wearing dresses. Well-cut dresses that have a defined waistline and come to the knee. I've never been able to afford a dress made by her, but I like Victoria Beckham's dresses with sleek, clean lines. And because it's so sleek and clean, you can add some strong colour to it. The dresses that I'm wearing a lot at the moment are from Kate Sylvester: my favourites are a turquoise-blue long-sleeve dress and a short-sleeved red embroidered floral dress, worn with a jacket. I love Ted Baker, too, because they do suits that are well-fitted and colourful.

How do you adapt your personal style to a conservative court environment?

It's about throwing on your dark-coloured skirt and blazer, and putting a bit of colour underneath. When you're appearing at the High Court you have a gown that you wear over the top, so anything that you're wearing is pretty much hidden. There are court guidelines about what should be worn to court: women in knee-length skirts and closed-toe shoes. I remember appearing in front of a judge who said to a younger lawyer 'Miss So-and-so, I cannot hear you, your earrings are distracting me'. So you do need to be careful about what you wear.

You do meet lawyers in ill-fitting suits who look scruffy. If you look dishevelled, I think before you even open your mouth you are going to be perceived as probably having a pretty scruffy legal argument too.

- VIVA

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