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Editorial: Appearance matters

Lawyers, especially those with a healthy courtroom practice, are expected to fit inside a very narrow sartorial box.

According to the results of our first Dress Code Survey, a lawyer’s appearance should be subdued yet sleek; modest without being mousy; polished, but not pompous.

The word “distraction” came up 17 times in the survey comments, marking a dominant theme of what to avoid.

As one respondent (all were kept anonymous) put it, “Boring and generic dress appearance will never hurt a client. The same cannot be said about ponytails, nose studs, tattoos and bold clothing.”

Yet even for those who avoid those more obvious distractions and stick to simple, dark-colored suits and shoes, judgment awaits.

A well-cut suit can be cut too well, after all, as noted by Kat Griffin, a former litigator and editor-in-chief of Corporette, a fashion and lifestyle blog for professionals. Griffin recalled the collective raised eyebrows when a young criminal defense attorney in 2011 told the Wall Street Journal she often wears clothing by fashion-forward designer Balmain to court.

So dress nice, but not so nice that people notice.

Judgment from potential jurors weighed heavily on the minds of our survey respondents. Many noted they were fine with certain displays of style — a delicate diamond nose stud, for example — but cautioned that “a nose ring or visible tattoos [do] little to give others the perception that they are dealing with competent counsel.” In the words of another, “courtrooms need focus, not distraction.”

There’s that word again: distraction. Are lawyers, judges and juries really no better than a room full of kindergartners when it comes to sticking to the task at hand? Is an earring on a man so novel that it breaks concentration on the case at trial?

Putting a client at risk is no joke, but some of the concerns raised by survey respondents are dated in a world that seems to have evolved from jumping to stereotypical conclusions. Is a visible tattoo less than 6 inches in diameter really that much better than one 7 inches or more? Are men with ponytails so offensive that firms should write shorter hairstyles into the dress code?

Of course not. Those arbitrary assumptions of what will and won’t be accepted by the legal community are at odds with the competence and good sense demonstrated in Wisconsin courtrooms every day.

One of the respondents put it best when he or she said, “In court, as long as they are prepared, they can dress anyway they want as long as they have pants/skirt and a top on.”

How refreshing.


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