How The White-Shoe Law Firm Got Its Name

May is here and with it the season of white bucks, the Ivy wardrobe item that lent its name to the term “white shoe,” usually applied to a law or financial firm that hired WASPy guys from elite universities and catered to an Old Money clientele.

In 1997, language expert William Safire wrote an essay in the New York Times on the origins of the term white shoe:

The source is white ”bucks,” the casual, carefully scuffed buckskin shoes with red rubber soles and heels worn by generations of college men at Ivy League schools. Many of these kids, supposedly never changing their beloved footgear, went on to become masters of the universe on Wall Street and in the best-known law firms.

In its early days, the adjective was used in an envious, resentful way by those with less-privileged backgrounds; now it is either a dispassionate description of elitism or a passionate derogation of old-fogeyism. However, some of the nouveau-riche derogators of the old-line firms are classed by a different and more expensive shoe, the loafer with a brass link ornament made by the Gucci firm in Italy. In Washington, K Street, where many lobbyists make their headquarters, is known as ”Gucci Gulch.”

The Economist has also examined the archaic term “white shoe,” noting:

I was tempted to put “white-shoe” on our journalese blacklist, but I’ll hold off, and just file it under frozen terms. There isn’t a great replacement for it. The term used to hint at WASPishness, the kind of place that didn’t promote Jews, but times have thankfully changed. Still, the term wraps up not just prestigious professional-service and financial firms, but big, old, east-coast and fairly traditional ones. It’s faster to write “white-shoe” than “big, old, east-coast and fairly traditional.” So despite the fact that you’re more likely to see casual-Friday khakis than a white pair of shoes on a man at a white-shoe firm, we’ll give “white shoe” a pass.

In “Franny and Zooey,” JD Salinger has a character speak this line, which Salinger wrote in 1957:

“Phooey, I say, on all white-shoe college boys who edit their campus literary magazines. Give me an honest con man any day.”

For more on how the term “shoe” was used during the heyday, see this piece.  — CC

38 Comments on "How The White-Shoe Law Firm Got Its Name"

  1. Thanks. Count me as punctilious–I put away my white bucks Saturday morning. The dirty bucks went, too!
    Regards,
    Don

  2. Because of the fact that they murdered my heels, my new white bucks did not get nearly enough wear over the summer, so I will be keeping them in the rotation until it snows.

    The atrocious Gucci bit loafer is ubiquitous in the financial industry as well, where guys love to accent their dress primarily with superfluous metal. The sonic effect of the shoe is akin to the jangling of a spur on a cowboy boot, or more like the jangling of a bell around a cats neck, which is appropriate, as people need to be warned of approaching investment bankers for roughly the same reasons that squirrels need to be warned of approaching cats.

  3. Good story on the term. I love that stuff. I also must say, as a Washingtonian, “Gucci Gulch” is a very apt description of K Street.

  4. As someone who attends an ancient 8 I can remember one occasion when I saw a pair of white bucks and they were worn my buddy’s father who was also sporting a seersucker suite.

  5. ignorancearbitrage | September 6, 2011 at 6:17 pm |

    Interestingly, “white shoes” also appear in Lorraine Hainsberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun,” when Walter Younger meets with George Murchison (played by Louis Gossett, Jr in the 1961 film), a college student from a prominent black family who is dating his sister:

    “Walter (looking Murchison over from head to toe, scrutinizing his carefully casual tweed sports jacket over cashmere V-neck sweater over soft eyelet shirt and tie, and soft slacks, finished off with white buckskin shoes). Why all you college boys wear them faggoty-looking white shoes?”

    He continues by raising the point that white shoes in the fall/winter Chicago climate are ridiculous.

    Interesting how all the class resentments are condensed in the white bucks.

  6. Interesting post, that I enjoyed. What are some brands of the white bucks?

  7. Hmmm, I always have pushed my usage of white bucks into the fall and usually retire them about the same time as I put away the coloured chinos (mid to late october) I appreciate the knowledge that I am not alone in wearing them past labour day as summer just isn’t long enough.

  8. To ‘Blake’: If you’d like a really nice pair of white bucks, you can go with these by Crockett & Jones from Ben Silver:

    http://www.bensilver.com/The-Bermuda-White-Buck,1660.html

    I just bought a pair at half price ($148.00) at Brooks. For as much use as they will get from me, these are fine but they’re going fast:

    http://www.brooksbrothers.com/IWCatProductPage.process?Merchant_Id=1&Section_Id=494&Product_Id=1533388&Parent_Id=305&default_color=White

    Crockett & Jones are made in England and the Brooks version come from China.

