If you’re a female legal professional and tend to wear open-toed shoes, no hose, skirts above the knee, button-down blouses that may be quite buttoned down, or pencil skirts with slits, you may want to reconsider. The ABA’s Women in Law Leadership Academy stated that “in surveying her fellow judges in Massachusetts, all said they never remembered a man’s outfit, but did remember what a female lawyer wore, and usually for the wrong reasons.”
Angela Johnson noted in her blog, “Researching Women as Lawyers” that “In an experiment conducted at a program sponsored by the ABA’s Woman Advocate Committee entitled ‘He Said/She Said: Jurors’ Perceptions of Women Advocates,’” women jurors on the mock jury commented that “they found a mid-calf length skirt with a side slit slightly above the knee and a silk blazer with a high sheen “distracting” (Mahoney 1999) .”
When asked about women with high hemlines or low-cut tops, Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas Judge Christine A. Ward stated, “It doesn’t give me the best impression of the attorney, because in my opinion you should have enough sense to be dressed appropriately.”
If a judge notices the lack of length in counsel’s hemline or the cut of counsel’s blouse, chances are that the jury will notice, too. Barbara M.G. Lynn, U.S. District Judge for the Northern District of Texas, noted that one jury sent a note to her asking that the female attorney at the end of the table keep her legs together.”
Court reporting instructors often remind students to wear skirts that are long enough to cover the knees, and if they are in a pencil skirt, to sit to the side of the steno machine, rather than straddle it, for the very reason Judge Lynn noted. Not only might a woman’s wardrobe selection be distracting in court, but it may also be problematic in the office. Allen & Overy’s U.K. office circulated an e-mail to its 105 solicitor trainees in 2011 requesting that they bare less skin, as dozens of them came to work in “very short skirts.”
So what are women in law to do? Dress professionally at all times. The Administrative Office of U.S. Courts warns that “Professional business dress is expected of all staff during business hours,” whether that person is in court or not. That doesn’t mean a suit each and every day, but at a minimum, female staff should wear skirts that are the appropriate length, blouses that cover cleavage and midriffs, slacks that don’t ride up or show panty lines, no open-toe shoes, and no skirts with high slits and high sheens.
The Virginia Court Reporters Association states in its Court Reporter Code of Professional Conduct and Ethics that reporters are to “maintain a dignified appearance in dress and deportment.” The dress code for Fresno County Court Reporters states, “Dress professionally in businesslike attire suitable for the courtroom environment — shirt and tie, slacks, dress, blouse, skirt, sweater, business suit attire.”
Image guru Marla Tomazin has put together a wonderful on-line guide in her article, “The Woman Lawyer’s Wardrobe: What You Should Wear to Work to Make the Right Impression (and Feel Great About Yourself, Too!) to aid women in the legal profession with this endeavor. In her article, she points out that 85% of communication is non-verbal, and that if a woman looks good, she’ll feel good about herself and come across as confident.
U.S. District Judge Norma Shapiro advised a group of 500 attendees at the ABA’s Women in Law Leadership Academy in May of 2010 “that women must exude confidence even if it means faking it,” so if a female lawyer wants to demonstrate credibility and command respect both in and out of court, it goes without question that she should take the time and invest in a wardrobe that will portray competence even before she utters a word.
Sally Kane offers a quick list of the do’s and don’ts for women in law in her blog, “Law Firm Dress Code for Women,” where she suggests suits in dark colors, separates that coordinate well, and tasteful sweaters and blouses. Keeping attire conservative, jewelry minimal, heels on pumps low and in good condition, and hairstyles well-kempt conveys the confidence and credibility that speaks volumes even before a female legal professional introduces herself.