Lawyer Fashionista: Dressing Down

Yes, the uniform has changed some over the years.  White shirts are no longer an absolute necessity.  But are sweat suits with words written across the butt really the proper alternative?  Not to federal judges in the Northern District of Illinois.

From the WSJ Law Blog :


Apparently, the judges launched in on their sartorial sniping earlier this week at a panel discussion at the Seventh Circuit Bar Association meeting. The discussion was reportedly touched off by Northern District of Illinois judge Joan Lefkow, who reportedly said some women attorneys should pay more attention to dressing appropriately for court. Specifically, Lefkow reported having an issue with one woman who had shown up for a court hearing in attire that looked as though she had stopped in “on her way home from the gym.” Lefkow then suggested that lawyers address the “delicate issue” with female colleagues at their firms, and suggested that women lawyers consult www.corporette.com, a fashion Web site one of her clerks had shown her.

And more from Devon Desai at Co-Op :


After that, several present shared more views on the topic. Judge Michael McCuskey, chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the Central District of Illinois commented on “skirts so short that there’s no way they can sit down and blouses so short there’s no way the judges wouldn’t look.” Another judge, Bankruptcy Judge Benjamin Goldgar, noted that he had trouble with women’s and men’s attire. For him it is matter of showing that you take the proceedings seriously, so provocative or wacky attire posed the same problem.

It’s a notion that makes me feel particularly old, but the idea of showing up for court, any court, in clothing other than a suit and tie seems absurd.  Heck, I can’t even imagine showing up in shoes that need a decent shining.  Does that make me a dinosaur?  Perhaps, but I’m a well-dressed dinosaur.


Apparently some thought it was an age issue. One alleged culprit was the trend not to wear formal attire unless headed to court. And, as always, some suggested that law schools should pick up the task of educating attorneys about these social issues.

Lawyers wear a uniform.  It’s a little less rigid than one worn by a Marine at a formal, but a uniform nonetheless.  It’s actually quite convenient, since I don’t have to give a great deal of thought to my attire when dressing in the morning, since my sartorial spectrum runs from gray to blue.  I know, I’m a wild man.

But there is a point to it: The courtroom is a place that reflects what we hope to be the majesty of the law, a belief that there is a place grander than the streets, where higher ideals prevail.  There is a formality to it, that should be reflected in its furnishings, high ceiling, solemnity and yes, even in the mode of dress.  The judge wears a robe. The lawyers were formal clothing.  We are serious looking because what we do is serious.

And there’s a practical aspect as well.  We don’t dress in a way that will distract from our purpose, annoy the judge, diminish respect in us so that our words and thoughts aren’t taken seriously.  The uniform puts these issues aside, and we wear it because we are there for a purpose, to represent an individual.  To let our own attire take precedence over our responsibility to our client is selfish, narcissistic and indulgent.  Who cares what we wear; we’re there to do a job.

Apparently our lawyerly mode of dress, like every other fiber of our existence, is subject to approval.  Each of us gets to decide for ourselves how we want to be, and screw anybody who disagrees.  Desai states:


In the end, although I don’t think that these details ought to control as dress is essentially a shallow metric for assessing worth and skill, I suggest that attorneys ought not be clueless about etiquette and sartorial matters. One can wear a sober tie or conservative suit (male or female) that is not expensive and that should suffice.
Is dress a “shallow metric for assessing worth?”  Of course it is.  Our argument would be no less valid if we appeared wearing cut-off shorts and flip-flops.  What we wear bears no relation to what we say and think.  But then, this rationale justifies the ignorance of almost all societal norms.  We each get to do whatever we want, wear whatever we want. behave however we want, and if the judge doesn’t like it, we tell them to go fly a kite, right?

I’m not going to suggest that this is yet another of the Slackoisie indulgences, believing that they are entitled to wear whatever they want to court because, hey, it’s what they want and isn’t that what they are entitled to do?  But it happens to be the case.  Dressing inappropriately is disrespectful to the judge, potentially harmful to your client should it annoy the judge sufficiently to not take you seriously or, worse still, dismiss you as a goofball, diminish the gravitas of the proceedings and of you as a worthy advocate.  How dare you place your sartorial choice ahead of your responsibility to your client.  You would rather risk your client losing than dress in the uniform.  That is inexcusable.

The Illinois judges suggest that law schools teach their children how to dress properly.  They urge law firms to similarly enforce the code, ignoring that law firms have a tough enough time just getting their overpaid clerks to show up on time and stick around long enough to finish a day’s work.  I can’t imagine how law schools could accomplish this task, given that lawprofs are neither aware of the IBM Code of Conduct nor inclined to find it worthy “metric”.

