Reader Mail: Can I Wear a Longer Skirt to an Important Court Appearance?

womens suit with longer skirtWe’ve been thinking about this question since we first read it…

I have an important court appearance coming up. I will be arguing an appeal on a fairly significant issue. I have been wearing pants for years to trial. But are they appropriate before the more conservative court of appeals? Also, I have terrible legs (calves and ankles mainly ). Got them from my mom. I have always been insecure about them (thus the pants). Are there any suits out there with longer skirts. I don’t ever see them anymore. Are such skirts hopelessly out of style?

Obviously, long skirts had their heyday a while ago (we’re guessing at least 15 years) — but we remember thinking it was very chic when a friend of ours in law school wore a suit with one (about seven years ago, admittedly).  In fact, the only skirt suit we could find that looked vaguely acceptable was this Austin Reed skirt suit, available at Overstock.com (size 4 only).  If you have a longer skirt suit, or you can find one, we’d say go ahead and wear it if you’re comfortable in it — the people who really care whether you’re in a skirt suit will be sated by the longer skirt, and the people who don’t care what you wear — well, they won’t care.  And you, you’ll be comfortable.

Otherwise… you’re in a tough spot.  Obviously, appellate judges should be intelligent enough to see past a pantsuit (gasp!) and listen to the merits of an argument.  But, then again, we know of at least one federal judge — blind! — who made his clerks tell him if a woman lawyer was wearing a skirt suit or not when she appeared before him.  That’s how important it was to him.  So, regrettably, our advice to you is  that if your gut is telling you to wear a skirt suit, then wear a skirt suit — after all, you are an advocate for a client and this issue is bigger than you.  And it’s only one day (not even the whole day!) and, hopefully, you can find a suit that has both pants, a skirt, and a jacket, so the purchase isn’t a total bust.

Readers — if you have any different advice, please weigh in.  (Or, if you’ve seen any long skirt suits, please let us know!)

Comments

  1. I’d wear a skirt. It’s not that I haven’t seen women arguing in the courts of appeals in pants, I have, but I have always noticed it, both as a clerk on the First Circuit and now as a lawyer.

    But don’t wear some really retro long skirt — that’s also attention drawing and will have the judges and clerks wondering if it’s for religious reasons or what instead of thinking about your argument. Definitely worse to wear a strange skirt rather than pants.

    How bad can your legs be? I’m sure it’s insecurity more than reality speaking — I’ve seen women of all shapes and sizes in skirts in court.

    Bottom line though, I’d ask another woman at your firm or even a man if there are no senior women litigators to be found (we can be rare creatures!) what they think is appropriate for that court.

    Most of my practice is in the Delaware Chancery Court (extremely conservative) and the NY Fed courts (conservative but less so), so recently, making my first appearance in bankruptcy court in Texas, I was shocked to see a female partner (from a TX office of a large NY firm) arguing in open toed sandals and a “sexy” pantsuit. None of our Texas co-counsel batted an eye, although even my male colleagues from NY could not stop talking about the shoes.

    The point of that aside is that mores differ from court to court and your best bet is to get a sense from a woman who appears regularly before that particular court of appeals. You don’t want to be thinking about your dress or your legs that day — you want to be 100% focused on your argument!

  2. punk rock tax attorney :

    how about this with this? i think these pants also go with the set.

  3. If you decide to go with a shorter skirt, perhaps black pantyhose would be the way to go–they’ll minimize/mask anything that you’re less than comfortable with and still allow for the conservatism/formality/whatever of wearing a skirt suit.

    Also… I’m sure your ankles and calves are not as bad as you think. Even if they are, pairing black pointy heels with the aforementioned hose will cover all manner of sins.