  9. Used to wear the white bucks in the late 1970’s and early 80’s, never to the office. I never saw anyone wearing them. However, I never worked for a prestige accounting firm. They indeed were very sharp with seersucker slacks. (I could never get comfortable with the whole seersucker suit.) I quit wearing the white bucks when my sister-in-law rolled her eyeballs at me while I was wearing them, and she worked for Merrill Lynch. Obviously, no one at her office wore them.

    I read that in his early days of golf, (1910’s or 20’s) Walter Hagen wore red soled white shoes for golf. A real dandy for his era, I would guess he wore white bucks. I don’t know whether shoes for golf could be bought with spikes or one had to add them himself. Golf shoes with spikes became popular in the 1930’s. (I believe Johnson and Murphy Aristocrafts were the ultimate. Cheers!

  10. Puff Daddy played Walter in the TV version. When my grandmother saw it she says “He does not need the money.” in reference to Puff. shes 86

  11. Thank God! I finally have a definition for this term, which seems ubiquitous in articles and legal thrillers. I could not imagine ANY lawyer wearing such casual shoes, which seemed to me to go only with a seersucker suit!

    It never made sense to me, but the lawyers I worked for were Senior Executive Service Government types. The most casual shoe I ever saw any of them wear was an eyelet style Oxford!

  12. Then there’s the brown-shoe Army – i.e. pre-1960. In Vietnam, those were our colonels and sergeant majors.

  13. Mitch McDonald | July 2, 2012 at 9:02 pm |

    I long for the day after law school to become a white buck wearing attorney. Until then I guess a buck collegiate I will be.

  14. A US Navy officer wearing brown shoes is a pilot. Everybody else has to wear black shoes (and socks!) with their khaki uniforms.

  15. Henry, I thought the US armed forces all went black shoes after WWII.

  16. MAC,

    Sorry for the late response. I am involved with the US military professionally, and see military personnel (all branches) daily. While most non-boot shoes are black patent leather bluchers (blech), the Navy, as always, does things differently. In the Navy, pilots wear brown shoes with their khaki pants & shirts, while everyone else wears black shoes & socks with the same outfit. (Pilot’s socks match, more or less, the pants.) Pilots (and flight crews) may also wear leather jackets. Everybody else has to wear black fabric bomber jackets with their khakis.

    Black and khaki: what an awful combination!

  17. All black shoes (and accessories) were mandated by Secretary of Defense McNamara in the 60s. Navy aviation did not comply. As a Marine, I had to replace all of my brown belts, sword frogs, chin bands, visors, gloves as well as oxblood shoes with black. The expense of replacement was borne by the individual. The Secretary’s response was, “Buy black dye”.

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  19. Today’s NYTimes makes reference to white shoe law firms for Christie so I guess it is currently used…….

  20. Scott Sherk | July 21, 2016 at 12:17 pm |

    Today the NYT published a column by Louise Story (on Maylasian embezzlement) in which is stated “…at the white-shoe law firm Shearman & Sterling.”

  21. Stasia Newell | March 22, 2018 at 3:35 pm |

    Apparently,Donald Trump is finding it increasingly difficult to find a “white shoe law firm” to defend him. March 22,2018.

  22. Another NYT use, re the House v Trump: “…To handle the mounting workload, the House’s general counsel, Douglas Letter, a former Justice Department litigator, and his staff of seven lawyers have increasingly relied on volunteer lawyers at white-shoe law firms and at public interest groups — including several prominent veterans of the Obama legal team — to help research and draft court filings…”

  23. whiskeydent | May 5, 2020 at 1:34 pm |

    They’re sometimes called “deep rug” law firms in Texas.

  24. Charlottesville | May 5, 2020 at 2:19 pm |

    Only 20 more days until my white bucks can be safely unpacked along with the seersucker, madras, linen and the like. And, hopefully, soon we will all have someplace other than the back yard to wear them. But like Wriggles says above, not to the office.

    I wore bucks a lot when I was in school, but they were still fairly standard informal wear with seersucker, linen, “reds” and tan poplin suits before seeming to fade away in the early aughts. But after a few years when I felt like I was the only one wearing them they made a comeback, around here, Washington and NY anyway. There are also colored versions available from Brooks and others. Tan and brown are fairly standard, of course, but I think a light blue or faded brick red pair could look quite nice with the right outfit, although I’ll probably stick with white.

  25. MacMcConnell | May 5, 2020 at 3:23 pm |

    I’ve got Walkover white bucks, Walkover dirty bucks (tan), Polo white buck / brown saddles, Polo dirty buck and brown saddles, white suede Topsiders, Cole Haan white buck penny loafers and Cole Haan tan leather and white spectator penny loafers. Think maybe growing up in the South had some effect on me? 😉

    Forgot, I also have Polo brown suede wings and Polo brown suede spectators.

    Shoe fetish maybe.

