June 01, 2017

Courtroom Decorum: Why Are We Still Talking About What Women Wear to Court?

Joy M. Soloway

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I recently had coffee with an associate and a young partner—a casual mentoring interlude among three women colleagues on a Tuesday afternoon. I’m a partner and not so young anymore; 56 to be exact.

The associate told us that a firm client—a woman—asked her, in front of a male partner, to please wear a dress at the upcoming trial. Apparently, according to the client, literature shows that women trial attorneys are more “relatable” when wearing a dress. The associate wasn’t sure if this request bothered her or if it should bother her.

I shared that in my last three court appearances I had not worn a suit. In fact, I no longer own a suit. Earlier this year, I donated my suits to Dress for Success. I had reached the point where I no longer believed that my attire affected my performance or how I was perceived. And I have never been comfortable in a suit. Surely, the court was far more interested in what I was saying that what I was wearing. But was I right?

The young partner’s advice sounded right to me—wear what makes you feel confident. But was that good advice? What should be driving this decision? Client expectations? A desire to be judged for advocacy skills rather than fashion acumen?

To be clear, I don’t fault the client for making her druthers known. Any client should be comfortable that the judge or jury will like his or her lawyer. It had been years, however, since I had given any serious thought to the differences in the way men and women are treated in this profession. It just “is.” I didn’t particularly want to start thinking about it again now. But my younger women colleagues clearly were thinking about it and, after all, a client asked that it be thought about. I was unable to offer counsel—honestly, I was slightly annoyed that I should even have to.

The male partner, the associate related, remarked to her after the meeting that the client had offered no suggestions on what he should wear at the trial. I’m confident he knew she was surprised by the client’s request, and he wanted to be careful in how he handled the discussion—just as I wanted to be appropriate as I sat with these women over coffee. Not to make light of it, but not to make too much of it either.

When I returned to the office after coffee and walked by some of my male colleagues’ offices, I wondered whether they ever mentored young male associates about clothes. I sincerely doubt it. In truth, we had spent more time over our coffee discussing networking, marketing opportunities, and how best to distinguish ourselves from the competition.

An irony here is that the young associate is more comfortable in a suit and, if the client had not said anything, would have worn a suit each day at trial (and maybe she still will). I am not and never have been comfortable in a suit. Have I just decided that my years of experience “entitle” me to a certain degree of informality? Is this an act of defiance? I surely hope not. There is no room for that in a client service business, particularly one as competitive as ours.

The whole discussion has left me rethinking an issue that I hadn’t thought about in years. And I need to approach it as I always do. Examine it from all sides and anticipate what my opponent would argue. But just who is my opponent? Is it the generational divide? The gender divide? An industry divide?

I suppose some judges may take note that I’m not wearing a suit and be distracted by the observation itself. I can’t say it is never the case. So maybe the better course is to err on the side of wearing the suit. That seems to be the better course.

But I have to confess that if I’ve had a good day at the courthouse, I’m likely to simply wear the same outfit the next time. Good mojo or karma.

When my opponent has been a woman, I can’t remember registering what she was wearing, though it always does register, and delight me, when both my opponent and the judge are women. Perhaps my opponent also wore something that had good karma for her. Or maybe she was thoughtless in her choice—it just happened to be in the front of her closet that morning.

I’m already tired of the subject. Still, I think on it.

I should also confess that I have no interest in fashion. I am terribly indecisive. I only buy if I can return and I return often. A suit certainly would make the fashion decision easier. It is a uniform of sorts.

Nah, I’m not going to buy a suit. I’m not even going to buy and return a suit. I choose to believe the judge cares more about what I’m saying than whether I have a suit jacket on when saying it.

But, if a client asked me to wear a suit, truthfully, I probably would.

Joy M. Soloway