Can You Wear Interesting Suits to Court?

Can Lawyers Wear Interesting Suits to Court?Can you wear “interesting” suits to court — colorful, patterned, fanciful, haute? (You know, kind of like in our weekly Suit of the Week feature?) Reader E asks — specifically wondering about this teal LK Bennett suit that Kate Middleton is wearing here and here — and I think it’s a great question for all the women lawyers:

This is a lawyer-specific question – can you wear interesting suits to court if it’s still a suit? I agree with previous suggestions here that a dress/blazer combo, unless its meant to be a suit, is not formal enough for court. But, my question is, what about things that are true suit sets but are more interesting – like an AT tweed suit, or the LK Bennett dark teal dress and jacket suit set that Kate Mid. has? Or do you think court suits have to be black/grey/navy and totally plain? Thx!

I can’t wait to hear what the readers say here.  For my $.02, I always think of my reaction to an article years ago about a young public defender who wore Balmain (at the time, their blazers had super pointy shoulders) and other couture suits to court.  The impression it left on me was a bad one — it seemed like she was not showing any respect for her clients or the fact that she was there to represent THEM, in life-altering matters, before stodgy judges and juries who may or may not have approved of her fashion choices (or her designer budget). Plus, as readers have pointed out in the past, wearing ostensibly designer, moneyed things in front of juries can be a bad move, particularly if you’re a public defender.

NOW: A crazy/trendy Balmain suit is one thing — a dark teal LK Bennett dress and jacket is another.  But where is the line? And are there different rules for “first appearance before the court” and “day 30 of a 6-month trial”? For my $.02:

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  • Remember, if you’re appearing in court, you’re representing someone else. Honor that relationship by keeping the focus on your arguments and their situation, not on your personality or your clothes.
  • Treat early appearances like an interview. If it’s early on in anyone’s relationship (yours to the client, the client’s relationship to the judge or jury, YOURS to the judge/jury) then treat it like an interview and go with the “hit ’em with my smarts” approach to interview attire: classic, tasteful, inoffensive — so your brain can shine, and the focus can be on the arguments you’re making on behalf of your client.
  • If it looks like you’re in costume, don’t wear it. Period. This may apply to vintage couture, overly girly suits, or more.
  • Stick with standard rules for trends at conservative offices: if you wouldn’t have worn the shape five years ago, reconsider it.  If it’s body baring, don’t wear it. (I’d include a skirt suit with a miniskirt, or a shorts suit, unless you are a lawyer in Bermuda.) If it’s illogical, don’t wear it. (I’d call exposed toes in winter illogical, and possibly a cape blazer as well.)

With regard to the teal LK Bennett suit (still available! jacket dress) — it’s a gorgeous, gorgeous suit, and I think the color is muted enough that you can get away with it.  Readers, what would you say — can you wear interesting suits to court? Would you wear them; where are your lines for when a suit is TOO interesting to wear to court?

Comments

  1. I would totally wear that teal suit to court, but I would not wear a Balmain one as described. I think your rule about shape is a really good one, that I had not articulated. I will wear a pencil skirt suit in almost any color. I wore a winter white tweed one to state court on a Friday a couple of weeks ago. I may not have worn that on the first day of a federal trial, but I felt like it was okay in the circumstances.

  2. I have seen a lot of “interesting suits” in court, including on judges. I don’t think it’s ever actually hurt anyone but it may not have helped. I think a good rule of thumb is don’t be distracting.

    • Legally Brunette :

      + 1 Don’t be distracting.

      I practice in federal appeals court and everyone wears navy/black/charcoal suits, either skirts or pants. One time a guy wore a brown suit and he stuck out and not in a good way. No way I would wear that teal suit to federal court, although I agree that it’s lovely.

      • Dad wear’s brown suit’s b/c President Raegan wore brown suits and it became quite the rage he said, back in the 1980’s. I was to young in the 1980’s to remember this kind of thing, but I have picure’s of dad holding me by the Lincoln Monument wearing a brown suit. I do NOT think mom let him keep it once he gave up his job at the CIA, though.

  3. I’d also mention that it might depend on what we mean by appearing in court. I’ve observed different levels of formality in lawyer attire at the state courthouse vs. the district court (less formal/more formal and conservative). Same for trial or motion hearing vs. showing up for a status conference (more formal/less formal).

    • Anonymous :

      also, depending on who your client is, I would think?

    • Anonymous :

      And different levels in state court in big city vs small town.

    • +1 – status hearing with a state court judge (in chambers, not in open court) = dress and jacket (formal suit not required); open court or in chambers with municipal court = dress and jacket (formal suit not required); open court with state court judge (i.e. hearing on motion, trial) = suit. Federal court (no matter the occasion) = suit.