But here’s a darn good reason for lawyers, young and old, to show up in court looking like a lawyer.  You’re client pays for your indulgence, whether you think he should or not.  Look like a hottie, or a shlump, or whatever you think makes you look cool, on your own time. When you’re carrying the responsibility for someone else’s life, dress like a lawyer.  It won’t kill you.  It might kill him.

Put your client first.  Plus, it’s way easier to figure out what to wear in the morning.

33 comments on “Lawyer Fashionista: Dressing Down

  1. Windypundit

    It would all be so much simpler if you law-talkin’ guys just used the British system, wouldn’t it? Just put on your tunic, your collar and bands, waistcode, robe, gray striped trousers, and wig and you’re ready for court. How simple is that? There’d be no arguments about individuality because individuality wouldn’t be allowed.

  2. John Kindley

    Well said. I would quibble with the points about the judge’s robe and the high ceilings and furnishings of the courtroom displaying the “majesty” of the law. The quibble is based on analogous perennial criticisms of the Church. The priest’s simple black cassock was meant to be self-effacing, but also had the effect of setting him apart as different from and elevated over other men. The pomp of the bishop’s attire, on the other hand, as well as the lavish gold-gilded furnishings of the church buildings with their high-domed ceilings came in for a different kind of criticism. An aspect of this criticism was the question of whether this was a good use of the Church’s money when so many children of the Church lived in abject poverty.

    The idea that the judge’s black robe and the expense of the courtroom’s furnishings reflect our aspirations for the law is, to my mind, outweighed by the reality that these things are designed to confer majesty and honor and the appearance of impartiality upon judges and what they decide in the courtroom regardless of the actual merits of said judges and what they decide. We would be better off if instead of their robes judges wore the same self-effacing uniforms of the lawyers who appear before them, and if the money spent on fancy court buildings and fancy court furnishings was put to better use (or better yet not extorted in the first place).

  3. SHG

    It would be a lot easier, though I hear that the wigs get a bit ratty.  But the point is there, though conveniently missed by every dipshit kid who persists at demanding that the world adjust to his personal point of view:  What we do is not about us.  It’s about our clients.  Forget about dressing to please yourself, and just wear the friggin uniform and do your friggin job.

  4. SHG

    Always the anarchist.  Suffer the tangents and try to focus on the point, a recurrent problem with you.

  5. Shawn McManus

    People have looked at me like I had a second nose growing on my forehead when I suggested they wear a suit for jury duty. (Interestingly, I’ve never been picked for a jury. I don’t know if the suit had anything to do with it though.)

    I especially like your point – and it’s one that I’d thought about but never in the context of lawyers’ dress – about it the suit being part of a paid service. Just about every “customer facing” role calls for some measure of decorum though this last decade has seen it woefully disregarded.

  6. John Kindley

    So comments should focus on the actual holding of your posts, and not the dicta which you think supports your holding and see fit to include in the post? Allow me then to revise my comment thusly: Ditto. What lawyers do and wear should not be about us but about our clients. Duh.

  7. Rumpole

    I find it interesting that a judge is compelled to cover their butt from the forces of political correctness by stating that it is a “delicate issue’ to tell a female lawyer that her dress in inappropriate. Presumably it is not a “delicate issue” to tell a male lawyer that their tie is too wacky.

    Also I sense that the judges were only concerned about how the female lawyers dressed and that the comment about men wearing wacky ties was just added as an afterthought.

  8. Tyson Stanek

    In my neck of the woods, it’s the old guys who wear inappropriate attire to court. Black tennis shoes, jean jackets, polo shirts, sweatpants – I’ve seen them all. The newer attorneys are consistently in a suit or sports coat, but I guess the old guys feel entitled to wear whatever is comfortable. And the judges don’t say a peep.

  9. SHG

    I got that sense as well, that the female judges seemed particularly critical of the female lawyers.  I think that the variation for women is far greater than for men, having rarely seen a man appear without at least a tie and jacket.  But just because some female federal judges are sexist doesn’t mean I have to be.

  10. SHG

    Come on John.  We’ve been down this road a few times already.  Don’t make it needlessly painful.  You’re free to go off on any tanget that strikes your fancy.  Just not here.  The comments here are about the post here.  If it strikes you that there’s more to be said going in some other directions, by all means do so.  Just not here.