  4. I agree with jra on the black pantyhose and a little bit shorter skirt. Even if you get one that hits mid calf (you can even shop in the Long section if you’re not incredibly tall), you’ll look great and not overly conservative and out of style. And black pantyhose will hide a multitude of sins. Amazon has some black sheer hose in the Support Hose sections, if you’re that uncomfortable, they may help! The Annie brand shoes at Zappos aren’t the most attractive, but they do have pointy toes, a lower heel, and arch support (and come in wide!) if you’re worried about that.

  5. I’m a clerk on a conservative federal appellate court, and I only hear comments/notice myself when clothing doesn’t fit well or is in a loud/odd color or pattern. That said, most women do wear skirt suits.
    But, I was in a Texas federal district court a few years ago when a female judge scolded an attorney for crossing the bar (not even arguing) while wearing a pant suit. So, you never know, unfortunately.

  6. Pantsuits and skirt suits are both appropriate. More important than the length of the suit is that you choose a dark colored suit, keep your jacket buttoned, and wear conservative shoes and jewelry. As Corporette said, you want the panel to remember the argument you presented, not the outfit you wore.
    The key is that you don’t want the court to remember what you’re wearing at all (either because it was too loud/flashy/short/inappropriate or because it was strangely ill-fitting, dowdy or sloppy). WHen I think about inappropriate oufits I’ve seen women wearing in court, it tends to me because they seem overly informal (e.g., knit cardigans moonlighting as blazers). As other commenters have said, dark hose will go a long way.

  7. I prefer wearing skirts because by the time I find pants that fit over my hips, my feet have disappeared under folds of cloth. I have short legs, so most of my skirts are long. On anyone else, they would be knee length.

    I am sure your legs are fine. If you can’t find a long skirt, knee length or just below would work. Just don’t go with anything shorter.

    That is the other problem. It’s not only can you not find long skirts, you can’t find anything that is not a borderline miniskirt. Honestly, every female lawyer is not Ally McBeal.

    Oh, good luck on your argument.

  8. I’m also clerking on a conservative federal appellate court, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with a female attorney wearing a nice, well-fitting pant suit at oral argument. The judges will not be focusing on this, and I’d be surprised if they even noticed whether you wore a pant or skirt suit. I see female attorneys arguing in pant suits all the time. Most likely you will be standing behind a large podium anyhow, and your bottom half will not be visible during the argument.

    I will say that based on my experience at appellate oral arguments, an attorney wearing a long skirt suit is much, much more unusual than a female attorney in a pant suit.

    That said, the judges will definitely be focused on your demeanor and confidence, so if wearing a long skirt will make you feel more comfortable, wear the skirt.

  9. I would go with a skirt from the “tall” or “long” sections of regular suitwear – if it is too big at the waist, you can always have it taken in. Also, most of these skirts have another inch in the hem so you could have it altered to be a bit longer. That ought to get you to about 2 inches below the knee – and then, opaque black spanx or similar, and pointy toed low pumps. :) Good luck!

  10. What is the deal about making women wear skirts? It’s just sexist. I actually think women look, and I know I feel, more professional in pants. Not because I’m self conscious about my calves, but because I’m showing less flesh and don’t feel like my femininity is highlighted as much when I’m wearing a pantsuit. Because of the way I’m shaped, I look “cuter” in skirts, but then I have to worry about stockings, wearing the right pumps, and making sure I cross my legs just so while sitting, and all these million other wardrobe-related considerations that I don’t want cluttering up my head while in court. I want to project power and confidence, not “cute”.

  11. You have to be confident when you walk into that courtroom and if you can’t do it in a regular skirt than you might need the long skirt but I agree that a long skirt could be more distracting than black pantyhose and a black skirt of a more traditional length. Those judges see lawyers of all shapes and sizes and degrees of fitness, they probably won’t even notice your legs.

