U.S. District Chief Judge Phyllis Hamilton, Northern District of California

SAN FRANCISCO—At a panel discussion Monday night, U.S. District Chief Judge Phyllis Hamilton of the Northern District of California shared a recollection about a prosecutor who was known around the courthouse as “very stylish.”

Hamilton said she and her law clerks noticed that, when the prosecutor had a trial, she wore the same two suits on alternating days. Hamilton said initially she didn’t think anything of it. But when jurors returned questionnaires after the case was over, Hamilton said that at least half of them asked why the prosecutors kept wearing the same two outfits.

“Men can get away with wearing the same two suits,” Hamilton said. “People don’t pay that much attention to what men wear, unless it’s outlandish.”

Said Hamilton to the crowd largely made up of women lawyers: “I simply want you to understand people are paying attention.”

Hamilton spoke as part of a panel sponsored by the Women Attorneys Advocacy Project, a group including U.S. Magistrate Judge Elizabeth Laporte and criminal defense lawyer Randy Sue Pollock who have organized a series of conversations centered on issues women face in the profession. Hamilton was joined on the panel by her district court colleagues Susan Illston and William Orrick III and Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye of the California Supreme Court. The discussion, led by criminal defense attorney Mary McNamara of Swanson McNamara, was a mix of discussion about issues specific to women attorneys and more broad-brush practice tips.

Cantil-Sakauye followed Hamilton’s anecdote by sharing observations from her own days as a trial court prosecutor. She said she would ask her husband to help find an “unremarkable” look. Said Cantil-Sakauye “I don’t want anyone to say, ‘Did you see what she was wearing?’ rather than ‘Did you hear what she was saying?’”

Here are two more takeaways from the evening’s conversation.

Everyone Talks About the Lawyers

Cantil-Sakauye said she served as a juror three times during her 14-year stint on the state court trial bench. She said that during her time in the jury room she learned just how much jurors talk about the lawyers.

What are they paying attention to?

“Are you polite? Are you trustworthy? Are you clear? Are you on time?” the chief justice said.

“They are observing how you are treating others,” said Cantil-Sakauye. “You want to engender trust. You want to be, frankly, more likable than the other person.”

llston also noted how much jurors tend to talk about lawyers. After all, she said, the jurors are forbidden from talking about the case or the witness until deliberations. But, Illson added, jurors aren’t alone in gabbing about lawyers. In the San Francisco courthouse, she pointed out, there’s a judges’ lunchroom. The lawyers practicing in front of the judges are a frequent topic of lunchtime conversation.

“If you behave well in somebody’s courtroom, everybody else will know about that. If you behave poorly, everybody else will know about that,” Illston warned.

Orrick agreed. “Once the word gets out about people in the lunchroom, you look for that person the next time they come in with a certain amount of trepidation.”

Trial Practice Has Toned Down and Wisened Up

Cantil-Sakauye said that when she started her career as a prosecutor, her boss had the nickname “Mad Dog.”

“I was not a mad dog and had to come up with my own style,” she said. “I don’t think there are too many more mad dogs around.” Cantil-Sakauye said she thinks the style of practice has become more cerebral since she started and that smart lawyers tailor their style and tone “to the kind of case and the kind of facts” they have.

Orrick said he prefers a more understated approach, as well. “It’s a teacher as opposed to a gunslinger,” Orrick said. “The diversity of the bench and the age in which we live has contributed to the ability of people to be less bombastic, to be more clear and to embrace who they are better.”

Illston said she likes to think of oral argument during motions practice as a conversation between the lawyers and the judge. She said it’s better for lawyers who come before her to find a “conversational” tone of voice, rather than an “oratorical” one. After all, Illston said, the lawyer and the judge are “both working on the same project, which is to find the right answer to this question.”