Attention Idiot Lawyers: Business Casual Explained

Every summer there’s one phrase floating around law firms that causes a great deal of stress, confusion and annoyance for the horde of twentysomethings starting their first professional job. No, not “law firm hot”—I’m talking about “business casual.” Even for seasoned attorneys, its meaning can be harder to pin down than “substantive due process.”

Business casual causes so many problems because people want to define it in isolation.  However, to truly understand this fashion limbo you have to think of it in relation to two other dress codes: Business formal and dressy casual.

You tell a man to dress business formal, and he knows to wear a suit and a tie.  It’s an instinct that’s in our DNA.  We know to wear a suit the same way we know to defer our kick-or-receive decision to the second half.

Women, on the other hand, seem to have a bit of trouble with business formal.  Sorry, I’ve witnesses it plenty of times, so it has to be said.  I’ll let you blame it on the fact that women have way too many more clothing options than men.  But really, we know if you mess up business formal, it’s for the same reason you’re still wondering, “Second half of what?”

Ladies, business formal means a suit.  A suit means a jacket and either pants or a skirt that are cut from, literally, the same bolt of cloth.  It’s more than a jacket and bottom that match.  They must be the exact same cloth.  End of discussion.

Dressy casual, however, is a look women have a lot easier time assembling. Women will be out the door and billing hours while men are still contemplating whether a polo shirt is acceptable. The polo probably isn’t dressy enough, but. . . I don’t know . . . it really depends on the situation. What month is it?  Am I below the Mason Dixon Line? Maybe not a good idea for the office, but what about for just dressy casual in general? Does it help that it’s Lacoste and not Express? And, if one polo is acceptable…what about two?

Long after we’ve settled debates over the designated hitter and which Godfather movie was best, we still won’t know the full range of situations in which a polo shirt is okay.  For now, let’s presume it’s off limits at work, even though I’ve seen it done and no one cared.  A good rule of thumb: It’s “business casual” and not “going-out-of-business casual.”

Dressy casual is business casual’s doppelganger.  It’s a pair of pants that could have been from a suit paired with a nice collared shirt.  It’s what you might wear to church or to meet your significant other’s parents.  It’s dangerously close to business casual, but they are completely different creatures.  Dressy casual is nothing more than nice clothes that fall short of being formal wear.

The way to tell the difference between dressy casual and business casual is how the two outfits are created.  Dressy casual goes from the bottom up.  You start with one dressy piece of clothing in your closet, find another that matches, and you’re pretty much done.

Business casual takes a top-down approach.  You start with business formal, and then strip away the jacket.  And then maybe the tie.  It’s not just nice clothes; it’s half of a suit.  The heart and soul of the business-casual look is that you can add to it and create business formal.  Business casual means if you’re suddenly asked to meet with a client or accompany a partner to court, you may need to “get dressed” by putting on a jacket and tie, but you won’t need to change clothes.

If you do not have the matching jacket on a hanger somewhere, you are not wearing business casual, you are wearing dressy casual.

The truth is you probably can get away with dressy casual when there’s a business-casual dress code.  You’re not going to be invited to a surprise client meeting because, let’s face it, the recession means there just aren’t a lot of clients left. But, the recession also means you have to be extra careful not to give your firm any excuse to give you a no-offer, or to pull your offer when they realize down the line that they over-hired. You don’t want to be the summer associate who had to turn down accompanying a partner to court because you didn’t have the right clothes that day.

Keep the extra jacket in your office. Men, be sure you have a couple neutral-colored ties in your desk, just in case. And ladies, if you change shoes to commute, you do it outside of the office, in the morning before you enter the building, and after you’ve left in the evening. Sure, maybe your desk is only thirty feet from the elevator and odds are no one will see. But, imagine you bump into a partner who starts up a conversation right then. Do you really want to explain why you’re wearing flip-flops in the office?  Do you really want to explain why you’re doing OCI again?

Bitter Staff is a collection of current and former editors, contributors, and various other lawyers who have written for Bitter Lawyer over the years. Posts include interviews, contests, and other general lawyerly and bitter content.

