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How should female defenders dress for court?

A young, female law student posed this provocative question to Chuck Klosterman, The Ethicist for The New York Times.  An excerpt from the Ethicist’s column in yesterday’s New York Times Magazine  is copied in below.


I am a young, female law student who represents indigent clients in criminal matters. I have learned (both from professionals at my school and from studies on subliminal biases) that female attorneys are more likely to be taken seriously if they have straight hair and wear makeup, skirts and heels. This is not a norm I want to perpetuate. However, I know that I have an ethical responsibility to represent my clients to the best of my ability. But do I have to conform to gender norms I find oppressive if there is a chance it will help my client? NAME WITHHELD

I would agree that you have an ethical responsibility to represent your clients to the fullest extent of your potential. But there are limits to what you are obligated to do, and this situation falls right on the cusp of that territory.

The fact that a lawyer’s attire should not matter to an intelligent jury is not relevant — you concede that it does, rightly or wrongly. But I don’t think this necessarily means you must dress in any specific way. “Serious attire” can mean different things to different people. Obviously, it would not serve your clients’ interests if you purposefully dressed in a manner that upended traditional definitions of professionalism — if you showed up in the courtroom wearing a “Frankie Says Relax” T-shirt and hemp pants, you’d force the jury to view you unconventionally (which is what you’re trying to avoid). But there are many shades between not caring at all and wholly conforming to an inflexible dress code. You do not, for example, need to wear makeup, particularly if doing so makes you uncomfortable with yourself (which might hurt your client far more than appearing as your regular self). You’re ethically responsible to present yourself professionally, but the details that define that professionalism are myriad.

That said, I do think you need to prioritize your goals here. What is more important to you: the representation of your client or your discomfort with antiquated gender norms? Almost all occupations require the mild subjugation of certain personal freedoms. If you believe that dressing in a specific manner would serve your client most effectively, your reasons for not doing so must matter more than the consequences of possibly losing a case for reasons unrelated to actual evidence.

Just as interesting are the readers’ comments on this topic.  A sample are copied in below.  Read the full post and all of the comments right here.

Rather than asking the Ethicist, or readers of the NYT, about dressing for the courtroom, I think the lawyer should ask her clients.

She should say to them, “Listen, there’s some evidence that how I dress could affect the outcome of your case. But I don’t want to perpetuate gender norms. And that’s going to come before what might help you. OK?”

Because that’s what she’s asking. And if her client says, “Sure, no problem”–well, there you are.

But chances are her client will not say that. Even more likely is that the lawyer would find herself unable to ask the question–and that is her answer right there.

The young, female law student appears to have learned that the impression she makes on the Court and the jury may affect the outcome for her client. She needs to learn that she owes her clients (particularly those indigent clients who are assigned to her and don’t have any real choice of counsel) deserve from her all ethical efforts on their behalf.
I am an older, male lawyer. I dislike ties (and the closed collar they require) and rarely wear one or a suit in my office, but when I am appearing in Court or before a regulator on behalf of a client I wear a conservative suit and a tie. It shouldn’t matter. but sometimes it does, and I owe my clients my best efforts.
Whether she likes it or not men and women are expected to dress differently. My conservative business attire can’t include a skirt or an open collar. When she is representing clients in court she needs to wear the female equivalent of the suit and tie I dislike — and today that means a well tailored suit with a skirt, not pants, and appropriate accessories.

Yes, many occupations require a uniform, but putting paint on ones face, wearing shoes that are uncomfortable and eventually deform ones feet, and sexualizing ones appearance with short skirts is not part of anyone’s uniform except perhaps a pole dancer.

Women would do well for ourselves by rejecting these trappings and instead concentrate on looking professional and keeping as much skin covered as their male colleagues and not perpetuating the expectation that women should enhance their sexualized beauty in a professional environment in order to be on the winning side.

A judge or jury that would make a substantive legal decision based upon a pantsuit is biased against women, not pants.

There is not a courtroom in this country where a pantsuit is an inappropriate choice of attire for an attorney. Female judges in the conservative Fifth and Eleventh Circuits wear pantsuits regularly. Somehow, their male colleagues manage to take them seriously.

The idea that female lawyers must wear skirts or risk offending judges and juries is a myth. It is a myth perpetrated by old male lawyers, with a deeply vested financial interest in maintaining that there is one right way to look to protect a client — like them. The same partners use the same line of reasoning to keep minority associates from working on high profile cases in the south. Wouldn’t want to harm the clients interests, you know.

As between alienating a generation of female and minority attorneys or risking bias from a biased–and probably fictional–judge, the choice is clear.

America needs attorneys that look like Americans. Whether those attorneys are wearing pantsuits or skirts? This question should have died a generation ago.

What do you think?  Feel free to submit your own comment.

{ 3 comments… add one }
  • Older female attorney June 2, 2014, 9:46 am

    The court rules in our State require that an attorney wear a jacket to appear in court. I am not aware of this rule having been changed. And nobody can contend this is a sexist rule. A jacket projects credibility, respect and, sometimes, shows less skin. The other thing I would advise the younger female attorneys, many of whom are not dressing appropriately for the courtroom, to my mind, is to remember that, with few exceptions, the judges are at least 60 years old and have the frame-of-mind that goes with that. This is true to a large extent with members of juries, too. And I have no authority to fall back on this next statement: as attorneys we carry very expensive education and, I for one, believe my attire should reflect that.

  • Fellow Criminal Attorney June 4, 2014, 11:24 am

    I enjoy the commentator suggesting a (presumably) 20-something year old female ask her indigent criminal clients for input on what she wears. That should result in some interesting courtroom attire.

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