  26. Charlottesville | May 5, 2020 at 3:34 pm |

    MacMcConnell – I confess that I can match you almost shoe for shoe, except for the buck and spectator pennies, over which I am struggling with covetousness. I am also southern and probably in need of professional help.

  27. john carlos | May 5, 2020 at 4:30 pm |

    Charlottesville and MacMcConnell- I can’t come close with respect to the Bucs or the Spectator’s. But I have about a dozen pair of Alden pennies and tassels. Also, count em , four (4) pair of Alden shell cordovans. Not to mention five pair of Rancourt and three pair of boat shoes. I’m from San Antonio which I consider the South. Maybe if we scheduled a group therapy session, we could get a discount?

  28. Trevor Jones | May 5, 2020 at 4:50 pm |

    This is fascinating. I love learning the etymology of these things; interesting how it fits into the cultural milieu.
    Admittedly, I think bucks look clunky, especially on my small body/small feet. However, I adore spectator and saddle shoes and just found a great score on eBay: great condition early 80’s brown and white spectator shoes, labeled for Polo but benchmade in England.

  29. Charlottesville | May 5, 2020 at 5:12 pm |

    John Carlos — Sounds like you have the bug as well. Maybe the white shoes are a mainly southern thing these days: the bucks stop here. But that doesn’t explain our collections of penny loafers, tassels, captoes, and in my case multiple pairs of longwings in smooth calf, pebble and cordovan. Maybe its’s just a function of 30+ years of being interested in clothes and buying well-made shoes. Like my Brooks and Press suits and sport coats from the late 80s and 90s, they seem to last forever. A little while ago I slipped on a pair of camp mocs that I keep in the mud room to walk to the mailbox in the rain, and I am sure they must be 40 years old. Well worn, but still sound. My wife has a pair of Bean camp mocs from the 90s that she still wears at least once a week.

  30. Californian | May 5, 2020 at 5:13 pm |

    The closest I get to “white bucks” is birch CVO.

  31. MacMcConnell | May 5, 2020 at 5:16 pm |

    Trevor Jones
    If they are the Polo English made spectators with the leather soles or with the lug soles? Either way they are great shoes.

  32. john carlos | May 5, 2020 at 5:27 pm |

    Charlottesville- I think you are correct about accumulation over many years of well made things. I think I’m a little older than you (I’m 70) so I’ve had a little more time to fill my closets. I know what you mean. I’ve got a 3/2 sack from BB that is 35-40 years old which I wore to my oldest daughter’s wedding two years ago. It still looks great as do my old BB OCBD”S and my my almost 40 year old Alden shell cordovan cap toes. I developed an interest in trad clothing in high school in the mid 1960’s that has never gone away.

  33. MacMcConnell | May 5, 2020 at 5:52 pm |

    john carlos
    When I lived in San Antone in I owned two pairs of shoes, original Logan Weejuns and Jack Purcell sneakers. That was 57 years ago, but I still wear and buy both today.

    Don’t get me started on boat shoes. I’ve got a disgusting pair of Polo Kelly green boat shoes. Of course they were on sale, there was a table full of them at the Chicago Polo Shop back in the early 80’s. They are perfect for an Irish guy on St Pats. I’ve only worn them 40 time in 40 years.

  34. Trevor Jones | May 5, 2020 at 6:31 pm |

    @Mac,
    Looked a little closer at the description. I thought they were lightly used, but it turns out they are brand new and in the box which is pretty rare for something almost 40 years old. English bench made indeed, they have the lug souls. Can’t believe I got such a well-made, good looking shoe that I’ve been searching for a while for at such a price

  35. john carlos | May 5, 2020 at 7:12 pm |

    MacMcConnell- I recounted the boat shoes, camp mocs and ranger mocs in my closet: 10 pair.

  36. Birch CVO’s are great.

  37. It’s when white bucks are actually ‘white’ (the shade) that they lose the effect (cool). Aren’t they supposed to be so absolutely filthy that they are, to the eye, a shade of tan? Or, if I may, “birch”?

  38. Charlottesville | May 6, 2020 at 10:43 am |

    John Carlos – You have me beaten on boat shoes by a few pairs, but I know what you mean about the old suits. I’m wearing a Brooks 3/2 sack suit (navy, chalk-stripe Golden Fleece flannel) in the office today that dates to the late 80s. I imagine that the shirt and tie, also Brooks, are almost as old; certainly the tie is. We’re having unusual weather for May, 50s with rain this morning, so the flannel feels good. Black Allen Edmonds long wings of more recent vintage for shoes are keeping the feet dry. They all still look as good as new. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for the wearer. I resisted the urge to wear my newly acquired vintage BB bowler, though. Traditional, even old fashioned, is one thing, but costumes are a bit much for a Wednesday in the office.

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