29 Comments

  1. Guano Dubango

    June 1, 2010 at 3:29 am

    You are right, it is complicated. My Aunt Ooona sent me a gold tribal dashiki which belonged to her grandfather when I passed the NY Bar and reminded me of its formal ceremonial usage.  Because of its rich colouring, I decided to wear the dashiki to the firm’s dinner dance last February which was held at the Hilton.  I had great difficulty gaining entry into the hotel’s lobby.  I was told that there was a problem verifying my identity.  I did finally gain entrance, and was able to enjoy the end of the meal of chicken, which was not good anyway.  One of the younger women assistants spilled some wine on my dashiki while I was dancing, so she offered to clean it for me.  She still has not removed the stain from it, but she has otherwise been very nice to me.

  2. KateLaw

    June 1, 2010 at 5:34 am

    A dashiki?  Haha.  If anything, you gotta give Guano props for his commitment to the role.

    I get to wear dressy casual everyday and jeans on Friday.  The only time I wear a suit is for interviews and meetings with Senior VPs.  It’s awesome.  This post is funny… who knew BL1Y was such a fashionista?!

  3. Rick

    June 1, 2010 at 6:19 am

    Good piece!

  4. The Namby Pamby

    June 1, 2010 at 6:24 am

    I’m heading into court wearing a onesie with your website address on it. 
    That’s litigation casual…right?

  5. Untucked in LA

    June 1, 2010 at 8:23 am

    I am upset with BL1Y:  The tryanny of dress codes is the product of wealthy families with personality disorders from attending one too many cotillions as children.  Like the anal mom that wants all the preschoolers to wear “a divine little hat from bergdorf,” instead of letting the kids make their own.  I too was excited to put on my first suit (“look! I’m a professional!”).  But in LA we grow up to learn that life spent dry cleaning, tailoring, buying ties, cuff links, (trouser cuffs or no cuffs?) is wasted life.  So is standing in premature-geezer-induced paralysis at a rack of polo shirts.  My outfit now? Jeans and an untucked shirt. Running shoes.  No coat to take off; no tie to get stained.  Today, wearing a suit means you are someone’s bitch: expected to be on time and attentive–like litigators talking to a moronic judge.  I see guys my age in suits and i think “copy machine repairman.” Or “new lawyer.” And I must say its typical: law practice is eroding; clients are shrinking; lawyers everywhere are unemployed…and we have lawyers biting their nails about what Izod, polo or brioni to wear. Or lecturing women about what to wear. “Let’s dress them all up alike!” I swear, its like the last days of Singapore, with english clubs insisting on full dress code, or WWI generals insisting on having a clean sword and polished boots. Here is common sense: most new lawyers are not well off; they didn’t grow up memorizing the “Rules for Casual Dress” at the Club. Cut them a break and find something else to worry about. They’ll figure it out soon enough.

  6. Big Jim

    June 1, 2010 at 8:42 am

    Go get em Untucked!  I agree.  the sloppier you dress, the more powerful you are.  But wait a sec… What if you’re not powerful yet?  Then what?  BL1Y’s piece actually addresses that class of lawyer—the ones who work for firms and can’t dictate the terms of their fashion!

  7. BL1Y

    June 1, 2010 at 8:44 am

    Kate: I have personalized, signed copies of all three of Nina Garcia’s books.  I couple years ago I got to talk to her about commuter shoes.  Yeah, bit of a fashionista.

  8. Sarcasmus

    June 1, 2010 at 11:08 am

    Hated this so much, I crapped on a cashmere sweater just to vent my annoyance.  Worrying about what to wear is for fussy chicks and firemen.  Period.

  9. Chick Litigator

    June 1, 2010 at 6:58 pm

    Must be a really slow week in the BitterLawyer news room if we’re getting fashion advice from BL1Y. If I felt like reading a fashion blog at the moment (which I do on occassion), I would have.

  10. Alma Federer

    June 2, 2010 at 3:13 am

    I cannot believe that we are discussing business casual, when the GORES are getting divorced.  I really like Tipper.  I think there should be an article devoted to the Gores, since he invented the Internet, and works for Apple and Google.  I have an I-PHONE and use Google, so I am sad today about this.  I also do NOT dress casual at work.  Fooey on this.

