Fashion and the law


So the juxtaposition of a few events have me contemplating garb and work.  First, business casual season commences at PA when we return from Memorial Day.  Second, there was an amusing article in Saturday's New York Times about a colloquy among a panel of Seventh Circuit judges about the wardrobe they had seen in the court room.  And finally, today's NY Times style section's photo array displays how "men, once limited to an unyielding style of dress" have now expanded their sartorial horizons.

It is certainly true that standards have changed.  Even before casual season begins, trying to put a tie on some young associates is like putting a leash on a cat (rowr!).  Compare this to the pre-WWII days portrayed in a All Creatures Great and Small, with the local vet wearing a tie when he's sticking his arm up a cow's rear.    

Usually a discussion about what to wear invites snorting condemnation as being hopelessly OTD (Older than Dirt).  Personally, I couldn't care less if you wear your jammies to the office – what matters is what your work looks like.  That said, however, what you wear does bother some other people, which is why you have to pay attention.

That's what the Seventh Circuit article was about.  While there was some mild allusion to ticky-tacky ties in court (with smilely faces), the bulk of the griping was about women wearing skirts too short and necklines too plunging.  The complaining has to be carefully phrased (for fear of sounding not only OTD but chauvinistic), but the gist is that this sort of dress is distracting.

And therein lies the point.  When you do an oral argument, it's hard to believe, but it's not all about you.  In fact, if you could be invisible, that would be great.  The goal is to dig out the questions that the court has and to answer them.  And anything that distracts the judges from that exercise – musing, for example, why you didn't feel the need to wear underwear that day – is not a good thing.  Worse still, what you wear can be deemed, whether intended or not, a signal of disrespect to the court.

So, in the life is too short category, since there are so many things stacked against you in an appeal, why add surmounting speculation about your clothes sense and the message you are trying to send?  Many women understand this.  Every time I go argue at the First Circuit, all the women lawyers surrounding me (and me) look like clones in our basic black suit (skirt at the knee).  Yes, it's boring.  But it's simple.  You have other things to concentrate on.

Again, people just don't understand how, rightly or wrongly, the people forced to stare at you in court can't help their minds wandering off to your fashion choices if you give them the opportunity.  Story #1:  my aunt was on a jury once.  She said they obsessed on the fact that one of the lawyer's shirt cuffs was frayed.  What message was that sending?  And what did the lawyer want them to be thinking about while they were wondering why he couldn't find a decent shirt that morning?

Story #2:  back in Chicago, many years ago, the DC Strike Force came in to try a case against alleged mobsters.  One of the defense lawyers used the comic defense — it's hard to convict someone when you're laughing at the prosecution.  So throughout the trial, he'd say things like"FBI, you know what that stands for – Find and Blame Italians." One of the strike force prosecutors was independently wealthy, and in a multi-week trial wore a different dazzling outfit every day.  We willl call her Madam X.  So at the beginning of closing argument, in making his introductions, this defense lawyer said, turning to each group or individual, "Ladies and gentlemen of the jury," turning, "your honor," and, turning, ran through the many others participating, using the format "Mr./Ms. [Name] of the [insert organization."  At the end, he turned to the Strike Force prosecutor and finished with, "and Madame X of Nieman & Marcus."

His client was acquitted.  The standing order at the U.S. Attorney's office became that you wore a total of no more than 4-5 suits for the length of a trial (not that many could afford otherwise).

You may or may not be what you wear.  But the people who see you don't know that.  Heaven knows, I can be pretty offbeat in the clothes department.  But not in court.  It's the boring black suit for me.