Dressing for Court

April 16, 2009

Over the years, I’ve been amazed at some of the outfits I’ve seen in the courtroom, from both lawyers and litigants alike: tie-dyed t-shirts, faded jeans with holes in the knees, hats, flip-flops and extremely low-cut tops.   Some people apparently have no sense of what is appropriate to wear for certain occasions.   I firmly believe that the impression people make on others in the courtroom, through dress and demeanor, has a big impact on the results. 

I have a partner who really drove this point home to me early in my career.  He maintains a file in his office, called “Dressing for Victory,” with photographic examples of appropriate dress.  He often reviews this file with his clients, and he has been known to share it with other lawyers, too!  While I don’t go that far, I regularly discuss appropriate dress with clients.   

One of our local judges is known for keeping extra ties and jackets in his courtroom, and he has ordered lawyers to wear them when they show up in outfits which do not show the proper respect for the court.  For parties to a case, it is not necessary to wear a three-piece suit, or to look like a lawyer.  However, judges decide cases in family court, and they are making decisions about credibility and fitness to parent.  As the old saying goes, you never get a second chance to make a first impression.

No matter your economic situation, you can dress appropriately for court.  The vast majority of people do not need to buy new clothing for this purpose.  Review your current wardrobe carefully.  Treat going to court as an important meeting.  That means you should wear something you would wear to a business meeting, event at church, or job interview (although some people dress inappropriately there, too, but I digress).

For men, pants which are not jeans is a good place to begin.   A shirt with a collar is also a start.  A tie is nice if you have one, but I think a polo shirt or button-down shirt and khaki pants can be perfectly fine.   Your underwear should not be showing, so don’t wear your pants too low.  Do not wear shorts, even if it is 85 degrees.  Avoid athletic shoes if you can.  This is not the place to show off your muscles, or that you are into the latest fashion trends.  And never, ever, wear a hat to court.

As always seems to be the case, the judgment calls are more difficult for women because there is a much wider variety in styles of clothing.  I think a skirt, dress or pants are fine, depending upon the style.  It may be clearer to say what not to wear, than what to wear, including: 

  • anything with spaghetti straps;
  • flip flops;
  • low cut tops;
  • skirts or dresses that are too short;
  • shorts;
  • anything sleeveless;
  • anything see-through;
  • tops that are too short with pants that are too low;
  • stiletto heels

Although appropriate dress does not guarantee success, it will never hurt.

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