Flag on the Play: Courtroom Attire, Why What You Wear Matters
Most lawyers who spend time in the courtroom know that appearances matter. But what many lawyers don’t consider is that your appearance can make the difference between winning and losing. As lawyers, we go to court to get the best possible result for our clients. That is what our clients hire and pay us to do.
Consider this exchange in “My Cousin Vinny” (1992) between Joe Pesci (Vinny Gambini) and the late Fred Gwynne (Judge Chamberlin Haller).
“Judge Chamberlin Haller: What are you wearing?
Vinny Gambini: (wearing a black leather jacket) Um…I’m wearing clothes.
Vinny Gambini: I..I didn’t get the question.
Judge Chamberlin Haller: When you come into my court looking like you do, you not only insult me, but you insult the integrity of this court!
Vinny Gambini: I apologise, sir, but, uh…this is how I dress.
Judge Chamberlin Haller: Fine. I’ll let you off this time. The next time you appear in my court, you will look lawyerly. I mean you comb your hair, and wear a suit and tie. And that suit had better be made out of some sort of …cloth. You understand me?
Vinny Gambini: Uh…yes. Fine, Judge, fine.”
While comedic, it highlights important lessons.
- Make a good first impression. How you physically present yourself in court may tell a judge and jury more about you than anything that you have to say.
- Most communication is non-verbal. People form opinions based upon non-verbal communication. That your client has a great case won’t help if you can’t get the judge or jury on your side.
- You are in the public eye. Trial lawyers have to make public appearances. It’s part of the job. You have to dress the part. You never know who could be in the courtroom.
- If you don’t put the time and effort into your trial wardrobe, people will notice. While they might not have the extreme reaction that Fred Gwynne had, you run the risk of coming across as unprepared and disrespectful.
- Know your audience. All people have biases. You are much better off dressing in a manner that will make you present well and the judge and jury like you rather than fashion or conventional wisdom. Consider other factors such as the issues, backgrounds, geographical location, and current events.
- When in doubt, dress conservatively. Rarely will a lawyer be penalized for dressing conservatively. You do, however, run the risk of appearing inexperienced or not knowing what else to wear.
- Engage them. The judge, court staff and jurors are spending their valuable time with you and your client. Many people have a negative impression of lawyers. If you can keep them entertained while being professional, that can help.
- If your suit bombs, have a back-up. Not all trial attire works. If you are in court and sense that things are not going well, consider back up attire for the next day. People have perceptions based upon color and style that can affect the tone and direction of a trial (and the judge’s rulings).