What Your Clients Should Wear to Court

Attorneys need to be appropriately dressed and appropriately professional when they head into the courtroom. The same rules apply for your clients.

The next time your client accompanies you in court, be sure to discuss their dresscode in advance.

“Wear your Sunday church outfit”

If you tell your client to wear their Sunday church outfit, there is almost no room for misinterpretation. This does not mean your client needs to go out and buy a nice suit, it just means they should plan on wearing their nice clothes.

If your client does not have a Sunday church outfit or does not get the reference, be more specific—tell them to wear khakis and a nice button-down shirt (and the equivalent for female clients).

The disaster scenario is when your client accused of drug possession wears a t-shirt with a marijuana leaf on it. Even more drastic, the individual accused of arson who had a matchbook clipped to his belt.

Of course, every case is different, and your dress code advice to your client may vary depending on the situation. When in doubt, however, telling your clients to dress like they are going to church is a good thing.

Why it matters

In many cases, your client’s appearance is their only opportunity to make an impression on the judge and jury. During most civil hearings, a client is unlikely to say anything. In criminal cases, many defendants rarely make any statements other than those required as part of an appearance or plea. What they are wearing might be the only “statement” they make to the court.

Telling them what to wear also avoids potential friction between you and your client. If you assume they will wear a suit, but they show up in jeans, that attorney-client conversation right before court will result stress for both you and your client. Avoid that uncomfortable talk by tackling the issue before it becomes an issue.

(photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/18796746@N05/4272817915/)

  • Kirk

    Disagree. Have you seen what people wear to church these days? I usually tell people to dress like they are going to a funeral. But then again, have you seen what people wear to funerals these days??

    When I practiced in East Texas, it was not unusual for the nicest shirt a young man owned would be the NASCAR shirt he got for Christmas. (shrugs) True story: I once saw a guy show up for a criminal plea wearing a shirt that said “I’m the only hell my momma ever raised.”

  • http://lawyerist.com/author/stacizaretsky/ Staci Zaretsky

    Personally, I wouldn’t bring up religion in a conversation about clothes — not everyone goes to church. I’d just advise the client as to specific pieces of clothing that are acceptable for a court appearance.

    • http://lawyerist.com/author/randallryder/ Randall Ryder

      But that’s because you love talking about clothes! I don’t think it matters if you attend church, belong to another religion, or have never been part of organized religion—most people get the reference. If not, as mentioned above, I would definitely specifically tell them what to wear.

  • doebtown

    I once prosecuted a case in New York City where–no joke–the defendant showed up to be sentenced on an assault case wearing a t-shirt with a picture on it of an handgun and the words “Cop Killer.” You will not be surprised to hear that the judge maxed him out.

    Dress like you’re going to a funeral is my go-to line, too. Even if you have semebody who doesn’t go to church, chances are great that they can appreciate the gravity you’re attaching to the proceeding by comparing it to a funeral.

    • http://lawyerist.com/author/randallryder/ Randall Ryder

      Wow. Based on the comments so far, it sounds like “dress like a funeral” is the way to go, but it sounds so ominous.

    • varnold

      I live in Houston but my uncle who lives ok.city showed up at my father’s funeral in cut offs and suspenders. Although my father didn’t mind I was a little embarrassed. Needless to say people have ideas of what’s approapriate.

  • http://www.georgiacriminalappellatelawblog.com Scott Key

    “Wear what you wear to church,” is really bad advice. I used to dispense this advice until my client wore a powder blue suit with purple stripes on the side of his pants. At least ask the client about his church first. I’ve had clients preview their court outfit for me a week before court.

    • http://lawyerist.com/author/randallryder/ Randall Ryder

      Sounds like a reasonable approach, although that suit sounds pretty awesome (but not for court).

      • http://gregoryluce.com/ Gregory Luce

        Though it was ultimately reversed after going to the Minnesota Supreme Court, a comment that “a Muslim plaintiff who attended a mosque should dress as if she were going to church” led to a successful discrimination lawsuit at the district court and Minnesota Court of Appeals level. I’d avoid using the phrase, whatever the legal merits or demerits of doing so.

  • Pausingplace

    This is very US-oriented advice. It’s much less socially unacceptable to mention church in any context in the UK, where I’m based. I would never, ever refer to church in a conversation about clothers or anything else, with a client unless it was a direct part of a case. Aside from being socially unacceptable it’s also culturally irrelevant to most here, and for those for whom it’s relevantm church clothes mean casual clothes.

