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Dress Codes

Courts face difficulty fashioning guidelines for what not to wear

It all started with the grandmother who showed up in a Springfield courtroom wearing a see-through mesh blouse and no bra.

On another occasion, an attorney inadvertently exposed her bottom in a courtroom when she bent over.

Judges in those cases reported the fashion faux pas to Brent Green, a partner with Evans & Green and a member of a Springfield bench and bar committee overhauling local court rules.

Recently, a member pointed out that Greene County Circuit Court didn’t have a dress code. (See Courtroom dress codes below) Green, who said he either “opened his mouth at the wrong time or was absent,” was put in charge.

The effort fizzled in March because Greene County judges couldn’t reach an agreement on what would be considered appropriate attire.

By then, attorneys were buzzing about the putative dress code. The rule mostly would have addressed the apparel of jurors, spectators and witnesses. However, lawyers were worried about stricter rules being imposed on their courtroom wear, said Judge Mark Fitzsimmons.

The Greene County court is the latest to consider a dress code, and, as Green and the judges discovered, it can be difficult to come to consensus, particularly on what attorneys should wear. (See Courtroom dos and don’ts below.)

Missouri judges and attorneys cited difficulties setting rules for female lawyers’ attire, because there are no clear-cut standards equivalent to a coat and tie for men. And sometimes clients, particularly in criminal cases, appear in court inappropriately dressed because they don’t have many clothes, they said. (Take our poll and let us know what you consider to be appropriate courtroom attire.)

Those concerns may account for the fact that most Missouri circuit courts have either no dress code or very general rules, despite an increasingly casual state of dress in the courtroom.

In Greene County, the biggest issue was the proposed requirement that male attorneys wear a tie and coat, Green said.

“What if a man appears in a turtleneck, or a bolo tie? What is a tie?” Green said. “And if men are required to wear a shirt, tie and coat, what about women? What about the gallery and witnesses?”

Attorneys were envisioning a more restrictive dress code, Fitzsimmons said.

“The truth of the matter is, we couldn’t agree, and most of the people on the court en banc weren’t overly concerned about it,” Fitzsimmons said.

In addition to the coat-and-tie requirement for male attorneys, the proposed dress code that Green sent to the judges for review would have banned everyone coming to court from wearing: “heavily soiled or damaged working clothing, bare-midriff outfits, cut-offs, halter tops, shorts or skirts that do not cover the buttocks or genitalia… and clothing emblazoned with obscene words, images or messages contemptuous or disrespectful of the judicial process.”

Shoes and socks required

Some of the state’s circuit courts don’t bother with a dress code at all. On the other hand, others are punctilious to impose the proper dress code, be it insoles for running or socks. St. Louis City Court, for example, doesn’t address the issue in its local rules. And the Missouri Supreme Court doesn’t have a formal policy, though marshals may suggest people wearing shorts or T-shirts stay out of the courtroom during oral arguments, said Beth Riggert, communications counsel.

People wait at a security checkpoint before entering the St. Louis County Courthouse. They came in suits and ties, business casual clothing, cutoffs and flip-flops. Photo by Karen Elshout

People wait at a security checkpoint before entering the St. Louis County Courthouse. They came in suits and ties, business casual clothing, cutoffs and flip-flops. Photo by Karen Elshout

Many other courts call only for “appropriate” or “proper” attire. Of the 12 with a dress code included in local rules posted on the Missouri Supreme Court Web site, only two have specific requirements.

Those are the 45th and 32nd circuits. The rule for the 45th circuit, which includes Lincoln and Pike counties, lays out clothing banned from the courtroom: tank tops, sleeveless shirts, cropped shirts, shorts, lounge pants and sweat pants.

The second exception is the 32nd circuit, which includes Cape Girardeau.

In a move that earned national press coverage, the six-judge circuit in 2006 adopted a dress code that includes the coat-and-tie requirement for male attorneys.

Particularly attention-grabbing was the tongue-and-cheek memo then presiding Judge Benjamin Lewis sent attorneys announcing the new rule.

“Please note that while the rule does not specify that attorneys must wear socks or shoes, shoes and socks are required for ‘appropriate professional attire’ for gentlemen,” Lewis said in the memo.

