In a recent missive heard ’round the legal world and beyond, a Florida judge in a letter to a local bar association implored attorneys to dress appropriately for their remote court appearances.
Broward County Judge Dennis Bailey, in his letter, said it is “remarkable” how many attorneys he’s seen appear inappropriately in the days since the COVID-19 pandemic forced nearly all legal proceedings to migrate to Zoom and other online platforms.
“We’ve seen many lawyers in casual shirts and blouses, with no concern for ill-grooming, in bedrooms with the master bed in the background, etc.,” he said. “One male lawyer appeared shirtless, and one female attorney appeared still in bed, still under the covers.”
As lawyers adapt to new technology in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, they may be wondering if the old rules around dress still apply. No Missouri judges responded to a query regarding their expectations for attorney attire during official proceedings via videoconference. But two former recipients of The Missouri Bar Foundation’s Purcell Professionalism Award shared their advice on how attorneys should present themselves.
Mike Patton, a Springfield attorney with Turner, Reid, Duncan, Loomer & Patton, said he hasn’t appeared before a judge using videoconferencing technology, but he has used it for mediations, which make up the bulk of his practice.
He said expectations for attorney dress during mediations are similar to those for in-person hearings.
“It depends on the cases and depends on who is going to be on the other side of the video,” he said.
In a recent videoconference, Patton said, he had to make a confession to the other parties.
“I was wearing a shirt and tie and coat to a Zoom mediation, and I was wearing a pair of blue jeans, also,” he said.
While the other attorney didn’t mind, Patton wanted to make sure he appeared to be professional when talking with non-lawyers. His confession ultimately served him well.
“Little did I realize I would have to stand up and leave the room as part of it, and they would have seen it,” he said. “Fortunately I had ’fessed up earlier so it wasn’t too embarrassing. I haven’t worn jeans since.”
Attorneys might not consider similar situations because Zoom meetings generally show only the participants’ upper bodies.
“If you want to be respectful to the people and the process, you probably need to do that the right way,” he said, adding that he’s never before made a court appearance without wearing a coat and tie.
“I wouldn’t want to start now,” he said.
For Kansas City attorney Charles W. Gotschall, there’s no question that attorneys should continue to wear more conservative attire.
“If you’re practicing, especially in that type of setting, you need to dress appropriately,” he said.
Gotschall said he’s read articles about judges who have not been pleased with how some attorneys have presented themselves in recent weeks.
“I don’t understand it,” he said, adding that there are likely local rules in every circuit requiring attorneys to be properly attired.
“Just because you’re sitting in your living room or home office doesn’t mean those rules shouldn’t be followed,” he said.
While he hasn’t yet had an appearance before a judge using videoconferencing, he plans to participate in an upcoming oral argument before the Missouri Supreme Court as part of his part-time work with the Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel. He plans to wear a tie and suit as he would if he were there in person.
And to help others make their own wardrobe decisions, he offered this hypothetical question:
“You’re sitting in your home office or dining room office, and your court hearing starts. What do you do when they say, ‘All rise’ and you’re wearing shorts?”