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Appropriate Attire for Women Attorneys


This week's Daily Record column is entitled "Appropriate Attire for Women Attorneys."

A pdf of the article can be found  here and my past Daily Record articles can be accessed here.


Appropriate Attire for Women Attorneys

Earlier this month I had the privilege to attend a local alumni event sponsored by my alma mater, Albany Law School: “Successes and Challenges Facing Women Attorneys.”

It featured Lauren Stiller Rikleen, attorney and author of “Ending the Gauntlet: Removing Barriers to Women’s Success in the Law.” Stiller Rikleen gave an amazing presentation full of depressing statistics about the fate of women lawyers in our profession.

I think my favorite depressing fact was that women lawyers who are married see decreases in income, while married men see increases. The statistics regarding the disparities in the career paths and incomes of women attorneys versus male attorneys was striking, but not unfamiliar to me. At this stage of the game, men and women simply fare differently in our profession for any number of reasons.

The Chicago Bar Association also held an event targeted to law students this month, “What Not To Wear Fashion Show,” which was covered by the Above the Law blog. The show’s panel consisted of judges, law professors, lawyers and fashion industry experts who offered advice on appropriate attire for lawyers.

Apparently, the event should have been called “What Women Lawyers Shouldn’t Wear,” since the vast majority of the advice centered on appropriate attire for women attorneys, with male attire being a mere afterthought.

One issue that appeared to be of great concern to the panelists was that women should avoid revealing their “form,” lest they “tempt” the “married men at law firms” or “distract” the judges.

Yes, apparently the panelists, one of whom was a judge of the feminine persuasion, actually suggested that it is the job of women lawyers everywhere to hide their “form” in order to ensure male attorneys stay focused on the task of practicing law.

One wonders how male gynecologists manage to perform their job in the face of seemingly insurmountable distractions, but I digress.

The panel reminded me of one with a similar focus, held in Memphis in 2008, at which a group of lawyers and judges met to discuss the issue of a dress code proposed by a number of Memphis Bar Associations.

The proposed rule at issue was: “All attorneys should wear appropriate attire. Men shall wear coats, ties, slacks and appro- priate footwear, which does not include athletic shoes or shoes without socks. Women shall wear professional and conservative attire, such as dresses with jackets, suits or pantsuits (with appropriate tops), and appropriate footwear, which does not include cocktail shoes or sandals or athletic shoes.”

I think my favorite part of the rule is that the attire for women is specifically described as “conservative.” For some reason, men need not dress “conservatively.” Presumably 1970s-style leisure suits would be perfectly appropriate for men to wear court.

One also wonders how cold-weather-climate attor- neys such as myself are expected to handle the issue of boots in the winter. Boots most certainly are not “appropriate footwear” under the proposed rule. They are an absolute necessity, however, when you have to walk a few blocks to court in the middle of an Upstate winter. Men have the luxury of slipping “rubbers” over their (flat) shoes. Many wear the unattractive foot coverings into court as well, and I’ve never heard any complaints about that particular practice.

The Memphis panel, like the Chicago one, seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time complaining about the fashion choices of women lawyers, paying mere lip service to the choices of men. Another day, another sexist panel.

One day, perhaps, “fashion” panels that seemingly exist solely to criticize women attorneys will be looked upon as tacky tribunals of generations past.

One day, there no longer will be a need to hold panels focus- ing on gender disparities in promotions and pay.

One day, the gender of an attorney will be a mere afterthought.

When I entered law school I assumed, naively, that day had long since arrived. Now I simply hope that day will come at some point in my lifetime.

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i think the reason women get targeted is because men have given up. i just bought a couple new suits. the whole section is arranged in one depressing spectrum from black to grey to navy blue. if you're lucky, there's some brown at the end.

on the other hand, there are still some professional women out there with the nerve to not look like robots. i say go for it.

why must we be so stodgy? i can be just as respectful or disrespectful in my drone costume as i can in something with some style. or maybe we should bring the powdered wigs back.

Amie Peele Carter

AMEN! Let's focus on what women lawyers - or all lawyers - can DO, not what the women are wearing.

Ruth Carter

Is the female form so distracting that it prevents men from effectively practicing law? If that's really the situation, those men have bigger problems than worrying about what women in the office are wearing.

In every field there's an expected level of decorum. Asking women to wear the fashion equivalent of a potato sack is asking too much. A woman who can dress in a way that is professional and emphasizes her physical assets (whether that's her gorgeous blue eyes, strong shoulders, etc) show that she is thoughtful and confident. It should be applauded, not discouraged.

Antoinette Collignon-Smit Sibinga

I completely agree with Ruth. You should always be aware of what you wear and not lose decorum. A friend of mine is a fashion consultant. She learned me to 'play' with color and outfit. If you want to be trusted, wear a blue suit. If you need to persuade someone wear bright colors or colors that will brighten your eyes and eluminate your skin. I have tried it and it worked.

Fortunately in the Netherlands, where I practice, we have to wear special long black robes with a white colar to court. We therefore don't have particular rules what we can and what we can't wear when in court. We are all black, with no distinction between men and women... except for the shoes.

Nicole Black

Thanks everyone for the insightful comments. Needless to say, I completely agree with the sentiment expressed!

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