      I practice business litigation in a Midwest rust-belt City (may or may not have the NBA champions) so take my advice with that in mind.

  4. Mrs. Jones :

    It definitely depends, and it can definitely be ok, but generally it’s better to err on the “boring” side, IMO as a judge’s law clerk.

  5. Anonymous :

    I would think this depends on whether it’s a hearing in front of a judge or a jury trial. For a jury trial, especially if the jurors are not used to seeing or interacting with lawyers, I’d be very conservative with my suits. If it’s a bench trial or the jury is a bit more sophisticated (say, an IP case), I would wear the teal suit. As an associate, I would worry about dressing more flashy than a partner does in the courtroom.

    • Your last sentence raises a good point. I work with mostly male partners. They pretty universally wear charcoal suits to court. Navy is about as “bold” as I would go. Men just don’t understand women’s suiting. In fact, a partner once asked me why I don’t (read: passive aggressively told me that I should) wear white button downs instead of white/cream blouses. Not that I have to explain to you ladies, but I’m very busty and short and even properly-tailored button downs look and feel awful on me.

      • Sydney Bristow :

        How did you respond to that partner? All the responses that come to mind aren’t something I can imagine saying.

        • I said something along the lines of, (a) I find it is a more professional style on me; and (b) if a question like “I wonder why women don’t wear/do X even though men do” ever pops into his head, then it’s something he should probably ask his wife before he asks his female subordinates.

        • Sydney Bristow :

          Good for you! That sounds like a great response to me.

      • ME TOO! I’d probably mutter, “Oh, I don’t wear men’s clothing to work.” Or at least that is what I would want to say.

        Really, those button down shirts ARE men’s clothing. Blouses are ladies’ versions. Particularly if you have breasts.

    • +1 I wear my more interesting suits for status hearings and bench trials and my more conservative suits for jury trials. I disagree about matching dress + blazer not being formal enough. As I have become more senior, I do now wear more textured suits and distinctive shoes and necklaces for jury trials.

  6. I can’t find it now, but in days past, the 7th Circuit essentially stated a dress code in its handbook, saying that lawyers should wear dark suits. I only wear dark gray or navy in fed app cts. Obviously there is more leeway in district courts, especially for status conferences and such. But generally I don’t see court as a place to express my personality — it’s a uniform.

  7. BetterandBetter :

    I’ve seen attorneys flip out (Federal Litigation) over expert witnesses wearing colors that are too bright. There was once a collective smirk on one side of the court room (and I could have been imagining it- the Bench) when the other side’s expert (art historian for an appraisal case) came in to testify in a dark pink suit. I saw a DC appellate attorney wear a tweed powder blue skirt suit to argue before the 2nd Circuit. I mean it was summer and everything, but it just reads as odd.

    Not an attorney, but if I ever am, my exposure to federal litigation in the Northeast leads be to believe I’d definitely err in the boring side of things until I was very very senior.

  8. Sydney Bristow :

    Ok I know it’s a tv show, but in at least 1 episode of SVU a defense attorney wears a bright green suit that I really liked. But every time I see it I think, that’s probably not court appropriate.

    • I’m not a lawyer, so I was just thinking of that show. Do all the defense attorneys really wear dark suits on SVU?

      • Sydney Bristow :

        I feel like they did in the early years of the show. The male ADA from the past couple of seasons seems to wear slightly more flashy outfits than the female ADAs before him. I think the defense attorney suits have become more creative over the years.

  9. I would wear that suit to a depo or a conference, but not to court. Maybe family court.

    I’ve worked with two women who did suiting very well. They always stuck to muted colors, but the interest was in the cut or texture. I absolutely love tweed suits, for example. I’ve seen suiting separates done well too, but I think the two “separates” have to be meant to go together; they can’t be true separates.

  10. anon-oh-no :

    I’m still of the opinion that as long as you are put together an not showing inappropriate amounts of skin, just about anything goes, suit wise. I hate that women are regularly judged by what they are wearing and their ability to dress like a man (I mean, Kat, I HATE that you and others on this s!te regularly suggest being “overly girly” is a bad thing — I am a girl; I like ruffles and pink; I am also an attorney and my like of pink and ruffles has nothing at all to do with my ability to practice law, as evidenced by the fact that I am a BigLaw partner practicing in a major city). I don’t think any of this is going to change if women as a whole continue to bow to the idea that we need to dress like men.

