Tennessee Judge Under Fire For Warning Female Lawyers About Professional Dress

taylor_royceCircuit 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?

31 thoughts on “Tennessee Judge Under Fire For Warning Female Lawyers About Professional Dress”

  1. As a long-timey lawyer here in Austin, I haven’t really noticed a problem. I do think that women have a natural cultural advantage: they are able to dress more comfortably in the summer (which lasts for 5 months in Texas), without being disrespectful in their attire. I have long proposed a rule saying, if it’s a routine hearing with no witnesses, clients or jury, men should be able to wear a solid color dress shirt, appropriate slacks and no coat & tie. Women who do that (wear a dress blouse and appropriate slacks or skirt) are deemed appropriately dressed. Haven’t gotten much traction for the guys yet.

  2. I am from this God-Forsaken town. Royce is just another cog in the Good-ol’-boys and gals political machine here.I once had a power-Mad female judge tell the bailiff to “Get that flag off of HIM!!!” in reference to my American flag lapel pin. When the complaint was filed, the transcripts and tapes went missing. Then, a judge from the very next courtroom over dismissed the complaint because he was head of the Court of the Judiciary. Ah, the joys of being from Murfreesboro, TN. 16th Judicial district.

  3. Joy, Maybe I should introduce you to the Madison judge w/ “zero cleavage tolerance.”

  4. Joy: Many in the TV industry hire both genders specifically for sex appeal, particularly when the “professionalism” required is little more than reading.

    Both the men and women thus selected are fine with that, for the same reason movie stars (of both genders) are fine with being hired for having sex appeal, charisma, and being photogenic. In general, those appearing on TV (or in movies, or on stage) know that “talent” is only one box on the checklist for their hiring. I’m pretty sure the weather girls know what gets ratings, just like the male anchors know they don’t get in the door without a good voice and its hard to get hired if you weigh 400 pounds.

  5. Oh Joy…

    I do watch the traffic women in the morning….. With a special eye on channel 11…,.

  6. I find that many “professional” women fail the clothing or make-up test. This practice is rampant in our society…and not just by lawyers. Just watch the weather “babe” on evening news. Women do themselves no service in terms of the appearance of professionalism by wearing poorly-fitting, loud colored, or revealing clothing. Nor would a man. I readily acknowledge my immediate loss of respect (and trust) for anyone so dressed before me in the duties of their profession. It tells me they are insecure in their profession, using a distraction in hopes that no one will notice their incompetence; or maybe it’s just a lack of self respect; and a complete unconsciousness about how their appearance affects their results. How could a professional person be so foolish?

  7. Ego, ego, ego. Court decorum is a truncheon for judges. But since you’re going that way, I want credit scores, IQ numbers and I want to cherry pick your NSA recorded conversations and emails to prove you’re all felons. You know, so we can level the smug condescension levels in the courtroom.

  8. Dredd,

    You alluded to the statement of George Zimmer…. Men’s Warehouse Founder….. He was fired yesterday even though sales were up 20% …. They postponed the shareholder meeting to get a replacement…. So much for loyalty….

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