  11. Untucked in LA

    June 2, 2010 at 7:44 am

    Ha! I rest my case: Alma opposes business casual, which is all that need be said. But to pile it on:
    Law firms dithering over “business casual” are dinosaurs:  I bet they wore suits at GM’s headquarters, Goldman Sachs and Enron too.  But not at Apple. Not when Microsoft was starting.  Howard Hughes, henry ford and John Paul Getty didn’t wear suits when they were starting .  Law Students foolishly seeking to join places that make wearing the right Izod a priority over hard work and business generation (I am all in favor of wearing suits to see clients), deserve no sympathy for their blindness.

  12. Aunt Ooona

    June 2, 2010 at 8:37 am

    Guano, I tol you not to wear the dashiki. Its for big barrel chested men, suave menacing men, or diminutive, little men at the UN.  But only look good on first two. You are middle aged, medium height, and it look as silly on you as a gold medallion. An next time a woman spill wine on you, tell her she has to get you out of the wet clothes and see what she does. Be bold my son. An get rid of that dashiki .

  13. Wow

    June 2, 2010 at 12:32 pm

    Looks like your grammar has taken a backseat to your understanding of fashion.
    From paragraph 4: “I’ve witnesses it plenty of times, so it has to be said.”

  14. Anonymous

    June 3, 2010 at 10:47 am

    You’ve got such a hawk eye, wow.  Did pointing that out make you feel cool?

  15. LA Untucked

    June 3, 2010 at 5:45 pm

    Well faithful readers, there you have it: should you take career advice from these people? (a) one owns signed Nina Garcia books (“The One Hundred: A Guide to the Pieces Every Stylish Woman Must Own,” and “The Fashion Black Book” or something like that), (b) another wears a Dashiki to a firm party, has wine spilled on it and is too nice to bludgeon the offending woman associate into a Matt Richardson encounter, or (c), Alma “I wear the same stuck up clothes you’d expect and Fooey on you,” Federer.  So one without a job, two without bed partners, and all three living in fear of wearing the wrong shirt.  Or would you rather be like Sharon Stone, who became famous by forgetting her underwear on the way to a police investigation?  Or JFK who stopped wearing hats? or me?  I don’t wear dashiki’s, didn’t know who Nina Garcia was (but I will drop her name now on dates), and wear new Balance shoes with jeans.  Trust me: you’ll be happier by being the renegade thats hows up at a firm partyy without the standard shirt and slacks.

  16. Dan

    June 3, 2010 at 5:51 pm

    Are we gonna get some new content? This has been up all week.

  17. Anonymous

    June 4, 2010 at 2:38 am

    LA untucked is pretty cool.  He would do better if some nice woman could service him, though.

  18. Betty R

    June 5, 2010 at 8:05 pm

    BL1Y, I come to this site for entertainment!  I don’t want to be instructed in New York clone attire.  At least we have Guano.

  19. Leo

    June 8, 2010 at 12:47 am

    Good article. Check out <a href=http://lawriot.com>Law Riot</a>.

  20. LA Untucked

    June 8, 2010 at 12:09 pm

    not cool just comfortable. I do need a woman almost as bad as Guano right now though.

  21. Jack O'Beanstalk

    June 11, 2010 at 4:59 am

    I thought LA Untucked was gay.  Who knew?

  22. Phinx

    June 13, 2010 at 8:40 pm

    Well, women can essentially wear anything they want, and generally they do.  I have been in court, COURT, and watched as a judge chews out a woman that refuses to wear anything even resembling professional clothing.  This is a regular occurrence….with the judges that care.  See, half the judges just ignore it, so you will still see that most women won’t wear suits even in court. 
    The general rule seems to be if the woman is under 30, and sometimes if she is over actually, she wants to wear less clothing.  The older more professional women will wear suits and then are frequently the only ones that will say anything and actually do anything.  If a man does say or do something, frequently he gets hit with a sexual harassment charge.
    Now this wouldn’t be so terrible, if us men didn’t have to wear the suits all the time.  This is where it becomes a problem, because women don’t wear much in the way of clothing they are busy constantly complaining that it is “too cold.” Rather than put on a sweater, or, gasp, actual clothing, they instead will try to turn the heat up.
    This of course fucks us men over, because wearing a suit or even just a long sleeved shirt generates quite a bit of heat.  We can not simply start peeling off layers of clothing either.
    Now I don’t know what the solution is, because for some reason the obvious ones of either forcing women to wear professional clothing or allowing men to not wear professional clothing are for some reason out of the question.  Apparently instead, we will have to start giving men some sort of personal air conditioning device that they can take with them, or give women some sort of equivalent heating device.
    Or we can just continue watching the economy crumble until nobody has a job at all.  I suppose that one will work too.