  11. Deborah

    The Internet has provided the Public with a better understanding of how and why the Justice System reeks of injustice and corruption. The consensus of ‘victims’ suggest the ‘uniform’ of the politically appointed, politically approved Attorney to the Bench and the other agents of the court should be Kangaroo Suits. Perhaps Criminal Attorneys are not privy to the brazen injustices and corrupton going on in Probate, Juvenile and Family Courts we call ‘the Guardianship Abuse Racket’ that is expoiting vulnerable citizens: elderly,  disabled, and children for personal profit by the agent of the court and feeding State Gov’t coffers while emotionally and financially devastating families all across the country.

    Feel free not to publish this as I assume it would offend many in your profession. We ‘victims’ are offended by your profession. Your profession has infiltrated Politics destroying the Firewalls between the Three Branches of Government and effectively corrupting Justice for personal/professional gain and for Government’s best interests.

  12. SHG

    Kangaroo suits?

    Offend away, Deborah (though I’m not entirely sure that this would be the post that called for this reaction), but I agree with you that it is critical that lawyers and judges know how they are perceived by non-lawyers.  And so your comment is, and shall remain, published.  And if it offends lawyers, so be it.

  13. John Kindley

    Okay, let me take a stab at clarifying my earlier comment. You said that the point to the lawyer’s uniform is that it’s part and parcel of the courtroom formality “that reflects what we hope to be the majesty of the law, a belief that there is a place grander than the streets, where higher ideals prevail.” I disagreed with the notion that such a belief and such a hope is a good reason for lawyers to wear their uniforms or for the court to dress itself honorifically. (I assume mere disagreement does not automatically render a comment tangential.) I disagreed with the notion that we should doll-up and artificially elevate what happens in court. We absolutely should seriously strive for and aspire to justice in the courts, but if justice is done it will shine of itself, and if injustice is done no amount of perfumed formality will quench its stink. But the perfume may very well mask some of the smell, particularly with respect to the sensibilities of the easily-awed, and in my opinion that’s not a good thing.

    On the other hand, I agree with the practical reason you cite for wearing the uniform: to avoid distractions.

  14. Jeff Kramer

    I think I would qualify as a member of the Slackoisie, but I always wear either a suit or sport court to court. If for no other reason than it helps me actually look like a lawyer. I get asked, “are you sure you’re old enough to be an attorney” plenty of times. Showing up in jeans isn’t going to help one bit.

  15. SHG

    When I first started, I used to dress straight uniform because I looked so young.  Everybody called me the kid, and people who didn’t know me asked if I was a prosecutor.  I was so buttoned-down back then.  Now I’m wild.  Sometimes I wear a blue Oxford shirt.

  16. SHG

    Yeah, the Times and the WSJ steal from me all the time.  I don’t mind.  They have to get their good ideas from somewhere.

  17. Deborah

    SHG: Sorry: An ex-Legislator/Attorney enjoys tormenting me. I was thinking of the Family Court proceedings recently: The Politician was free to Fabricate allegations about me in motions unsubstantiated by any evidence rubber stamped by his hand picked Referee Judge who tells me I can’t object, can’t move from my chair; and categorically rubber stamps these motions into orders while he rules that I and my first witness are ‘not credible’ and sumarily refuses to accept ANY of my factual evidence w/o benefit of law: “NO”. So I complain that this is a Kangaroo Court whereupon he mocks me stating “This is MY courtroom and I can do whatever I want” and then ‘sneers’ at me when asking if I’d like another day for Trial to call my other witnesses”. sneer, sneer.

    The above came into my thoughts upon reading your blog about court room attire: Maybe I should have said the ‘uniform’ should be Kangaroo costumes instead of suits. Maybe it’s humor only ‘victims’ of corrupt courts can appreciate.

    BTW: There are ‘good’ attorneys like Norm Pattis, but way too many bad ones.

    P.S.: I enjoy your blogs very much and thank you for your consideration.

  18. TheDefender

    I am a female assistant federal defender. My clients don’t pay for my services. Nonetheless, I want my client to feel he has retained a powerful and skillful attorney. The judge needs to know I mean business. The jury needs to know the gravity of justice. The AUSA must know fear.

    In court, I wear well-tailored suits with skirts, not pants, nylons and high heel pumps. My uniform.

    I do well.

    Our new X gen attorney refuses to wear nylons (demeaning), high heels (demeaning and uncomfortable) or skirts (demeaning). I today e-mailed her a copy of your post. We’ll see.

  19. SHG

    I like Norm a lot too.  There aren’t many Norm Pattis’ around.  Some, but not many.

