When Court Moves Online, Do Dress Codes Still Matter?

Apr 15, 2020 · 40 comments
James (Rhode Island)
There's a reason attorneys are called officers of the court and like all officers, they are expected to act and dress in a professional manner. Ones dress in front of the court is a symbol of understanding of the import of their duty
Dejah (Williamsburg, VA)
The law is blind, but apparently, it IS fashion conscious. It only goes to show how incredibly entitled and narcissistic some judges are. Even during a global pandemic...
Jennifer (Mitford)
@Dejah It’s entitlement to expect someone in a professional meeting to wear a shirt and get out of bed? Those were the specific examples the judge gave.
Boomer (Maryland)
@Dejah If my attorney showed up on a video conference looking like an unprepared slob, I would feel that he/she wasn't taking my case seriously or acting professionally. Sure, if I had to choose, I'd take an effective slob over an ineffective but well-dressed lawyer. The choice shouldn't be necessary, within reason.
Iman Onymous (The Blue Dot)
It's interesting that lawyers and judges even consider what they and others are wearing in a "video courtroom" at all. Same thing goes for brick and mortar courtrooms. The U.S. "justice" system doesn't look for or deliver the truth or justice, and I think it never has. It delivers politically favored indictments and persecution doled-out by amoral and unethical prosecutors. It delivers verdicts arrived at by citizen juries who, in many instances, can't think straight or even understand the issues before them. The most troubling thing these circuses produce is acquittal and impunity to cops who shoot and/or strangle or suffocate citizens who they murder in plain sight of video cameras. And then, they destroy or hide the video/audio evidence. Our courts give these "public servants" a get-out-of-jail card WAY too often. If these... shall we say ... "individuals".... spent a lot more time worrying about justice, fairness and finding the truth and a lot less time primping for the cheesy, corrupt public performances they put on at our expense, the U.S. would be a lot closer to realizing the dream of the democratic republic our founders envisioned. Their suits and their ridiculous pompous robes ? Who cares about their getup. I wouldn't care if they appeared in bath robes and dirty work clothes if they'd just seek to deliver real, untainted justice to everyone who appears in court. Truth is naked. Justice doesn't wear a robe.
Jeff (Seattle)
Here's a better idea: stop using video calls. The closer we can get to completely anonymizing the legal process, the more justice we'll have, with less prejudicial bias whether it be from racism, sexism, classism, or even body-language-ism. Pure legal argument and evidence are all that should matter.
Christopher (Ohio)
Working from home does not excuse appearing with some semblance of professional attire when on video. This especially true of court hearings. There is higher expectation of formality. Many in this country find any excuse to dress as they see please rather than what the occasion needs. I am a lawyer by trade and recognize courts are not gyms or bedrooms and I am not sure why these lawyers forgot that.
Rider3 (Boston)
It absolutely matters. Be professional. If you are going to appear in court, have some respect and dress appropriately. I've worked big law in Boston for 30+ years. I'd never think of going to court without proper dress. This is a no-brainer.
noah (usa)
Mr. Keith of the Brennan Center has it right: as usual, the poor will be the ones who suffer because judges' decisions are influenced by the appearance of the people before them.
kb (cary, nc)
Professionalism and respect always matter. The court and our legal system deserve respect, why is this even an issue? The fact that it is online does not make a court's rulings/decisions less meaningful - why is it so difficult to get people to give up leisurewear?
Tuvw Xyz (Evanston, Illinois)
Dress code must be maintained under all circumstances, without any slightest relaxation. For women plaintiffs and defendants, gloves, and hats with modestly wide brims and no eccentric decorations. For men, somber ties of correct length (not Trump's), suits with coats buttoned-up, gloves, and hats.
SEP (Los Angeles)
@Tuvw Xyz Thank you. This gave me my first, and maybe only, good laugh today. Unless you were serious. In that case, it gave me the best laugh I’ve had all month.
I remember when men's facial hair was considered bad form and unprofessional.
Alfredo Alfredo (Italia)
The upper part of the body is framed in the video conferences (think of the anchorman). So, you can wear underwear and flip-flops, but also (for the camera) a jacket, a shirt and a tie. You just have to be careful not to stand up during the connection with the judge.