  23. Betty R

    June 15, 2010 at 6:26 am

    Phinx, that was funny – funnier than this article.

  24. biglaw assoc

    June 18, 2010 at 8:41 am

    Oh please.  So if a partner sees me in the hallway in my walking shoes, with my bag on my shoulder, obviously coming up from the subway, it’s a thing?  We have a gym in our building too, and I’ve seen plenty of people going back and forth between their offices and the gym in workout clothes.  Overall, the tone of this is pretty ridiculously overwrought.  You’d be better off telling juniors to stop listening to their ipods while they do doc review – that’s a bigger hurt if a partner sees it than the rattiest pair of sneakers.

  25. Japan

    June 24, 2010 at 3:57 am

    Funny take on business casual. Another funny article is that Japanese couples now say <a href=”http://www.socialnews.biz/LawLaughs”>I no longer do</a>

  26. Real World Advice For Summer Associates from SOG

    June 30, 2010 at 10:34 am

    In the absence of new posts, I offer this helpful list to our brothers and sisters starting their summer associate positions. (It has nothing to do with business casual clothing). 
    ONE: never, ever bad mouth the firm or its partners or senior associates anywhere at any time. Ever. Look what happened to Megan Fox after she compained about the director of Transformers.  Do not do what I did: make fun of the firm’s proposed summer retreat in the library late at night on the “certainty” that no one but “us guys” were here. As I finished lampooning the firm’s tennis playing partners, one walked out from behind a stack of books laughing. I stopped laughing. So did everyone else as they immediately looked down at their papers, leaving me …alone.  So remember, if you blab, your summer associate competitors will repeat it; or it’ll be too delicious for some blundering fool not to repeat. And don’t think we partners won’t love hearing it!  But you’ll lose points for being a smart ass, ingrate or snot.  TWO: Ask questions right away if you do not understand a project: ask them after you prepare a list of questions that sound like you have something reasonably focused to ask; do not delay in asking; nothing is worse than waiting in fearful misery as a deadline approaches, while you dawdle over asking a question because you think someone will consider you an idiot; as time passes it becomes obvious that you really need an answer and you should have asked it right away–but now you’re afraid to ask because because its so late in the process, and you look like a moron for not asking!  Meanwhile the people that asked are busy finishing up. Questions do not matter; timely completion does and that assumes it what the partner wants. The only stupid question is the unasked one. Get it?  THREE: do not make passes at women/men in the firm no matter how attractive they are. It will tar you with some group–women, older men–and will hurt you.  Even if we obviously find you attractive and its reciprocal, don’t!  FOUR: don’t be the greedy slob that orders the most expensive bottle of wine or meal; the greedy associate or summer who takes advantage is seen as . ..  greedy!  And childish. Be perceived as mature and responsible. Yes it may also be a bit boring, but its not Hollywood OK? FIVE, don’t hang with secretaries if you want a job as a lawyer: don’t drink wih them, chatter with them or eat lunch with them; especially women–you have a tendency to worry too much about the bonds of sisterhood with secretaries and paralegals: don’t. be pleasant. Be polite. But remember who will decide your future (hint its not the secretaries).  You’re one of us or want to be so hang with other lawyers. You are not a secretary!  SIX, this is not the year to add wild photos to facebook. SEVEN, do not under any circumstances refer to firm clients or work the fim in an email sent to non clients or other people in the outside world–which will be circulated by someone and then go viral. It happens every year at some PR firms. Don’t let it happen to you. EIGHT, see the “reply all” button? NEVER click on it unless you’ve read the email five times. The day you violate this rule you’ll be sorry. NINE, if you have to take a personal call, do it at lunch. That is invariably the time someone pops in to give you an assignment and you are obviously not doing work. TEN: do not surf the web except for news.  ELEVEN: finish your work on time or ask for an extesion with a good reason. (A “good reason” is not five summer associate lunches, friends in from out of town etc). TWELVE: don’t ask anyone about pro bono: its a bad economy and pro bono and pro bono is for wimps, people that are looking to leave or people who think firms make pro bono partners. Taxes are going up, and the last thing a firm needs now is a summer associate wanting to spend precious resources and assume a malpractice risk to help a paroled robber sue the NY cop that arrested him. Or the landlord that gave him a place to flop for practically nothing. Law professors mulching at the public trough don’t get it but you’re not working for a professor, OK?