  20. SHG

    Thanks, once again dispelling the myth that it’s the PDs who dress like crap.  It’s got nothing to do with retained versus PD, but lawyer dedicated to her clients versus lawyer dedicated to herself.  And you make a point which I failed to make, the way our attire affects our adversary.  Thanks for raising that because you are absolutely right, If you look like a joke, the AUSA will treat you and view you as one.

  21. Dan

    When I was a young prosecutor not too long ago, I had a case with a difficult defendant who was repeatedly complaining to the court about his several assigned counsel (all of whom I knew to be good to excellent lawyers). With his fourth 18B lawyer, the judge wanted to get down to business and really push the case to either a plea or trial. The lawyer had a decent strategy and analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of the case. Problem was, he looked like he was homeless. Stained tie, shirt-tail hanging out, shoes with holes, etc., so the client couldn’t see that the lawyer had a decent strategy mapped out for him, just that his lawyer looked ridiculous, so of course, the client advised the court, I ain’t goin’ to trial with this ugly m-f. Eventually, the judge took the lawyer aside and in as polite a way as possible explained to the lawyer that his appearance was undermining his client’s confidence in him, and consequently, the court’s ability to move the case.

  22. Tab

    I completely agree with you and the judges. The worst dressed lawyers I see are in the family courts. However, last Monday I saw a most egregious example of this in a district civil court. An older female attorney was wearing a bright blue pant suit. I use the word “suit” lightly because it consisted of a light blue blouse, a dark blue sweater, and blue and white pants with a loud, swirl patten.

  23. mythago

    Scott, this isn’t an age problem. The judges may be zeroing in on the young offenders for the same reasons you do – Kids These Days and all – but believe me, it’s not an age issue. At least with the younger lawyers, there is hope that they will learn from their elders and are simply making youthful misjudgment. Granted I practice almost entirely in state court, but I regularly see lawyers showing up at court in black Crocs, or in mismatched casual outfits with a sports jacket thrown on top.

    Of course a judge should be just as able to tell a female attorney “Counsel, that is not appropriate attire for this courtroom.” I think the difficulty is that a couple of the judges quoted in that article ‘couldn’t help’ but stare at some of the female attorneys. If they can’t separate ‘inappropriate’ from the desire to ogle, of course they won’t be able to think of a professional way to tell a female attorney that miniskirts are improper.

    And speaking as a female attorney who always dresses conservatively in court, it is true that we get a lot more scrutiny from everyone than male attorneys do. As a judge once pointed out to me, when jurors look at a male attorney they see a guy in a suit; unless he’s wearing a lime-green tie or has a fauxhawk, they don’t notice much. You, they pick apart.)

  24. mythago

    Sorry, while I’m a stickler myself about conservative attire in court, your Gen X attorney is correct. There is nothing improper about a well-tailored pantsuit with conservative flats, unless you practice in one of those jurisdictions where the judges bridle at any female attorney using “Ms.” before her name.

  25. SHG

    You offer a curious point of view; you dress properly.  Young lawyers should be forgiven youthful misjudgment.  Judges are at fault because they “couldn’t help” but look at a provocatively dressed woman.  Older lawyers who dress poorly have no excuse.  Women are unfairly scrutinized.  And it isn’t an age problem.  I bet you won’t see anything about your comment suggesting a biased perspective.

  26. mythago

    When I see a young lawyer dressed like an idiot, I hope that they will learn better and grow out of it. I don’t assume that they’re just one of those goldang Slackoisie who need to keep off my lawn. What’s the excuse for an older, more experienced attorney to show up in velour pants and a blouse? Seriously?

  27. mythago

    Why, yes, Scott. I was referring to TheDefender’s post, where she got her pearls in a knot at the idea of a GenXer (god forbid!) not wanting to wear a skirt with high heels to court.

    I’m sorry, I didn’t realize that only you were allowed to express an opinion on this blog without being accused of being sore.

  28. SHG

    You’re asking me to explain your experiences?  Since you are anonyous, not to mention new to SJ, I wouldn’t have a clue what your experiences are, nor the slightest desire to explain them to you.  I guess you’ll just have to ask the experienced lawyer in velour pants and a blouse why.  Or, sit home and ponder whatever question is important to you all by yourself.

  29. SHG

    There are many things you don’t realize, as becomes increasingly apparent with each of your comments.  Don’t be obnoxious to other commenters.  I’m sure you feel your opinions are inherently important, but that makes only one of you.  And The Defender didn’t write that the GenXer didn’t “want” to wear a skirt to court, but “refused” because it was demeaning.  If you’re going to try to be obnoxious, at least read more carefully.

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