Billy Thomas : Ally, do you really want to be known as the mini-skirt attorney?
Ally McBeal: I don’t want to be known as the attorney who let the judge tell her how to dress.
The above quote was from an episode of Ally McBeal during the second season of the show. One of Ally’s most memorable characteristics was the fact that she wore extremely short skirts. Always with a blazer, but still, her hem lines were pushing it. In this episode one judge could not accept this much leg in his courtroom and scolded her. This made for great television but according to studies and some women we talked to, when it comes to professional attire, female lawyers have it the worst.
Famed judge Lenore Nesbitt, the first female judge appointed to the U.S. Southern District of Florida, used to send women out of her courtroom for wearing open-toed shoes. Pearls were an absolute requirement. So obviously David Kelly, creator of Ally McBeal, wasn’t too far off when he wrote that episode about a strict judge. But Ally McBeal’s outfits were actually ridiculous. Women can’t usually show any bare leg in a courtroom much less half their thigh. A recent episode of the legal drama The Good Wife also had a judge questioning Alicia Florrick’s choice of a pantsuit. She was completely covered but he just didn’t understand it. But maybe these TV shows aren’t that far off in their treatment of female lawyers.
In an anonymous post called “Lady Lawyers Should Dress The Part,” the author wrote that cleavage, chipped nails, bare legs, wrinkled clothes and tattoos are career killers. This is true in other industries as well like finance but this writer is severe. She wrote:
“Bare legs may be both fetching and fashionable, but are a foolish choice for professional settings. Judges, opposing counsel and bosses are usually Baby Boomers. They may admire a tan, well-turned leg, assuming it is, but it also may prevent them from admiring your legal acumen.
Young lawyers, both male and female think it’s OK to dress down. It is when you aren’t working, but don’t do it when you’re with my clients. I don’t want you in client meetings looking like you’re ready to go grocery shopping. I’ve had clients come in unexpectedly, and when someone is dressed inappropriately, I don’t include them in the meeting. It’s disrespectful to the client. Law is serious business, and you aren’t going to be taken seriously unless you appear to be serious. That means no gold strappy sandals for work. I knew an associate who wore shoes that looked like she was a bridesmaid. She was a good lawyer, but there was a real disconnect between those gold sandals and the notion that she wanted to go the distance as a lawyer. She didn’t, and the shoes were a tip-off.”
Now there is no doubt that your attire can impact your job performance and women can be especially hard on eachother in terms of dress, but it seems like in the legal industry, it is a whole different ball game.
Common Pleas Judge Christine A. Ward told The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette when she sees an outfit she doesn’t like, “It doesn’t give me the best impression of the attorney, because in my opinion you should have enough sense to be dressed appropriately, but it’s not going to affect the case.” However, Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge David R. Cashman orders attorneys out of his courtroom if he feels they’re underdressed — usually when an attorney who wore casual clothes to the office that day is summoned to court unexpectedly. “If you want to be a lawyer, you dress like one,” he said.
“Lawyers in particular have to adhere to conservative rules for clothes, primarily because they are very rarely speaking for themselves. If a judge or jury hates you, you want it to be because they heard and considered your client’s argument… not becase your clothing conveyed a lack of respect,or offended them in some other manner.”
At the Chicago law firm Stowell & Friedman, Linda Friedman and Mary Stowell make themselves put on pantyhose whenever they have to be in the court room. “It’s hard enough practicing law in federal court, which is still very much a boys’ club,” Friedman says. “We don’t feel it’s right to take a chance when it might hurt our clients.” At California Bank & Trust, wearing hose is optional, but senior vice president Lorie Schulenberg does it even in super hot California weather. “You have to be taken seriously, and coming in wearing a cute little outfit without stockings doesn’t help your case,” she says.