Do Female Lawyers Have The Strictest Dress Code?

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.

Many new lawyers at defense attorney offices have to go through training that includes attire. “A lawyer never wants his or her appearance to be the focus of the court’s or jury’s attention,” said U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan. She told The Pittsburgh Post about how once she fell on the ice before a court appearance, ripping two holes in her pantyhose. She could either take them off or go with the shredded look and she didn’t have much time to decide. She kept them on out of fear of baring her legs in court. The judge didn’t say a word.
Dressing well can also often, in some cases, help to win the jury. “Jurors sometimes ask for contact information for lawyers because they’re impressed with how they handled a case,” Judge Cashman said.“It’s never for somebody dressed like they’re going to the South Side on a Friday afternoon.”

Kat Griffin, founder of Corporette.com, a site that advises professional women on how to dress told The Grindstone:

“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.

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    • Lastango

      Good piece. For lots of sound reasons, a professional needs to work, talk, act, and look like a pro. Like the grind of business travel, it’s part of the price we pay to serve our calling. Anyone who doesn’t understand that is either a beginner, a dope, a princess, or just another have-it-all whiner.

      One quibble: There is absolutely nothing unique about this for women. It applies to men and women both. If anything, women have more flexibility. Fashion mag BS not withstanding, men can choose between gray, blue, and black.

    • Guest

      Court dress – wigs and robes – as in the UK. Problem solved.

    • mckiella

      I am a female lawyer, but a younger one at that. I feel that the dress code for younger female attorneys is a lot less strict. But, if you do have a court appearance I am always more prone to dressing on the conservative side. For female attorneys this means wearing a skirt suit and wearing stockings. Yes, I know stockings. As this article said, it is better to just suck it up and dress the way you have to in order to take the attention off of you and your attire. The last thing your client needs is his attorney getting kicked out of court because she isn’t dressed appropriately.

      Check out my blog @ http://www.mrsprofessionalism.com

    • Alison Monahan

      This is so true. I once spent a half hour of my life, which I’ll never get back, in a discussion with local counsel and a (male) partner about whether another (female) partner’s shoes were too “flashy” for court.

      If nothing else, it was amusing when I lost the argument that he should let me address it with her (rather than doing it personally). Sparks!

      (The whole thing was also richly ironic, given that he was wearing obnoxious cuff links and a super expensive Rolex, and a suit that probably cost more than most jurors’ cars.)

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    • Followingthru

      Why do these articles never mention that fashion designers make it difficult for women by designing and selling “suits” that do not fit this standard. It is very difficult to find skirts that aren’t too short and pants that aren’t too tight.

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