By Susan A. Garver
Imagine you are standing in front of your closet trying to decide what to wear to work today. Your day will consist of meeting with clients and appearing in court. Do you don your trusty navy blue suit or do you wear a hot pink strapless tube dress with sandals? You may think the choice is obvious - the suit (it's a courtroom, not the beach). However, the choice may not be so obvious to some young female attorneys.
I recently conducted a very unscientific survey of female attorneys around Chicago. Most could recall an inappropriate outfit they saw another female attorney wearing in court. One attorney surveyed saw a female lawyer appear in a sweat suit and white gym shoes. Another saw a female attorney appear in a backless cocktail dress. In fact, one attorney actually saw a female appear before a judge in circuit court wearing that pink strapless tube dress with sandals. Almost every attorney surveyed could recount seeing a fellow attorney step up before a judge in flip-flops.
We are taught that justice is blind and assume judges do not base their decisions on what an attorney is wearing.
Then, why should it matter what an attorney wears to court?
"To me, it's all about showing respect for what you are doing. Respect for the court, respect for your clients, respect for your role in the administration of justice," said U.S. District Judge Joan Humphrey Lefkow.
Terri L. Mascherin, the president of the Chicago Bar Association, agreed. "I think as lawyers we have an obligation to our clients to put forth the best presentation possible. Part of that is appearing as if we deserve to be taken seriously. As long as the judge is up there in a robe, we need to project the seriousness and the importance of the process."
Arbitrator Jacqueline Ann Kinnaman of the Illinois Workers' Compensation Commission, said, "I think you dress not only for the judge and the venue, but you also dress for your client. To me, when you walk in [to court] you want to immediately be identified as an attorney who is in charge of her case and is entitled to respect as an attorney."
What do judges and attorneys think when someone appears dressed inappropriately? Most of the attorneys surveyed agreed that when they saw a female attorney in inappropriate attire they felt it gave an impression of unprofessionalism.
Kinnaman said, "When someone appears before me dressed [inappropriately] there's that first couple of minutes where, one, I'm taken aback and, two, [I'm] doubtful whether this woman is even going to know what is going on with her case."
Lefkow recalled a jury trial where one of the attorneys wore an outfit more appropriate for the gym than the courtroom. "I thought the lawyer who tried the case to a jury was really dressed so casually that it really detracted [from her case]. I said to myself, 'how could she come to court dressed like that?'"
Mascherin agreed, recounting a time when she saw a female attorney appear in court wearing a sweat suit. "Her presentation to the court was sort of consistent with her dress. She seemed not very focused."
Kathryn Ann Gallanis, president of the Women's Bar Association of Illinois, said when a female attorney dresses inappropriately,"it draws the focus away from what they are saying and what they are advocating to something unrelated to their job."
"It's like anything else," Lefkow said. "You are more drawn to a person who is more well-groomed and poised than to someone who isn't."
Why is it more of an issue with women than with men? "Men have a uniform," Mascherin said. "If you say to a man, 'wear a suit,' it's easy for them to know what that is. For a woman there is a broader range of clothing."
"Men have their six suits that they rotate with no variance there," Gallanis said. "For women there is such an array of fashion."
Society has become more casual and the younger generation of attorneys has grown up in this more relaxed society; however, the courtroom is still a formal setting.
"I think that relatively younger generations have grown up in a more casual society," Mascherin said. "Dress has just become a lot more casual and so, I think that part of it is just a socialization process."
Most agree that the problem lies with younger female attorneys and the solution lies with the older partners, shareholders and mentors.
Gallanis said it's a two-part issue of younger attorneys not knowing what to wear and older attorneys not mentoring. "Senior partners have a responsibility to speak to their younger associates about how to dress. Younger associates need to pay attention to the people who are the partners and how they dress."
Gallanis found the issue to be so pervasive that as president of the Women's Bar Association of Illinois, she started a law school initiative to create a program that pairs law school students with Womens' Bar mentors. She hopes law students seek the advice of the mentors on what is appropriate for interviews, court appearances, and in their jobs, and that the mentors will show younger attorneys why they should care about how they dress.
"As older lawyers, we need to be able to give advice to the younger lawyers," she said. "People, no matter what age, need a mentor and need guidance in regard to what is appropriate and what is not."
What is appropriate for a female attorney to wear to court? Those surveyed and interviewed agreed that a full suit or pants, skirt, or a dress with a jacket or blazer is appropriate.
Lefkow suggested attorneys "wear an outfit, slacks and a jacket, so it looks like you are put together." If there' s any question of whether an outfit is appropriate, don't wear it.
Think back to a time when all you knew of attorneys was from watching television. What image did the words "attorney" or "lawyer" evoke? Most likely, when you envision an "attorney" you see a man or woman standing in a courtroom wearing a suit. Clients and jurors expect this same type of professional dress.
We as young female attorneys aren't even dressing for the jobs we have - much less the jobs we want. Every one of us studied for at least three years in law school and sat through the rigors of the bar examination in our quest to become attorneys. We should be proud of the prestigious position we all worked so hard to achieve. It is on us, collectively, as attorneys to uphold a professional dress code.
Susan A. Garver is a fourth-year associate at Nyhan, Bambrick, Kinzie and Lowry P.C. She is the founding president of the Workers Compensation Lawyers' Association, Young Lawyers Division. She also writes Suz on Style.