    That all said, I don’t practice and live in a vacuum. I get that I can’t always put my own feminist interest totally above that of my clients. when I’m practicing in state court in my major city, I can be much more “daring” or bold, for lack of a better phrase. when I am in state court in a small, conservative town, I can wear a navy or grey skirt suit (though I will rarely wear a white blouse). If I’m arguing in the 7th circuit, I will likely be more conservative, though if im in federal district court on a status call, I will likely wear whatever suit I want.

  11. Never too many shoes... :

    There is a very famous criminal defence lawyer in Toronto who is known for her slightly goth, avant garde fashion choices and her love of footwear. It just *works* for her because she wears it like a boss. My favourite thing ever was when she was asked about her clothes in an interview and she brushed it aside by pointing out interviewers do not ask male lawyers about their suits.

  12. IANAL, so I’m just reading this conversation out of curiosity, but it’s fascinating to me! What about more out-there accessories? For example, I’ve got a pair of neon pink glasses (the frames are very thin, so they’re not that crazy) and I just ordered a pair of big, gold glasses that wouldn’t look out of place on JB Fletcher. Would things like that fly in court, or no?

  13. I am a new partner at a mid-sized law firm in a transactional practice and I’m looking to hire someone to be my main associate. I am looking for someone who is smart, hard-working, and has a good attitude. So far, I have two really good candidates, so this is a “good problem.” I’m having trouble deciding which one I would like to hire because they both have good backgrounds, good schools, likeable, etc. How do I identify the qualities I am looking for when interviews don’t lend themselves to figuring out whether someone is smart, is willing to stay late to get the job done right, has good attention to detail, etc.? I’m asking for writing samples, but I know that everyone’s writing sample will be thoroughly edited and proofread, etc. so I’m not sure if that will serve as the tiebreaker. Can people on the board who have hired people to work with them give me some clues as to what I should be looking for?

    • TorontoNewbie :

      References?

    • Mountain Mgr :

      What type of interview questions are you using? Make sure you are specifically asking for examples of a project or task required flexibility and creative thinking, for example, and how he/she handled it. You can offer hypotheticals, too, just to find out how the candidate would approach the problem. “The day before a major deadline, X happens and you have to revise your work to include X. What do you do?”

  14. New phone? :

    I need a new mobile phone. What do you recommend? I do NOT want an iPhone; I occasionally use my husband’s and just get annoyed with it. My old Samsung Galaxy is dying slowly. Thanks!

  15. Wild West :

    I’m a law clerk in one of the two “major” bankruptcy districts. I swear, Bankruptcy Court is the Wild West when it comes to attire. I frequently see interesting and odd suits even on the men, like dramatic pinstripes, three-piece suits, or very short pants with crazy patterned socks. The women’s attire varies widely, but it’s common for women not to wear suits to status conferences or to argue motions. A female attorney in a long trial wore a cardigan instead of a suit jacket, and Keen-type clog shoes, every day. I’ve seen a lot of dresses without jackets, normal business-casual separates, and weird footwear (like, cage sandals and even rain boots).

    Personally I find the extreme cases (particularly anything too short or tight) kind of disrespectful and odd, but I’ve never heard the judge make a peep about it and it doesn’t affect anyone’s substantive analysis of the case. I think the women who thoughtfully wear dresses with coordinating blazers or colored/interesting suits look great, put together, and professional.

    It’s all interesting and has caused me to feel comfortable wearing a black dress with a coordinating but not matching jacket occasionally. But when I go back to my litigation practice after this clerkship, I’m taking zero fashion lessons with me.

    • I read all of these comments thinking, in bk court (not one of the major districts) lawyers go in front of judges in dresses with no jacket or khakis and a blazer. For hearings. I am fancy because I wear heels. So, agreed: take no lessons from here as far as clothing goes.

  16. Senior Attorney :

    These discussions seem like something from another planet to me. I practice in state court in Los Angeles and I swear to God, people wear every danged thing to court and nobody bats an eye. I have seen a criminal defense lawyer wear leggings-as-pants in a misdemeanor trial and danged if she didn’t get a hung jury when her client seemed to be guilty as can be. I’ve seen deputy district attorneys wear flip flops to court. I’ve seen well-known female big-firm lawyers wear brightly colored suits to appellate oral argument. Female lawyers, both civil and criminal, routinely wear sheath dresses with matching or non-matching blazers to court. I’ve seen a female appellate justice wear bare legs, high heeled patent leather mules and bright red toenails with her robe for oral argument.

    Things must just be very very different out here.

    • Anonymous BigLaw Associate :

      I am also in LA, and have some cases in LA/SF/Santa Clara Superior. I have worn a blazer and skirt to court (not a suit), rarely wear pantyhose, and often wear interesting but not crazy shoes.