A. Cleary (NY)
What is the value of videoconferencing at all in a legal setting? Why not just a conference call with audio only? Delays and distractions caused by people unfamiliar with how the software or hardware is used can't be good. And what about people who don't have a good internet connection? Videoconferencing introduces another avenue of bias. Keep it simple. Most people have a phone & know how to use it. Keep it to audio & eliminate the distractions.
Martin (London)
Telephone is OK for hearings of less than an hour involving counsel only and are quite common here. Any longer and I find them surprisingly hard given the absence of visual cues. Witnesses are a different story. They need to be both seen and heard and will need to be shown documents and so on. Here in the U.K. civil trials by video link are getting going and can be surprisingly complex and still work well- however we don’t have juries. Jury trials in the criminal courts are all held up.
Berry Nice (Portland)
I’ve been a participant in telephone settlement conferences, dispositions and court hearings. Everyone has their head down to listen, collaborate on the DL & are ready like a Jeopardy contestant when they need to interject. Loved those! I wouldn’t want to be on video though. I already feel weird enough talking to my therapist on video chat now, I can only imagine what a Zoom session in family court feels like.
A. Cleary (NY)
@Martin The instances you cited clearly call for videoconferencing. I was thinking more in terms of motions, routine settlement talks among counsel, business meetings, etc. I can't imagine doing a jury trial on Zoom, but it's a strange new world, isn't it?
GabbyK (Texas)
Makes me think of the Judge in the Justified TV series who didn't wear pants under his robe.
Liz (Alaska)
I practice in Alaska where call-ins over our vast distances have been the norm for years. Lawyers and court officers are so sloppy. They call children "kiddos" in court and with the parents present; they say "yeah" and "uh huh" and pepper their talk with slang. Their intonation is appropriate for a high school lunch table. I have long thought that if our court system would just use video technology and require us to dress up it would bring with it the professionalism these proceedings deserve. Not just for the judge, but for the scared people participating who have never been in a courtroom before and for whom these proceedings have a significant effect on their lives.
MrMikeludo (Philadelphia)
@Liz And - uh: "I have long thought that if our court system would just use video technology and require us to dress up it would bring with it the professionalism these proceedings deserve." Yeah, like - maybe, going into a court, in a suit, in "municipal court," and citing the law - to the judge, and having the judge say, "Tough luck. You lose!" Would LOVE to have a "video" of the judge doing that to me, for sure.
noah (usa)
@Liz People who have never been in a courtroom before are not comforted by the presence of lawyers in suits speaking constant legalese.
Greenfordanger (Yukon)
I am not in favour of a strict dress code - the kind that arbitrarily bans things like tattoos or coloured hair whether or not they are neat and do not constitute a distraction in court - but this judge seems sensible. You want to show your client and the others involved in the judicial process that you take the matter seriously and it is not something that you are doing off the side of your desk - or bed!. For some people before the court, whether in person or remotely, this is the worst day of their life and to see that counsel doesn't care enough to get out of a grimy tee shirt signals that they don't care much about your matter. The court and those appearing before it deserve respect.
Someone (Somewhere)
Bikini tops and stained undershirts okay as long as you top it all off with a barrister's wig!
Victor (pittsburgh, pa)
Sounds like judges could use this opportunity to judge more on arguments than appearance. If your objectivity is able to be swayed by appearance then judge is not the right profession for you.
Gerard Ashton PE (Vermont)
Something along the lines of business casual seems appropriate for those who normally wear such clothes. Requiring any clothing that requires dry cleaning would be outrageous, since many of the dry cleaners are closed, and if any are open, visiting them increases the risk of virus spread.
ca (St LOUIS.)
Lawyers gotta wear wigs!
Bob (Portland)
Clothing optional arguments would certainly change the tone of those involved.
Susan (British Virgin Islands)
The idea that a lawyer would appear before the court shirtless, in a bathing suit, coverup or not, or from bed, leaves me speechless. We are holding zoom hearings and I was concerned about whether I should wear my robe (we follow UK dress norms here). I certainly wore business attire.