  27. Real World Advice For Summer Associates from SOG

    June 30, 2010 at 10:34 am

    In the absence of new posts, I offer this helpful list to our brothers and sisters starting their summer associate positions. (It has nothing to do with business casual clothing). 
    ONE: never, ever bad mouth the firm or its partners or senior associates anywhere at any time. Ever. Look what happened to Megan Fox after she compained about the director of Transformers.  Do not do what I did: make fun of the firm’s proposed summer retreat in the library late at night on the “certainty” that no one but “us guys” were here. As I finished lampooning the firm’s tennis playing partners, one walked out from behind a stack of books laughing. I stopped laughing. So did everyone else as they immediately looked down at their papers, leaving me …alone.  So remember, if you blab, your summer associate competitors will repeat it; or it’ll be too delicious for some blundering fool not to repeat. And don’t think we partners won’t love hearing it!  But you’ll lose points for being a smart ass, ingrate or snot.  TWO: Ask questions right away if you do not understand a project: ask them after you prepare a list of questions that sound like you have something reasonably focused to ask; do not delay in asking; nothing is worse than waiting in fearful misery as a deadline approaches, while you dawdle over asking a question because you think someone will consider you an idiot; as time passes it becomes obvious that you really need an answer and you should have asked it right away–but now you’re afraid to ask because because its so late in the process, and you look like a moron for not asking!  Meanwhile the people that asked are busy finishing up. Questions do not matter; timely completion does and that assumes it what the partner wants. The only stupid question is the unasked one. Get it?  THREE: do not make passes at women/men in the firm no matter how attractive they are. It will tar you with some group–women, older men–and will hurt you.  Even if we obviously find you attractive and its reciprocal, don’t!  FOUR: don’t be the greedy slob that orders the most expensive bottle of wine or meal; the greedy associate or summer who takes advantage is seen as . ..  greedy!  And childish. Be perceived as mature and responsible. Yes it may also be a bit boring, but its not Hollywood OK? FIVE, don’t hang with secretaries if you want a job as a lawyer: don’t drink wih them, chatter with them or eat lunch with them; especially women–you have a tendency to worry too much about the bonds of sisterhood with secretaries and paralegals: don’t. be pleasant. Be polite. But remember who will decide your future (hint its not the secretaries).  You’re one of us or want to be so hang with other lawyers. You are not a secretary!  SIX, this is not the year to add wild photos to facebook. SEVEN, do not under any circumstances refer to firm clients or work the fim in an email sent to non clients or other people in the outside world–which will be circulated by someone and then go viral. It happens every year at some PR firms. Don’t let it happen to you. EIGHT, see the “reply all” button? NEVER click on it unless you’ve read the email five times. The day you violate this rule you’ll be sorry. NINE, if you have to take a personal call, do it at lunch. That is invariably the time someone pops in to give you an assignment and you are obviously not doing work. TEN: do not surf the web except for news.  ELEVEN: finish your work on time or ask for an extesion with a good reason. (A “good reason” is not five summer associate lunches, friends in from out of town etc). TWELVE: don’t ask anyone about pro bono: its a bad economy and pro bono and pro bono is for wimps, people that are looking to leave or people who think firms make pro bono partners. Taxes are going up, and the last thing a firm needs now is a summer associate wanting to spend precious resources and assume a malpractice risk to help a paroled robber sue the NY cop that arrested him. Or the landlord that gave him a place to flop for practically nothing. Law professors mulching at the public trough don’t get it but you’re not working for a professor, OK?