“We decline to promulgate a rule, which will be published nationally, that suggests that lawyers in Southeast Missouri must be told to wear shoes to court.”

The dress code was informally dubbed the Malcolm Montgomery rule, after a successful criminal defense attorney who seemed to come to court more casually attired than others, Presiding Judge William Syler said.

“Sarcasm didn’t work, so we made a rule,” Syler said. “To his credit … he took it with a real good attitude.”

When asked by a reporter about the dress code, Montgomery laughed.

“It’s not true,” Montgomery said. “I never went to court without shoes on.”

Montgomery admitted he may have occasionally shown up in court without a tie or socks, though never for trial. He said he thought he dressed appropriately but appreciates the judges’ position and has adapted.

“When I wake up in the morning, I always remember to put socks on before I put shoes on, and I always have a tie available at the office,” Montgomery said.

Most people already were dressing appropriately when the rule was established, Lewis said, so when it was put into effect, most of the members of the local 130-attorney bar knew who the offenders were and why it had to be done.

Women’s issue

Cape Girardeau judges felt no compunction about telling male attorneys to wear socks with their shoes. But Springfield’s Green avoided the issue of women’s footwear when coming up with a proposed rule for Greene County, even though he noticed in Internet research that one of the courtroom dress issues is whether open-toed shoes are appropriate.

“I’m not going to get into a situation where I tell women what kind of shoes to wear,” Green said.

The unwillingness extends beyond dictating footwear standards.

“Men of the Bench and Bar Committee are extremely reluctant to tell women lawyers what to wear,” said Crista Hogan, executive director of the Springfield Metropolitan Bar Association. “It’s not as cut and dried as a coat and tie. … For women, there are a lot of other acceptable options.”

Dress rules for women are harder to interpret, because they’re so much more subjective, said Teresa Grantham, a solo criminal defense and personal injury attorney in Springfield.

“It does make it difficult because we don’t always wear a strictly constructed suit, and I don’t know anybody wearing ties,” Grantham said.

Women attorneys’ revealing clothing can present the most awkward situations of all. Judges can ask attorneys or bailiffs to deal with other court attendees who are too exposed, but they would have to address female attorneys themselves.

“We don’t want to have to deal with that sort of situation,” Lewis said. “It’s very difficult to say something without seeming to be inappropriate. Probably you don’t want anyone to know you noticed.”

The 32nd circuit has six judges — all men. Lewis said he hasn’t faced the problem of revealing clothing on a woman attorney, and he hopes it doesn’t happen.

A defense attorney did once appear before Syler with a low-cut blouse. Syler didn’t bring it up.

It was less of a problem when a defendant came to trial wearing shorter skirts each day.

“She was standing by the podium, and I was the only one who couldn’t see her,” Syler said. “If it was intended for my benefit, it was completely lost on me.”

Advance notice

In Jackson County Circuit Court, local rules call for attorneys to dress appropriately and tell their clients and witnesses to do the same.

About three years ago, the court’s judges decided to do more.

“There was no particular incident, but our judges thought it was inappropriate for people to come in in tank tops and things of that nature,” Presiding Judge Steve Nixon said. “We thought we’d make it a little more specific.”

The court now sends a notice with all summons and in pre-trial orders that says T-shirts, tank tops, tube tops, cutoffs, shorts and other “inappropriate” clothing are prohibited.

Occasionally an attorney will come in for a trial without a coat or a tie, and a judge will supply them.

“The point is, we want people to respect the system, respect that the court is a serious place, and that serious business gets done there,” Nixon said.

“Dress is one of the things that shows that kind of respect.”

Sometimes a witness comes in with visible bra straps or other inappropriate attire, but it’s very rare. It’s less a sign of disrespect than an indication that those are the clothes they own, Nixon said.

“Sometimes people don’t have a wardrobe, especially on the criminal side, that other folks have. …” Nixon said. “That doesn’t give you a reason to deny access to the courts or participation in a hearing, I don’t think.”

Fitzsimmons also sometimes will give improper attire a pass, especially for routine hearings. People have come straight from their jobs covered with clay, dirt or plaster, in T-shirts with slogans that are “less than ideal” for court or in somewhat revealing outfits, he said. Frequently, they apologize for their appearance, and Fitzsimmons proceeds with the hearing.

