Boot Camp, Esq.

Ask Allison

By Allison Jackson Mathis

Dear Allison,

I am a new lawyer, and I am struggling with what to wear to court and what to encourage my clients wear to court. Is it always strictly formal? Most of my clients don’t own suits and ties. Some of them don’t even own a collared shirt. And what about courtroom attire for ladies? Any advice appreciated.

Always Yours, Sartorially Stymied

My Dearest, Darling SS,

Have you ever heard of Alexandre Dumas? Of course, you have. He wrote The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo. As you might have guessed by the sheer fighty-ness of both of those books (or movies, as you like, Best Beloved), Dumas was a swordsman—or at least enough of a gentleman to demand satisfaction when insulted.

What does this have to do with your question? Everything. Listen and attend.

One day, while enjoying a cafè al fresco and wearing an arguably foppish cape (though your dearest Allison might gently suggest that all capes are foppish by definition), Dumas became incensed when a scoundrel began to insult his drape-y grandeur (and with a name like “Dumas,” the insults kind of write themselves, eh?).

Jumping to his feet, he challenged the fellow to a duel. The rogue accepted, and shortly thereafter they found themselves facing off in the local dueling spot, long since lost to history, probably. Removing his cape and jacket, Dumas also loosened his suspenders, which, due to a defect in his belt buckle and lack of the modern zipper, caused his pants to hurtle to the ground, leaving him in just his (doubtlessly lacy) Underoos, at quite a disadvantage, one would think, for the duel.

The lesson from this story is to dress for the occasion and to anticipate that sometimes, when you go out for coffee, it might turn into a swordfight.

Your darling AJ often has thought that perhaps being a judge would be easy because one does not have to struggle, as we attorneys do, with what to wear beneath the robe and behind a bench. I have suspected more than one judge of wearing t-shirts, and have even spied, once, the tell-tale elastic cuff of what must have been jeggings. On the other hand, once when I asked a Fijian lawyer what their judges’ robes looked like, he paused and thought, “Kind of like a . . . what’s the word for it? A . . . matador.” “Like, the bullfighters?” I asked, incredulous. “Yes. It’s a sort of shiny red and black outfit. Like a bullfighter.”

There are certainly different dress codes for different courthouses, and even for different courts. In general, federal courts are more formal than state courts, and felony courts are more formal than misdemeanor or municipal courts. Sometimes judges with particular peccadillos will list such preferences on their court’s website, but failing that, it is never a bad idea to contact the court staff and ask if there are specific rules of attire.

That said, I will provide you with some general guidelines that will never lead you astray:

1. Wear a suit. If you have a conservative black or navy suit, wear it. No matter your gender, no matter your role, conservative suits will never be inappropriate. This is the top tier. Most formally, suits are worn with a white collared shirt or white blouse, and a solid tie for men. I know. I know. But at least we are past (but do we have to be?) the days of requisite morning dress (coat, waistcoat, spats) before the court, largely because nobody knows what a waistcoat is, anyway.

If the suit has a skirt rather than pants, the skirt should be about knee-length, no shorter. Pantyhose used to be mandatory with a skirt, but the salad days are here, ladies, and I would say that they are now firmly rooted in the “optional” column.

In the most traditional of settings, the only jewelry that was appropriate for ladies was a pearl necklace and a wedding/engagement ring. There is no appropriate jewelry for men, which your Darling Allison still believes fervently (ask her to tell you about her breakup over a pinky ring sometime when she has had some wine), with the exception of a watch (preferably analog) and wedding ring.

Most courts, though, are not quite so unforgivingly formal and will overlook a gauche tie or gaudy bauble. In fact, most courts are somewhat woefully lax in their enforcement of attorney dress codes, especially, and your Favorite Correspondent has been shocked to her very core to see parades of lawyers wearing sundresses, motorcycling jackets, velour ball gowns (really), and everything short of a bathing suit in court. Sweet friend, let’s not be that lawyer. You are representing someone. Now is not the time for creative expression in clothing if it will draw attention away from your most excellent advocacy.