    I realize how this totally pares in comparison but back in law school we had mock appellate arguments for class and my female professor insisted that proper attire for appellate arguments for women is a skirt suit. I had just bought a brand new black pant suit to accomodate the 2 sizes I had recently gained and was aghast to learn she expected me to squeeze my butt into the old suit. I spoke to her outside of class about it and she said “I will not budge from my position. Wear a pant suit if you feel you need to but I will have to take that into account when I’m grading you.” I had a grade-based scholarship I couldn’t afford to lose so I squeezed into the smaller suit. Although it was all I could think about while I was waiting my turn, once I was in front of the judges, I never thought twice about what I was wearing and I soundly kicked my opponent’s butt.

  12. As a soon to be practicing attorney, I am shocked to hear all this stuff about not wearing pant suits. I would think pants would be more conservative than skirts do the obvious easy access in skirts lol. You never see a porno with a girl in a pants suit!! I’m jus trying to be funny, not insulting here. I guess I just don’t see the difference but am happy for the advice. I always feel sexier in skirts than pants anyway. Are they afraid we are trying to look like the men? *shrugs* still don’t get it.

    • I have always felt the same way! Aren’t skirts “sexier” and therefore less professional? Why wouldn’t pantsuits be the default in a professional atmosphere? Regardless, I have seen several women whispered about behind their backs for wearing pants to court, so I try to wear skirts. I don’t want to be talked about for what I wear! But really… it doesn’t make any sense to me.

  13. sorry that should say *due to the*

  14. I’m a pretty petite person, but the thing I have noticed when trying on longer skirts (hitting mid-calf or so) is that they make my legs look extra short and my calves extra wide. I think if you are self conscious about accenting the calves and ankles area, you should avoid something that hits in that region at all costs. Personally, I like the black hose idea with a skirt that maybe hits below the knee.

  15. Saw this advertised on this blog – there are long skirt suits on the site
    http://www.metrostyle.com/womens-Suits.aspx?DeptId=8763&affiliate_id=029&affiliate_location_id=02&WT.srch=1&mid=g0043406

    It is the metrostyle ad to the right (not sure if these change). Some of the colors are funky so buyer beware.

  16. Ahh…this blog is a breath of fresh air. I think all the tips so far have been great, and I wish the original poster much luck in court. Unfortunately, I have nothing to add to all the good advice here, except that I, too, am always on the look-out for ways to mask my calves and avoid “stump-ism.”

    By the way, for what it’s worth, I am about to graduate from law school, and words cannot describe how surprised I was a few years ago to find out that wearing a pantsuit was considered less conservative than a skirt.

    Crazy times we still live in!!!

  17. This doesn’t really help the person needing a suit, but Banana Republic has some longish skirts on sale these days (pencil skirts that hit below knee). Like this, though the color is bad: http://bananarepublic.gap.com/browse/product.do?cid=17051&vid=1&pid=663082&scid=663082002

    Also, I don’t know if anyone else has this problem, but I find that skirts that are supposed to hit at the knee or just above usually hit me below the knee and look too long, so I’ve recently discovered that buying petites is the way to go, despite being 5’8″! Have not yet been able to make this work with pants, though.

  18. I am the one that wrote the original email. Thanks for all the responses. I really was intrested to hear the comments from attorney from outside of Texas and their view that we drew less informally here. My boss, our managing partner, to this day has never worn pants into a courtroom. She is in her late 50′s and came up when women did not wear pants. She does not care whether I do. I started wearing pants right went I got out of law school (19 years ago, yikes I am old). At the time, I was way in the majority. I will still not wear open toed shoes into the courtroom. The one exception was when I was 9 months pregnant in August. No judge dared arguing with me! What I find interesting/shocking is how all the young clerks at the court of appeals wear very high heel with no hose. No hose with a skirt. Eee gads. Anyway, times are a changing. Maybe it is only us chicks that notice what the other women are wearing. After all of your emails, what I decided to do is to go to the Brooks Brothers outlet and try to get a skirt to one of the suits I already have. It can be my oral argument skirt. Thanks gals. I love this website.

