In what seems like a scene straight out of the television show Ally McBeal, a Tennessee circuit judge issued a memo about female lawyers adhering to the dress code after one female attorney appeared before him in a sleeveless blouse. Circuit Judge Royce Taylor wrote in the memo:
The unanimous opinion was that the women attorneys were not being held to the same standard as the men. I have advised some women attorneys that a jacket with sleeves below the elbow is appropriate or a professional dress equivalent… Your personal appearance in court is a reflection upon the entire legal profession.
According to the local legal community, female lawyers have been pushing the lines a little bit by wearing blouses, miniskirts, and sweatpants in court. We have been talking a lot about dress codes this summer and this is a great example. The legal industry is one of the toughest when it comes to attire for women. There is no casual Friday. If you are in court you have to be dressed impeccably because if you aren’t, clearly people notice.
“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. Okay so most of the time they notice or they realized the woman had no choice and decided to remain covered up for fear of being called a bare-legged hussy in the courtroom.
The real pressure to dress perfectly and respectably comes from the fact that these lawyers are in court and dealing with the law. It is extremely important and their attire needs to reflect and respect what they are doing. But in a world where casual has become the norm, it’s hard out there for a female lawyer. Her friends are considered fancy when they wear the slightly longer shorts instead of the jean cutoffs and this woman may actually be required to wear pantyhose when she is in court in July. Tennessee image consultant Mila Grigg told USA Today personal fashion choices clashing with professional decorum are especially pronounced with the millennial generation who, as she said, “have a different standard for what professional looks like.”
Kat Griffin, founder of Corporette.com, a site that advises professional women on how to dress told me, “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 because your clothing conveyed a lack of respect, or offended them in some other manner.”
This all makes sense and I would be more comfortable with my lawyer in a great suit than jeggings but do women have it worse then men when it comes to courtroom attire? Law is still very much a boys’ club in some ways and so women are expected to not only prove themselves as lawyers but look as sharp as possible. At the Chicago law firm Stowell & Friedman, Linda Friedman and Mary Stowell make themselves put on pantyhose whenever they have to be in court. “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.”
The rest of the workplace may be changing when it comes to attire but according to Taylor, that change stops in the courtroom. Good luck to any female lawyer who enters it!