    I tell people to dress smartly. Most of my clients understand that well enough. If the client has never shown me any evidence that they “get it” I’m specific with them: a smart, plain shirt, dark trousers and shoes… and I’d sent them to Oxfam to get a second hand set if that’s what it took to turn up looking presentable.

    • http://lawyerist.com/author/randallryder/ Randall Ryder

      It is definitely oriented towards lawyers in the United States, because I only practice law in the United States.

      As I mentioned, and you noted, giving specific instructions on clothes is certainly one way to to approach the issue.

  • http://constructionlawva.com Christopher G. Hill

    I usually tell folks to dress on the nice end of what they’d wear to work. I represent contractors. If they were to show up in a suit, that would look wrong so I usually go with the khaki’s and a nice golf or button down. Possibly a button down, no tie, blazer.

  • Mark

    I disagree as well. I live near a church, and I see congregants arriving wearing everything from oversized shorts and team jerseys to shiny violet or aquamarine zoot suits. Also, most judges frown on hats of any kind. Perhaps “dress for a serious business meeting” is better advice.

  • Rhonda Pagel

    I have to agree with the last comment. I practice mostly family law and I tell my clients to wear what they wear to work and to just make sure everything is clean. If I am representing a construction worker in a child support case where his occupation and income are the main things being discussed, the court is going to understand why he is wearing blue jeans and a clean tshirt. If he is wearing a suit (or even somewhat dressy clothes) he may fidget and look uncomfortable. I don’t want the Judge to think he is lying when really what is making him fidget is that the shirt he is wearing is one he hasn’t worn since his grandma’s funeral 2 years ago and it’s too small and uncomfortable!

  • Steve Silberman

    Do not tell your clients and witnesses that a trial is a formal court proceeding when you are discussing what to wear. While I was a trial court judge’s law clerk way back when, one party in a civil case came to court in a tuxedo, with cumberbund,etc. During a recess, I asked his lawyer (a friend) about the tuxedo. He said he told his client that court was a formal proceeding and to dress accordingly…….

    I advise my clients to dress as if going for an interview for an office job, then ask specifically what s/he intend to wear, and if need be make some suggestions. I also advise the women nothing too low above the waist or too short below the waist, to cover as many tattoos as possible (long sleeve shirt even in August), and to remove all visible piercings except earrings, and they should be studs or small loops. If the nostril ring isn’t real noticable, I’ll usually let that slide.

    There is a reason there is a large, easy to read notice in one of the local courthouses conspicuously placed as one enters the hallway leading to the courtrooms reminding people not to wear halter tops, flip-flop footwear, or t-shirts.

  • http://capstonelawmn.com/ Rob Shainess

    Advice about how to dress should not be one-size-fits-all. Instead, it really depends a lot on the type of case and venue. I recently had a jury trial in a very blue collar community in Minnesota. I represented a plaintiff in a personal injury case, and we were asking for a considerable sum of money. I did not want my client to appear wealthy. I did want the jury to feel that my client was “one of them.” Therefore, I specifically told him not to wear a suit. Instead, I told him to wear nice slacks and a button down shirt. I told him to bring a sport coat with him, and we would decide whether he would wear it. Our final decision–no sport coat–was based on what the jurors were wearing. If I didn’t trust the client’s judgment, I would have gone further still, and told him which colors are in (earth tones, muted colors) and which are out (bright colors, “power” colors).

  • http://www.coyelaw.com Wade Coye

    Maybe it’s that our culture needs a different phrase to describe the somewhat direct request we are really getting at, which is essentially, “make yourself presentable when we go to court.” When their client shows up in pajamas, the attorney learns this lesson quickly.

    • http://lawyerist.com/author/samglover/ Sam Glover

      There are dress codes, of course. It’s just that if you have to tell someone how to dress for court, they aren’t likely to understand what “smart casual” or “informal” (hint: suit, not flip-flops) mean.

  • John L

    I represent consumers in bankruptcy and debt collection defense matters. I like my witnesses to show up in their uncomfortable dress-up clothes; I think signals the judge that my witnesses are ‘salt of the earth’ people who got all dressed up out of respect for the judge and the court system.

    As an aside, years ago (mid 1990′s) I told a client to dress like she was going to church. She came in proudly wearing a mid-thigh t-shirt dress with a cartoon character on the front. Now I ask people ‘what do you wear if you go to church?’ before I tell them to wear their Sunday best.

  • 4ALAW

    As a matter of course I have and do always tell clients dress smart, dark suits / national dress. I think it adds some weight of credibility … Of course, I don’t work in the criminal law field though!!!

  • 4ALAW

    I should add that some of my counterparts dont go to such lengths and simply say dress sensibly… Each to their own approach I guess.