February 21, 2009 (Original publish date) • By Dennis Beaver
Should a lawyer tell a client how to dress for court, and to threaten to dump that client if the advice is not strictly followed? That was Mike’s question, and the answer should be of interest to anyone facing a day in court — especially readers who use their appearance to make a statement.
“I am trying to get custody of my two boys and the case will go to trial in about two months. My lawyer has threatened to fire me as his client unless I change my appearance. I believe no one has a right to tell me how to dress or if I should display my piercing and tattoos.
“I told him that I was going to ask your feelings about this subject, and that I would do whatever you suggested, Mr. Beaver. This is a free country. What do you think of a lawyer who has the nerve to tell his clients how to live their lives?”
When that e-mail came in, I replied immediately, asking Mike if he had a webcam. Indeed he did, turned it on; giving me a good look at a 32-year-old man I would like to have described as nice looking. But if I did, it would be a fib.
“I’m kind of a rebel,” he proudly told me. But he didn’t have to, as his appearance said it all. Even for me, as a lawyer, the longer I looked at him, the more I imagined a judge giving custody to his wife. While in general, I have nothing against piercing, body art, tattoos, or men with pony tails who feel that shaving once a week makes you look rugged, but when these same men are facing a judge or jury, I do have a name for them. Idiots.
Michael was lucky that his lawyer had the guts to tell him how the cow eats the cabbage.
Attorney Jill P. Rawal practices law in the Los Angeles area and has written on this subject. She has strong feelings about how appearance can influence the outcome of a case.
“It is absolutely critical for a lawyer to advise clients what to wear and what not to wear in court,” Attorney Rawal believes, “especially in family law or criminal matters.”
“Credibility is influenced by appearance. The ability to be listened to, and taken seriously should not be interfered with by distractions. For example, I recently witnessed a defendant representing herself in a custody case, dressed up literally like a clown. If you remember the character Mimi from the Drew Carey Show, she looked just like her, frosty-blue eye shadow, pink lipstick and way too much blush.”
“The judge was clearly trying not to laugh. In struggling to keep his composure, he spent a great deal of time staring at paperwork on his desk, to avoid looking at the woman. There were audible sounds of people snickering behind her back. If it were not so tragic, it would been funny.”
So what should you not wear to court? Are there any general guidelines for appropriate dress and behavior while waiting for your case to be called? Attorney Rawal offers these valuable suggestions.
“For women, anything too revealing is a definite no no. A low cut top, very short skirt, or anything see through is dangerous. Let’s say it is case in which allegations of child sexual abuse have been made. If you are the defendant and are truly innocent of these charges, by dressing in a sexually inappropriate manner, ask yourself just what kind of message am I sending?
“Even if the facts may not suggest abuse, the judge or jury is more likely to think that you may have done something wrong if they feel your behavior and dress in court is transmitting a different message. We all know the old saying about not being able to read a book by its cover — well, here, that cover — your appearance — becomes the book.”
I asked the attorney about visible tattoos. Her response was consistent with her views of piercing.
“Tattoos should be covered up to the extent that it is reasonable to do so. For example, if men have full arm tattoos, I suggest they wear a long sleeve shirt. Again, this is not the time or place to argue your rights under the U.S. Constitution. You can do that all you want if you’re out of jail.
“Color of clothing is also important, and frequently not considered. All black or all white should be avoided. Earth-tones, muted colors, nothing too bright — that’s the number one requirement. Bright sequins, neon colors, or jackets with team names need to be left at home.”
There is a popular belief that if a man will be testifying in court, he should dress up in a suit. The problem is if you do not usually wear a suit and tie, chances are that you will not be comfortable. “This applies to women as well. If you are a jeans and T-shirt kind of girl, and you try to wear a buttoned up blazer, a proper skirt and high heels, it won’t work. You will seem uncomfortable, and out of place,” she points out.
I asked her view of wearing jeans in court? Is that too casual?
“Certainly you can wear jeans, but this depends upon the city where you live and clothing standards.”
Next week a look at how your demeanor — behavior — can influence the outcome of your case.
Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.