Evans “Buddy” King
Tis the season (or tis at the time I’m writing this); decorating, shopping, caroling, etc. We all know the drill. The normal Christmas craziness.
It’s also the time for crazy things at my law office – mainly “good” crazy, but nonetheless crazy. Since the week before Thanksgiving, we have had a catered Thanksgiving luncheon, a Happy Hour hosted by the firm’s management committee, an offsite Christmas luncheon, an Ugly Sweater contest, an Ornament Exchange, a Cubicle and Hallway Decorating Competition, the trimming of the “Kozakewich tree” in memory of a deceased partner, and frequent unofficial “after hours” in various offices.
These have all been great in their own way – convivial, morale building, festive, nice respites from the drudgery of a business where the inventory is how many billable hours you put on the shelf in a year (thankfully I have moved past those days, but it IS the lifeblood of the business of the practice of law).
Yesterday took things to a new level, however, sort of a “work from home” on steroids. Yesterday at S & J was “Pajama Day”. Yes, everyone was encouraged (allowed?) to wear pajamas to work. And many did. I fought off the urge.
My normal nighttime attire is a pair of UVA lacrosse shorts and a long sleeve Red Sox tee shirt, so it was easy to explain why I came in my normal work clothes. And in full candor, this was mainly a staff event, although a number of the younger lawyers worked all day in their PJ’s. At times when walking through the halls I thought I was in line for the Polar Express.
It was inevitable that my thoughts turned to the way things were when I came to the firm straight out of law school in 1980. The firm founders – Phillip Steptoe and Louis Johnson (“The Colonel” – Secretary of Defense under President Truman) – were long gone, but many of the lawyers who were still around carried on their tradition of excellence – and formality. Suits were the “unofficial” uniform of the day. Our lawyers would have been more likely to come to the office in clown costumes than not wear a dark suit with a freshly pressed white shirt and tasteful tie. The few female lawyers then were equally conservative and professional in their dress.
About 13 years ago our firm moved into our current digs (in an office park of all things), deserting the old 12 story Union National Bank building in downtown Clarksburg where we had been housed for 97 years. So, the whispering and scowling of the ghosts of the likes of Herb Underwood and Ralph Bohannon and Ernie Swiger that surely occurred yesterday were probably more present in those abandoned hallways than in our new ones. But I assure you many came back from their graves.
Things have certainly changed over my years. Shortly before I began my career, my wife and I took a trip to a Jos A. Bank warehouse in Baltimore and I bought two gray suits (charcoal of course) and a couple of “power ties” of the day – maize and red. Eventually I accumulated over 200 ties and many suits, none of which I have worn much in the last five years. The suits have tended with the passage of time to shrink dramatically in my closet, as I discover on the occasions of funerals or court appearances I am forced to attend. And after a couple of spells of work from home forced by caregiving duties and Covid, ties became unnecessary.
I was a member of the first generation of S & J lawyers to shed their suit jackets while in the office (and to call their secretaries by their first names). I think it started with Bob Steptoe, grandson of one of our founders, and longtime leader of the firm. I found it not only uncomfortable to sit at a desk or in a conference room with a jacket on, but also expensive, it being much less a financial burden to replace a dress shirt than a suit when the elbows wore out. But I also remember the concern I had when walking down the hall in my nice, crisp white shirt sans jacket early in my days at the firm and senior partner Bob Steele saying, “oh, I didn’t realize we changed the dress code”.
A couple of apocryphal stories from those days.
Over time I had started to occasionally wear a sports coat (a blue blazer of course) and dress slacks, even khakis, to the office. My great 101-year-old friend Pete had a wonderful traditional men’s store in downtown Clarksburg in those days. His store rivaled the great ones of Charlottesville and Williamsburg where I had window shopped while in school. I walked into Pete’s place one day at lunch wearing a nice pair of khakis with my blue blazer and rep tie. Looking sharp and professional I thought. Pete looks me up and down and says, “Buddy, when did they start letting you wear jeans at the firm?” And he was serious – it was Southwick suit all the way in his world.
My other great “professional dress” story probably comes from the 1990’s. Bob Steptoe, a classy dresser if there ever was one, was our managing partner. He was approached by one of the younger lawyers who asked, “Can we have a casual day once a week, Bob?” Without blinking an eye, Bob’s response was, “We already do, we call it Saturday”. Nuf ced.
Oh, how far we’ve come.