Dress for Success

An article in USA Today entitled, “Judges crack down on inappropriate clothes in court” notes that many courts are taking measures to eliminate dress that offends the dignity of the court and the judicial process. In most instances the offenders are likely pro se litigants appearing for arraignments and the like.  Most paralegals are well versed in appropriate dress for the office and the courthouse, although it is not unusual for more experienced paralegals to find it necessary to take new paralegals aside for a few pointers on this issue. However, many paralegals are unaware that they must be concerned about the appearance of the entire legal team. Every member, including the client and witnesses associated with the client, must “dress for success.”

As I note in The Empowered Paralegal: Effective, Efficient, and Professional,  dressing for success  does not mean “look successful.” It’s my way of saying you have to be aware that the jury is not just looking at the evidence as presented; it is looking at the presenters of the evidence.

Many times the best dog and pony show wins a case (as long as the case is otherwise well prepared). Consider a real circus dog and pony show; the performer and the atmosphere are at least as important as the acts performed. This principle applies to almost any performance meant to leave an impression or make a point on an audience. Every political operative considers not just what is being said, but the backdrop for the speech. Rock stars don’t just sing – they perform. The jury is your attorney’s audience. They are watching, and waiting for, the show.

Like most performers, your legal team is “on” every moment the jurors are in the jury box (and when they are entering or leaving the box). They are watching not just the witness on the stand and the attorney examining the witness, but also the rest of the “performance.”

In this respect it is important how the performers dress and appear to the jury. The performers include the attorney, the paralegal, the client and the witnesses. Each of you most dress appropriately for your role keeping in mind that you must dress for the jury.  Even jurors who seem to be paying little attention seem to notice clothing – distracting ties, short skirts, body-piercing and tattoos.  If a client is pleading poverty, she cannot show up day after day in $300 dollar outfits, dazzling jewelry, $30 nails and $50 hair.  (In my early days of practice a client met me at the courthouse for a hearing to determine whether she was in contempt of court for failure to pay a $100 fine in exactly that fashion.) An expert witness will not impress a jury if he dresses unprofessionally. In fact, he should dress for the jury’s conception of his profession – a doctor as a doctor, a contractor as a contractor and a professor as a professor.

Remind clients and witnesses that they are subject to observation by the jury anytime jurors are present. A jury will assume that a client who is rude to, or snarls at the other party, was equally rude and disagreeable during the event or events that led the parties to court, regardless of how that client or witness presents on the stand. In fact, a client or witness who acts differently on the stand than when he thinks the jury isn’t watching is telling the jury not to believe him as his presentation on the stand is not the “true” him.

Jurors generally do not react favorably to clients who mumble “that’s a lie” under their breath, gasp and shake their heads in reaction to a witness’ testimony.  Clients who squirm, constantly adjust their clothes (this happens a lot with clients not used to wearing a tie who “dress up” just for the trial), or fidget nervously may look as though they have something to hide.

Clients and witnesses seldom of much awareness of these factors. The poverty pleading client who dressed so fashionably in the example above simply had no conception of how her appearance clashed with the purpose of the hearing. They need to be informed by the paralegal. Preparing the clients and witnesses in this way is an important part of overall part of preparing and managing litigation.

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