“It’s better to get ’em in and get ’em out than to send them home and have them come back a second time,” Fitzsimmons said.

Lewis’ examples of jaw-dropping courtroom attire include a defendant found guilty of fraud who showed up for the sentencing hearing wearing a T-shirt that said, “Easily distracted.”

Other defendants in on drug and alcohol charges have come in T-shirts with drug and alcohol themes, and people accused of assault have arrived in the courtroom wearing shirts with “hateful things” on them.

“I keep a whole file of the incredible things people wear to court,” Lewis said.

Casual culture

As law firms have gone to more casual dress, the culture has been reflected in the courtroom, said John Ross, presiding judge of St. Louis County Circuit Court.

“I don’t think it is a good thing,” Ross said. “It is still a courthouse. It is still a courtroom. A certain amount of respect should be shown.”

Still, attire hasn’t become a big problem, Ross said, and there isn’t any strong sentiment to adopt a stronger dress code than the circuit already has.

The St. Louis County rule calls on attorneys to tell clients and witnesses about “proper dress” and urge them to comply, “thereby avoiding embarrassment.”

Grantham tells her clients that they should dress as they might for church. That might mean they show up in a sweater and skirt, or in clean jeans and clean shirt.

Sometimes the fashion advice attorneys give their clients can have unexpected results.

Green once told a client who asked what to wear to come to court in the same sort of outfit he would wear to church or to a nice dinner.

The client, who was the plaintiff in the case, showed up for the trial in a green leisure suit and a see-through shirt with a Garfield T-shirt visible underneath.

The client won the case. And his choice of outfit, Green noted, would have been allowed under the dress code proposed for Greene County court.

Courtroom dress codes

Lincoln and Pike counties:
Tank tops, sleeveless shirts, cropped shirts, shorts, lounge pants and sweat pants.
Greene County (proposed):
Banned: Heavily soiled or damaged work clothing, bare-midriff outfits, cutoffs, halter tops, undershirts, see-through blouses or pants, bathing suits, bikinis, shorts or skirts that do not cover the buttocks or genitalia, pajamas, lingerie, hats, helmets, theatrical costumes, face paint and clothing emblazoned with obscene words, images or messages contemptuous or disrespectful of the judicial process.
Required: Shirt, tie and coat for men
Bollinger, Cape Girardeau and Perry counties:
Required: “Suitable” coat and tie for male attorneys
Jackson County:
Banned: T-shirts, tank tops, tube tops, cutoffs, shorts and “other inappropriate clothing.”
Sources: Local court rules, courts

Courtroom dos and don’ts

Gretchen Neels’ Boston-based Neels & Company teaches lawyers and other professionals “soft skills,” including dress and etiquette. Neels offers these tips for attorneys appearing in court:

No distractions. Nothing should be memorable: a skirt that’s too short, a heel that’s too high, a suit that’s too expensive, a tie that’s too loud. A skirt that hits at the knee or just above is appropriate. Heels should be no higher than 3 inches.

Bear in mind generational differences. Many judges are older than the lawyers appearing before them and may have different expectations.

No skin. Cleavage, midriffs and upper arms should be covered.

For women and men, a dark suit is the best bet. Either a skirt or pants are acceptable for women, who should wear a blouse with a collar. Jewelry can provide a finishing touch but shouldn’t be too distracting: a string of pearls or a nice watch will work; chandelier earrings might not. For men, a white shirt is always appropriate, but no button-down collars.

For women, wearing three items — skirt or pants, blouse and jacket — conveys confidence and authority. That’s not to say a dress can’t, but hitting it right with a dress is difficult.

A man’s shoes are probably the biggest indicator of how put-together a gentleman is. Spend money on your shoes, and then take care of them. And no loafers in the courtroom. If you’ve got a suit on, you’d better have lace-up shoes.

Requirements on hosiery and open- versus close-toed shoes vary according to region. Joyce Capshaw, a Carmody MacDonald partner, said more women attorneys in Missouri are moving away from formal pumps and pantyhose in the summer. Open-toed shoes can look professional, said Capshaw, whom lawyers voted the “Best Dressed Female Attorney” as part of Missouri Lawyers Weekly’s Missouri’s Best awards in 2008.