Volume 12, no. 1
Comfort—a ‘Bench’mark for Court Attire?
By Judith Stainbrook
I started practicing law in the early 1970s in a small legal services program in upstate New York. We were the delayed wave of sixties lawyers who had brought the concept of law reform to the forefront. My managing attorney was trying hard to bring some respectability to our office by overcoming the unwashed radical image that had somewhat tarnished the office. Its founding fathers had gone to court wearing tee shirts that read “F*** the Establishment.”
As part of that clean-up effort, the men kept sports coats in their offices to wear with their blue jeans if suddenly called to court, or they sent me, the only woman lawyer in the county, because I always wore a skirt and skirts were presumed to be safe, on women anyway. Who knew?
In those days it didn’t occur to me to wear a suit to court. Later, when more women began to enter fields that were traditionally male, we heard about “power dressing.” After that I deliberately avoided suits since it seemed to me that dressing like a man was not exactly the way to achieve equality with them, and that women could feel they had truly arrived when men began clamoring to wear skirts.
It was, therefore, with shock that I read, and not so long ago, women lawyers were being chastised by some judges, both male and female, for wearing pantsuits to court. How much closer could they get to dressing like men? And yet pantsuits on women were considered too informal for court, while still de rigueur for men.
Now during the sweltering summer on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, it is not unusual to see women in black suits (both with skirts and with pants) while the men more comfortably dress in lighter colors, and often sports coats, not suits. Other than women, the only person in black is the judge. And I wonder.
Different people are comfortable wearing different things. A court uniform saves time otherwise wasted wondering what to wear. If you spend considerable time in the courtroom (and maybe several courtrooms in different locations on the same day) you might be as concerned about your personal comfort as you are about the judges’ perception of your clothing. Several years ago one of the public defenders wore a pedometer to work. Her office was next door to the courtroom yet she clocked three miles between the time she got to the office at 8:15 a.m. and the time court started at nine. She always wore flat-heeled shoes to court, and so do I.
Not long ago I was chastised by a female judge for wearing snow boots to court, although it had snowed. I could have changed in the car, she told me, ignoring the reality of a large parking lot between my car and the courthouse. Now, for her—and only her—I change into my flat-heeled shoes in the courtroom, but not in the car. In contrast, I once did an emergency hearing in a sweat suit and running shoes. The judge appeared to not even notice, though it was certainly not courtroom appropriate.
While not advocating a return to the days when lawyers wore descriptive tee shirts to court (and apparently got away with it), I do believe in wearing what makes you comfortable. For some, that will be power suits. I personally regret it won’t be sweat suits.
Judith Stainbrook is a criminal defense lawyer in Maryland with offices in Carroll County and Queen Anne’s County. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.