Circuit Judge Royce Taylor in Murfreesboro, Tennessee is embroiled in an interesting controversy after he urged female attorneys to dress appropriately in courthouses. It is common for judges to instruct male attorneys on the need to wear jackets, ties, and appropriate shoes. However, for a male judge to write a memo on female dress is a different matter for some. It raises a long-standing issue for attorneys. Male attorneys privately grumble that there appears to be no serious limits on female dress codes while men are called to account before judges.
Taylor admits that he was nervous in even raising the issue: “Being an older white male judge I realized I’m at a disadvantage to try to talk about this subject. I’m certainly not a fashion guru.”
In his notice, Taylor noted that “the subject of attorneys’ dress” had come up at the recent Bench/Bar Committee meeting and said:
The unanimous opinion was that the women attorneys were not being held to the same standard as the men. It was requested that the judges require all attorneys to dress professionally. . . .
I have advised some women attorneys that a jacket with sleeves below the elbow is appropriate or a professional dress equivalent.
That notice raised a firestorm. Nashville-based attorney Karla Miller told USA Today that she was “slightly offended,” by the judge’s action, though she admitted to seeing female lawyers dressed unprofessionally.
I think that there does have to be some uniformity or no rule at all for lawyers. I have seen often seen female lawyers wearing sweaters, long-sleeved t-shirts, and sleeveless shirts into courts that appear more appropriate for a sporting event. Most of these cases involve pre-trial or post-trial motion hearings without a jury. Obviously most female attorneys are professional and would never wear such outfits into a courtroom. However, some do and most judges, particularly male judges, are uncomfortable to raise the issue.
Teachers have the same dilemma. I was at a recent lunch with colleagues when another professor raised his concern over telling a female student that she was dress inappropriately for a moot court competition. Another expressed the same concern over correcting how a student was speaking informally in a competition. I have heard the same concern privately from judges.
I do not see how the above instructions from the judge should be viewed as insulting or inappropriate. The problem is not simply the decorum of the courtroom but also the inimical impact on clients. Represented parties may not be in a position to object to the dress of their counsel. However, when a lawyer shows up in gym shoes or a sweater, it can create a poor impression for a judge or a jury. Both male and female colleagues will often point out such dress problems to me at the courthouse with shared dissatisfaction but no one says anything, including me. There is a fear that you will be viewed as sexist or prejudiced in some way.
What do you think should be the standard?