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Women attorneys may face double standard when it comes to courtroom attire

Women attorneys may need to consider what they wear to court, but is this fair?

Is there is a double standard when it comes to what women attorneys are expected to wear in the courtroom as opposed to their male counterparts?

It appears to be the case. Male attorneys are advised to look professional, but the clothing choices of female attorneys are getting a lot of scrutiny. One recent article in Slate, for instance, reported concerns about women attorneys looking too “sexy” – when it comes to their wardrobe selection. 

The choice of clothes may get even more confusing for attorneys working as an in-house counsel for businesses and other organizations. If an outfit is professional enough for the workplace – why is not proper attire for a courthouse?

A few years ago, Corporette.com, a fashion advice website for women, gave some recommendations for female attorneys heading into court for a month. Here are some of their suggestions:

  • “Make sure your undergarments are not distracting.”
  • “We recommend wearing a skirt the first few days, if only until you get a feel for the judge and the lay of the land. After that, go with your gut.”
  • “Also avoid noticeable accessories such as red-soled shoes.”

No word if men were advised to wear a certain color of shoes or undergarments, or to wait a few days to see if the judge has any preference for certain types of clothes.

And in 2009, Judge A. Benjamin Goldgar of the United States Bankruptcy Court for the Northern District of Illinois complained that female lawyers dressing too sexily are “a huge problem,” and scolded “you don’t dress in court as if it’s Saturday night and you’re going out to a party.”

Meanwhile, Slate says now women are fine wearing pantsuits when representing clients in a courtroom. One example is when Elena Kagan was U.S. Solicitor General, she wore a pantsuit to the Supreme Court. Now, she sits on the high court. In 2010, Ann Farmer said in an article in the American Bar Association’s Perspectives magazine that before pantsuits, many female attorneys wore skirt suits that covered the kneecaps and floppy versions of bowties.  

It is also a concern that some of the fashion advice out there seems rather precise. Last year, a judge in Tennessee judge wrote, “I have advised some women attorneys that a jacket with sleeves below the elbow is appropriate or a professional dress equivalent.”

On the other hand, for current law school students, perhaps some well-meaning guidance can be in order when it comes to choosing what to wear during internships. Loyola Law School’s director of externships recently suggested in a memo to female students. “I really don't need to mention that cleavage and stiletto heels are not appropriate office wear (outside of ridiculous lawyer TV shows), do I? Yet I'm getting complaints from supervisors.” 

Maybe part of the reason for the confusion is that the law was so dominated by men for so long. As Slate points out – men who work at law firms can watch what male partners wear to court – and choose likewise. But because many law firms have a limited number of female partners – there are not always fashion mentors for female associates.

In addition, fashion advice may be more acceptable if it applies to both women and men appearing before a judge. For instance, it was suggested by Farmer that if an attorney is heading to some kind of appellate or top-ranking court, opt for more formal clothes. “The higher the court, the more formal the dress,” Farmer said. 

And getting a jury on your side is something that every lawyer wants to do. Wearing something that makes you look professional could not hurt to win that jury over.

Otherwise, perhaps the focus should move away from the color of shoes to wearing something that makes you feel good about yourself and gives you confidence to do a great job in representing your client. That, after all, is the job of a lawyer. 

This issue also brings to mind the many overall challenges faced by women attorneys. They need to be able to advance their own careers – despite some lingering social norms, such as about their image. As Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg said, “Females are raised from birth to have different expectations. There’s an ambition gap, and it’s wreaking havoc on women’s ability to advance.”

 

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Contributing Author

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Ed Silverstein

Ed Silverstein is a veteran writer and editor for magazines, websites and newspapers. A graduate of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, he has won several...

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