      But if I am in federal court, different story. In ND Cal/SD Cal/CD Cal, I’ll still wear an interesting shell or blouse underneath, but will wear a dark suit, pantyhose, and plain black shoes. But if I have to go to Delaware, Texas, Wisconsin, or some rural district court it is dark suit + button down or very simple, high-necked shell. Same for federal appellate court, regardless of location.

      I have sort of stopped wearing suits to depos and usually wear a dress, with or without a blazer.

    • Sloan Sabbith :

      Hahahahahahahaha, me too- up in the Pacific Northwest and I’m pretty sure I’ll be wearing a patterned dress with a blazer next week to court.

    • Anonymous :

      Same. I have lived in NY, LA, and Chicago and practiced in federal court there (and some state court in LA). For federal appellate court and maaaaaybe first day in a jury trial, I wouldn’t wear the teal suit. But as someone who is in federal court at least three days a week, the teal suit works every day before every district court judge I’ve ever appeared in front of or even spoken to. I see women lawyers regularly wearing tank dresses without blazers, and old sweaters rather than blazers, not to mention old snow boots or Birks rather than flats/pumps. LA can be a little more adventurous, but even in old midwestern Chicago, the teal suit or colored tweed would not be inappropriate. It may communicate something other than what you want a jury to perceive (a la the Balmain suit), but it would be court appropriate.

  17. Baby attorney practicing in Family Court in the Midwest….this might be because it’s family court and the particular county we’re in, but when I would go to court as a student (always in a navy or black skirt suit, i look young enough as it is so I didn’t want to make it worse by wearing anything even slightly out of the ordinary), I would see a lot of more casually dressed female attorneys (cardigan set with slacks, sheath dress, etc.), and they didn’t look too out of place. My supervisor usually stuck to a standard suit but would occasionally rock a blush pink blazer with black trim or a black blazer over a really cool dress and still looked very professional. But again, the particular county we are in is pretty laid back. I’ve also seen one or two male attorneys without ties…that seems to be crossing a line in my brain for some reason.

  18. I find this varies by region. I check with local counsel to see what will or will not work.

  19. Anonymous :

    I have been practicing for 20 years and I am in district and federal court frequently. I agree that the main issue is to keep the focus on what you are saying rather than what you are wearing, so I don’t wear anything flashy. That goes for jewelry and shoes, too. Kate’s LKB suit would be fine in any district court proceeding, including trial. It might be OK in federal appellate court but I wouldn’t take the risk. In my early days, we worried about whether it was OK to wear suits with pants instead of skirts to court — thank goodness we all got over that Now pants are just fine. I do think, though, that when you wear a formal look with a dark suit to court, you have to wear pantyhose. Bare legs just look weird.

  20. I am currently pregnant, so my court attire is something I otherwise would not be wearing to court at all – black jersey dress (the horror! not a suiting fabric at all) and a not-black jacket from a suit that I can’t wear at the moment.

    But in my normal wardrobe, I would probably wear a suit like this to state court but not federal. I tend to go black or navy blue in federal court, though I take liberties with more fun shirts and accessories if its just a status or other minor hearing, or if I’m second chair and unlikely to actually talk.

  21. This is one of the reasons why I would love to see you feature Robin Lynn Haynes, the Washington State Bar Association President, on here. Granted she practices in Spokane, WA where norms are different from a place like New York, but I think she has really valuable insight to offer on how to develop a professional sense of style as a lawyer, when to push boundaries, and how to tone a look down.

  22. Throwing this out there, but in my part of the world (Midwest) I still hear comments about women “trying to be men” or denying their femininity, etc., when they dress in dark conservative suits like men. Maybe it’s just my perception, but it seems like judges and juries here are more receptive to women’s suiting that is distinctly different from men’s – more colorful, textured, other details that aren’t “male banker.” In fact, if anything, I see judges and juries showing better body language and facial expressions to the female attorney with more “flair” than the one dressed the same as her male colleagues. I was raised in New York, but make an effort to get away from dark suits for this reason. My best jury outcome, I was in a gold/beige tweed suit threaded through with metallic gold thread, and jurors smiled at me and hung around to talk about their favorable impressions of my case after the verdict came in. I’m always looking for unique suits.

  23. Such a great thread/subject for those who wear suits everyday. For me the big divide is jury trial vs judge. Would definitely wear this teal suit to court. Would not wear with a jury. I wear only simple grey, navy, and maybe black at first in a jury trial. I will wear a black dress w formal blazer by week 2 or 3 of jury trial. Dress plus black blazer by week 4.

    As long I have a jacket on, the judges in my mid south city won’t even notice.

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