  19. skirt-hating lady, esquire :

    I feel you, Steph. I too despise my calves and ankles, and I can’t wear any sort of heel without falling over and sending my feet into utter agony. Can’t even wear the cuter flates because my feet are so wide. So, I will opt for the pantsuit so I’m focusing on my argument, not on my clothes. I think one way to mitigate any perceived gender noncomfority or lack of formality is to get a *really nice*, well-cut pantsuit and pair it with a very soft, feminine shirt and pretty accessories and shoes. Nancy Pelosi pulls this off well: http://fashionlawyerblog.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/01/nancy-pelosi-is-hot.jpg

    If Hillary can run for president in pantsuits, we can damn well appear before the court of appeals in them!

  20. Break a leg at your argument! Glad you found a solution to your concern.

    I graduated from law school 5 years ago, and I was shocked (absolutely S-H-O-C-K-E-D) to hear my career services office suggest that the most appropriate, conservative interview attire was a skirt suit. I too think of pants suits as more professional, and also as less feminine and less sexy, which is partly why they’re more approprietely professional. Not to mention, pants are far more practical in northern winters.

    The career services office set off a buzz of offended protest in the school, and many women did wear pant-suits and got job offers. That being said, there are some people (mostly older) who still think that skirt suits are more appropriate. It’s a ridiculous and dated notion, but the (older) judge/senior partner is more likely than someone my age to belong to the genre of conservative/old-fashioned attorneys. So whether to cave to the notion is each individual attorney’s decision, but it’s good to know that the idea is still alive in some circles, so you can make an informed decision.

  21. i’m not sure that it’s that a skirt is more ‘conservative’ than a pantsuit – it’s that a skirt is more formal than a pantsuit.

    i asked one of my professors about this during my trial advocacy class – he’s from the old school, good ol’ boy days. was an assistant state’s attorney in a large midwestern city for a while (ending up in a very high position in the office), and was a judge at both the trial level and the appellate level (state). he now is head coach of one of the most successful trial ad teams in the country.

    he told me that it isn’t that it’s sexist, but it is about image, and that a skirt makes for a much more formal appearance than a pantsuit.

    personally, i feel much more professional when i’m in a skirt suit – it’s costuming for the big show. i wear pants every day to class; wearing a skirt is something special and makes me notice that and act differently. (granted, i’m one of those rabblerousers that doesn’t wear hose!)

  22. Lands’ End and Talbots have longer skirts to go with various matching jackets that make a suit. Usually there are also pants to match.

    Another option could be to have a suit tailor made. It doesn’t necessarily cost an arm and a leg. Check it out.

    Finally, I’d not worry about your legs. Wear whatever will be appropriate–black stockings in the South other than in cold weather is gauche. Don’t worry about how attractive you will look–it isn’t a date–it’s a court appearance….and I suspect you will look just fine.

  23. Experienced :

    See 2010 Fall: Marc Jacobs and copyists–long skirts (a-line) suits tres chic.

  24. The debate about skirts vs. pants is so bizarre to me. When I was in law school, in 2000, one of the profs told a story about so-and-so, an attorney in practice for a long time, who was, omg!: the first woman to ever wear pants in front of our state Supreme Court! We all felt like we were hearing a second hand account of ancient history – women not being allowed to wear pants in court seemed like a story out of 1960 – you know, back when our moms weren’t allowed to wear pants to school. It really shocks me to hear that this is an issue anywhere today. I always wear pants to court (got a tattoo on my leg), and it has never ever been an issue, not when I was clerking, not now, not ever. And this is is in the midwest! And of course “women must wear skirts” is sexist. It was sexist when schools wouldn’t let girls wear pants to high school and its sexist when courts have special requirements for women. “Okay fine, we accept you as students/attorneys but you will only be permitted to study/litigate if you’re wearing skirts.” A blind judge who asks his clerks what a female attorney is wearing? Holy crap, does he ask whether the ladies seem demure enough otherwise?

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