  28. Real World Advice For Summer Associates from SOG

    June 30, 2010 at 10:34 am

    In the absence of new posts, I offer this helpful list to our brothers and sisters starting their summer associate positions. (It has nothing to do with business casual clothing). 
    ONE: never, ever bad mouth the firm or its partners or senior associates anywhere at any time. Ever. Look what happened to Megan Fox after she compained about the director of Transformers.  Do not do what I did: make fun of the firm’s proposed summer retreat in the library late at night on the “certainty” that no one but “us guys” were here. As I finished lampooning the firm’s tennis playing partners, one walked out from behind a stack of books laughing. I stopped laughing. So did everyone else as they immediately looked down at their papers, leaving me …alone.  So remember, if you blab, your summer associate competitors will repeat it; or it’ll be too delicious for some blundering fool not to repeat. And don’t think we partners won’t love hearing it!  But you’ll lose points for being a smart ass, ingrate or snot.  TWO: Ask questions right away if you do not understand a project: ask them after you prepare a list of questions that sound like you have something reasonably focused to ask; do not delay in asking; nothing is worse than waiting in fearful misery as a deadline approaches, while you dawdle over asking a question because you think someone will consider you an idiot; as time passes it becomes obvious that you really need an answer and you should have asked it right away–but now you’re afraid to ask because because its so late in the process, and you look like a moron for not asking!  Meanwhile the people that asked are busy finishing up. Questions do not matter; timely completion does and that assumes it what the partner wants. The only stupid question is the unasked one. Get it?  THREE: do not make passes at women/men in the firm no matter how attractive they are. It will tar you with some group–women, older men–and will hurt you.  Even if we obviously find you attractive and its reciprocal, don’t!  FOUR: don’t be the greedy slob that orders the most expensive bottle of wine or meal; the greedy associate or summer who takes advantage is seen as . ..  greedy!  And childish. Be perceived as mature and responsible. Yes it may also be a bit boring, but its not Hollywood OK? FIVE, don’t hang with secretaries if you want a job as a lawyer: don’t drink wih them, chatter with them or eat lunch with them; especially women–you have a tendency to worry too much about the bonds of sisterhood with secretaries and paralegals: don’t. be pleasant. Be polite. But remember who will decide your future (hint its not the secretaries).  You’re one of us or want to be so hang with other lawyers. You are not a secretary!  SIX, this is not the year to add wild photos to facebook. SEVEN, do not under any circumstances refer to firm clients or work the fim in an email sent to non clients or other people in the outside world–which will be circulated by someone and then go viral. It happens every year at some PR firms. Don’t let it happen to you. EIGHT, see the “reply all” button? NEVER click on it unless you’ve read the email five times. The day you violate this rule you’ll be sorry. NINE, if you have to take a personal call, do it at lunch. That is invariably the time someone pops in to give you an assignment and you are obviously not doing work. TEN: do not surf the web except for news.  ELEVEN: finish your work on time or ask for an extesion with a good reason. (A “good reason” is not five summer associate lunches, friends in from out of town etc). TWELVE: don’t ask anyone about pro bono: its a bad economy and pro bono and pro bono is for wimps, people that are looking to leave or people who think firms make pro bono partners. Taxes are going up, and the last thing a firm needs now is a summer associate wanting to spend precious resources and assume a malpractice risk to help a paroled robber sue the NY cop that arrested him. Or the landlord that gave him a place to flop for practically nothing. Law professors mulching at the public trough don’t get it but you’re not working for a professor, OK?

  29. Adam

    June 30, 2010 at 12:18 pm

    It’s an interesting take on the definition of business casual, but I think it’s a little too strict. I agree that polo shirts are not acceptable for lawyers (except possibly on casual Fridays), and I also approve of the notion that, for lawyers, business casual conceptually begins with a suit and then takes away the jacket and/or tie. But this definition of business casual is predicated on the assumption that a “business casual” outfit must be able to be upgraded, at a moment’s notice, to “business formal,” and though this definition may be useful to some, I think it’s too categorical.
    I have two main objections to this definition. First, it would rule blazers/sportcoats out of business casual entirely, and I think that’s going too far. A patterned sportcoat or a blue blazer, paired with a dress shirt and dress trousers, is perfectly acceptable in any less-than-formal business situation. Second, it implies that the only business casual trousers you should be wearing are ones that come from your suits. From a fabric-care standpoint, this isn’t a good idea, because it means that your suit trousers and suit jackets will receive differing degrees of wear and soiling, likely resulting in the trousers being dry-cleaned more often than the jackets, which will over time result in the trousers fading and wearing out more quickly than the jackets – consequently eliminating the very exactness of matching that the author prizes so highly. The solution is to have a roster of odd dress trousers that aren’t parts of suits, which can be worn on their own, or coordinated with odd jackets.

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