My job requires frequent court appearances. This requires frequent suit-wearing. This means jacket, pants, dress shoes, and tie – the whole package. Now while suits get a bad rap, having done this for a while I have to say: I like to wear suits. There are advantages to being the best-dressed person in a room.
First of all, I just look really good in a suit. What a gift for everyone else’s eyes. But there are professional advantages as well.
To understand those advantages, consider that many people charged with a crime don’t have a lot of resources. This sometimes means people wearing a more casual ensemble, or if they don’t post bail, outright jail clothes. Certainly some defendants wear suits to court, but it’s more the exception than the rule. When I’m in criminal court, my suit is a uniform, generally separating my status as attorney from that of a client.
More importantly, a suit creates an air of professionalism and gravitas to the proceedings. Speaking for myself, I take the legal process very seriously. I consider it a true honor and a privilege to be involved with such an important aspect of our society. I get to help make justice happen! One way I show my respect for the process is dressing the part. If my demeanor, through words or appearance, indicates that I don’t care what’s going on, why will my client? Why would a judge or jury care what I have to say?
In actuality, court rules require lawyers to wear full suits when speaking to the judge anyway. This rule is rarely strictly enforced in most of the courts I’ve practiced in. Technically though, you are supposed to ask the court’s permission to appear at an attorney if you’re not wearing a jacket or a tie or somesuch. I’m certain there are some courts out there that take this rule seriously. Even if a court doesn’t strictly enforce it, I’ve never not appeared in appropriate clothing. And if it happened, I would definitely ask permission if I wasn’t dressed appropriately. You never go wrong by showing more respect to the bench.
Finally, I feel more professional in a suit. Putting on fancy clothes feels like putting on armor for battle. It lets the other side know I am here, I’m serious, and I’m ready to meet them, and that in turn gives me a feeling of presence. These days I rarely feel nervous going in front of a judge, but prosecutors occasionally try to be intimidating. Meeting them, or beating them, in dress sphere is the first step towards asserting myself and beating them in the legal sphere. I typically wear casual clothes when I’m working in the office or running errands, but when it comes time to advocate for a client, I’m dressed to the nines.
Here’s a story that ties all this together. Back in law school, I was a legal intern with a solo practitioner. One of our practice areas was arguing traffic tickets (It’s still one of mine). During a contested traffic hearing, I entered a photograph of an accident into evidence. Weeks later the client, quite reasonably, asked me if she could get that photo back.
At the end of a workday, in my full suit, I went to the court records room to try to retrieve the photo. The records clerk asked me for my client’s date of birth, which I did not know.
“No problem, Counselor, I’ll see if I can find her information…Ah, here we are. You can get the photo back, but you need to wait 30 days after the hearing, which is past the window of appeal. Come back next week and I’ll get it for you.”
Sounded reasonable to me. I thanked the clerk for her time and made a note in my calendar to come back the next week.
Now that following week was an exam week at school. Law school exams are a subject unto themselves, but the short of it is those tests can be brutal affairs. Studying for them is kind of an “every waking minute” deal, which leaves little time for personal hygiene or other indicia of civilized society.
So the following week, after a long study session, I slip on jeans and a hoodie and go to court to get my client’s photo. I go up to the same clerk and again ask for the photo.
Clerk, looking skeptical: “…Are you a lawyer?”
Me: “Well, I’m a legal intern but I did argue this infraction in court.”
Clerk: “What is your client’s date of birth?”
Me: “Umm…I don’t have that with me, but you looked it up last time…”
Clerk: “You need to be prepared. Come back when you have the information.”
And so I left. Did the clerk shut me down because she was having a bad day? Maybe, but I’m sure wearing laundry clothes didn’t help my case. In any event, a few days later I came back, wearing a suit and with my client’s birthdate in hand. I got the photo immediately, and I’ve been telling that story ever since.
At the end of the day, dress shoes and a tie can be uncomfortable. But looking like a lawyer helps you get treated like a lawyer and that, in turn, is what does good by your clients. Looking really, really good? Just a bonus.