Todd (San Fran)
What a display of entitlement. Judge Bailey believes that his own perceptions of decorum matter more than the health and safety of the lawyers who practice in his courtroom, in that he would have the lawyer break quarantine to go to the dry cleaner who that they can appear before him in dress clothes? Sorry Judge, but I'm not going to risk my life because you think it's important for me to be dressed a certain way. If that means you're going to unfairly judge my client's legal position based on my appearance, well, I'd question your ethics. You swore an oath to put aside your personal biases on race, gender, or nationality when you're reaching a ruling, surely you can overlook my star wars t-shirt, as well. I mean, give me a break. Arrogant white men walked us into this catastrophe, and this arrogant white man would prolong it because he prefers to see a collared shirt. Give me a break!!
Jung and Easily Freudened (Wisconsin)
@Todd I couldn't disagree more with you. I'm a person of color who works in the legal profession. My parents taught us that how we appear signals the respect we have for ourselves, others, and for particular events and settings. When I was a child, I watched my mother get dressed- up to attend a wedding. I asked her why she was doing that. She said, "Out of respect for the event. And, I'm telling the wedding couple, through my choice of clothes,that I think their wedding is important and worth making the extra effort to look nice." Those words, although said over 50 years ago, never left me, and if they apply to a social event, they certainly apply to a legal event. Is a "collared shirt" strictly necessary in this current environment? No, but being properly covered and putting in effort to appear appropriate to the event always is.
ACM (Boston, MA)
@Todd There are many dress clothes options that don't require dry cleaning. I think the judge was also admonishing attorneys to conduct themselves in the manner required in any business setting. Participating shirtless or while in bed don't qualify in most work settings. In my zoom meetings, I wear makeup, style my hair, wear jewelery and a business like top. No dry cleaning involved.
Carole Goldberg (Northern CA)
@Todd Humans rely on visual clues to decide if the person they see is a threat or is trustworthy. First impressions are formed instantaneously and stick the mind for a very long time. Clothing, hair, tattoos are all things that the brain notes immediately. Judicial hearings involve peoples' lives. Don't show up looking as if you just finished mowing the lawn in 95% heat or on the beach. Those visual impressions stay with the judge and the client.
Claire (Schenectady NY)
In my little area of admin law, we are NOT doing video hearings. I'm taking the opportunity to paint my nails some outlandish colors, and working in jeans and hoodies. I'm not sad about the fact that I haven't had to do any ironing in the past few weeks. One of the biggest downsides of the legal profession is the "looks" component. I'd love to dye my hair fun colors, but, alas, no can do.
--Respectfully (Massachusetts)
Sure, put on a shirt. But otherwise, criticizing where people are sitting during a conference call or how put-together they look seems remarkably tone-deaf right now. Like anyone else, attorneys on a Zoom call these days may well be sick themselves; have very sick family members; have recently lost a loved one; have young children at home with no childcare; and a host of other serious things to worry about. Most people are doing the best they can, and it turns out that not everyone is privileged enough to have the time to focus on the trivialities of a dress code right now. Surely we have bigger things to worry about.
jim (NJ)
I really dont see how the judges comments are an issue. Dress professionally, and remember that there is a higher standard for lawyers. I am an attorney working out of the law in a senior position. I conduct meetings in a sweatshirt and without shaving, from my garage which has bikes and tools in view, but no little kids talking. If I was still practicing law and had to make a court appearance by zoom, I would shave, probably put on a tie, and then open up the home office/garage.
Judith (Hume)
I telecommuted 4 days a week for the last couple of years before I retired, but every day I got dressed in business casual, as if I was going into the office, including putting on earrings and make-up. There were a couple of reasons I did this: first, it helped me start each day psychologically in work-mode and second, if we ended up having an unscheduled video conference meeting, I never had to scramble getting myself together at the last minute. For me, how I'm dressed affects how I feel about what I'm doing.
Minmin (New York)
Shirtless? Bathing suit cover-up? If the article had some stuffy judge insisting that the lawyers wear suits, I'd protest, but there's a long way between shirtless and suited. In what universe did these lawyers think these outfits were appropriate? (Though maybe the female lawyer was in bed because she was recovering from Covid-19.)
Ben S. (California)
@Minmin Exactly what I was thinking. No one, in any profession, should be participating in work-related video conferences in bed or un-shirted. Un-pantsed, though, that's another matter.
Gerry (St. Petersburg Florida)
@Minmin - "In what universe did these lawyers think these outfits were appropriate?" Florida.
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