While the rest of the world moves ever-more casual, and while we might have our own personal beliefs about being free to wear revealing or provocative clothing, we have to remember that as an attorney, this is not about us. This is about our client. And if a juror is a very traditional person who will look at me and my judgment askance for showing too much of my generous proportions, I will keep my chubby knees covered. Lawyers for citizens accused of crimes have enough to overcome in the eyes of the rest of the world without having to defend our hemlines.

Even in this (hopefully brief) period of crushing student loan debt and woefully overcrowded legal job market, lawyers have no excuse for not having a suit, so your fashion advice stops here. If you are seeking guidance on what to advise a client without a suit, go on to number 2.

2. If your client has no suit, which is understandable but regrettable in this modern day, instruct the client to wear what he or she has that is decent. Defendants should think “Sunday Best.” Pants, never shorts. Skirts should be at least knee-length. Shirts with sleeves, preferably long sleeves, and preferably button-up shirts. Uniforms of any type (even school and military) should be avoided unless you have previously consulted an attorney about wearing them. Shirts with images should not be worn, most especially (I beseech you!!) not shirts with marijuana leaves, middle fingers, alcohol, or any type of good time emblazoned on them. Don’t lie to your dearest Allison. That is not your only shirt. I practiced law in a developing country where people routinely showed up to court without a pair of shoes to their name but still managed to find a clean, inoffensive shirt to wear.

Tattoos should be covered, if possible, and facial piercings removed. Should you want to cover up a tattoo, there is a little ritual that I was turned on to (oh, don’t look surprised; your Darling Allison wasn’t always such a stickler) by a young woman who danced at a classy establishment that would not allow the dancers to have tattoos: layer the tattoo with a creamy foundation makeup, then, using a blow-dryer (set to “cool”), dry the makeup well. Repeat with another two to three layers of foundation and set it with a bit of translucent powder. Voila! As pure as the day you were born!

If your client’s best efforts are inappropriate still, especially if you are anticipating going to trial, consult your local public defender’s office. Many offices are now keeping lending closets for indigent defendants, largely stocked with donations of court-appropriate clothing from local attorneys.

And now a general word or two on footwear: closed-toed. No matter what. It’s amazing to see the number of people clomping around the courthouse in clear acrylic mules with their crooked toes splayed and spilling out of the fronts of their shoes, to say nothing of their cracked heels hanging over the back. We will not even go into the obscenity that is the courthouse flip-flop wearer. No one wants to see (or smell!) your hoofs, no matter how shiny the polish. Open-toed shoes are fun for summer picnics, and fine for running to the grocery store, but not for court. I will make only the briefest of exceptions for the most modest of peep-toes. Be mindful it’s just a peep, though, and not a full-on eyesore.

Those of you who know me personally may be questioning my ability to pronounce such edicts as I have in this column, especially if you have seen me arguing zealously for my clients wearing one of my several dinosaur-print dresses. All I can say is that even the best of us often fall short of our exacting standards.

At the end of it all, I think back on Dumas’ duel. Once he scrambled to pull up his breeches in the frosty air, the duel proceeded, and Dumas quickly scratched the icy blade of his sword into the shoulder of his opponent. The wound was a tiny scrape, but the freezing steel (or perhaps residual laughter?) caused his foe to stumble, and then trip over a root and fall, disarming himself. Dumas was declared the winner without having to strike a blow.

Sometimes, Dear Friend, we can turn “The Day My Pants Fell Down” into “The Day I Won a Duel,” and certainly, we should strive to achieve such greatness. But most of the time, our efforts are lacking, and everyone will just think of you as the guy in the cape with no pants. Don’t be that guy. You’re not as slick as Dumas. Wear a suit and make sure your belt buckle works.

In solidarity,


Allison Jackson Mathis is a public defender in Aztec, New Mexico. She has previously practiced in Texas and Micronesia. She lives in a yurt in the San Juan mountains with her beautiful daughter Julia and her husband Mike. If you have no quill and parchment with which to write her, she will gladly accept your questions via electronic mail .