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Federal Judges Grouse About Lawyers' Courtroom Attire
Federal Judges Knock Lawyers' Courtroom AttireWhen a federal judge said during a panel discussion this week that some female attorneys need to dress more appropriately for court -- mentioning one woman attired as though she had stopped in "on her way home from the gym" -- she probably didn't realize she'd opened some floodgates. As it turned out, a male judge and some male lawyers in the audience also had plenty to say on the issue. One such complaint, from a male judge, involved women who wear "blouses so short there's no way the judges wouldn't look."
The National Law Journal2009-05-21 12:00:00 AM
When U.S. District Court Judge Joan Lefkow mentioned during a judges' panel discussion at the Seventh Circuit Bar Association meeting this week that she thought some women attorneys should pay more attention to dressing appropriately for court, she probably didn't know the floodgates she would open.
Lefkow, who sits in the Northern District of Illinois in Chicago, had an issue with one woman who had shown up for a court hearing in attire that looked as though she had stopped in "on her way home from the gym," the judge told a conference room full of judges and lawyers gathered for a general discussion with federal judges from Illinois. Noting that there weren't many women in the audience to hear her message, Lefkow suggested that lawyers address the "delicate issue" with female colleagues at their firms.
As it turned out, one of the male judges on the dais with her, and the male lawyers in the audience at the Indianapolis meeting, had plenty to say right away about the issue. It had been bothering them, too, perhaps in a slightly different way.
Women come into court wearing "skirts so short that there's no way they can sit down and blouses so short there's no way the judges wouldn't look," said Judge Michael McCuskey, chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the Central District of Illinois and a panel member.
Murmuring in the audience quickly rose into loud comments and laughter, with one female voice calling for someone to help save McCuskey from himself. Bankruptcy Judge Benjamin Goldgar, who presides in the Northern District of Illinois, came to his rescue from the audience, saying that McCuskey shouldn't be made to keep quiet about the matter because he too considers the issue "a huge problem." Sometimes it's so difficult that Goldgar said he wishes he could tell the female lawyer standing before him: "I'd really like to pay attention to your argument."
"You don't dress in court as if it's Saturday night and you're going out to a party," said Goldgar from the audience. "Dress as a serious person who takes the court seriously."
Goldgar said that male attorneys who come before him with wacky ties, like those with lots of smiley faces, also cross the line of appropriateness. That led another judge in the audience to lament that many lawyers don't wear ties anymore unless they're going to court. Hedlund & Hanley partner Reuben Hedlund recalled how jurors in one of his cases were fixated on a trial lawyer's "argyle socks."
Most lawyers in the hotel conference room, where the average age appeared to be in the 50s, pinned the problem on younger lawyers and said it was a "cultural" issue. As moderator Jeffrey Stone, incoming chairman at McDermott Will & Emery, turned the conversation to what could be done about the dress debacle, some of the attorneys and judges blamed law firms for not giving lawyers enough guidance, while others said law schools needed to do a better job of educating young lawyers on appropriate dress.
Judge Virginia Kendall of the Northern District of Illinois chimed in from the floor that it might not be such a problem if there were more female partners at firms, triggering another round of laughter. Another lawyer noted that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit had a dress code that should speak to women's attire.
In fact, the court's dress code sent to lawyers scheduled to appear only says that lawyers' attire "should be restrained and appropriate to the dignity of a Court of Appeals for the United States."
Most of the judges said they didn't feel they could make any effort to straighten out the wardrobe-challenged lawyers, or even mentor young lawyers who come before them, partly because, as Chief Judge James Holderman of the Northern District of Illinois noted, it could be considered ex parte communication. Attorneys said raising the issue at firms is not so easy either. Stone, who is based in Chicago, said he dared not bring up the issue with individual associates.
Lefkow, a smart dresser à la Brooks Brothers, suggested that women lawyers consult Corporette, a fashion Web site one of her clerks had shown her. As for the lawyer who showed up in Lefkow's court wearing sweats, she won her case, the judge said.