My Shingle

Why You Should Never Wear a Plaid Sport Coat to Court

by Carolyn Elefant on July 1, 2014 · 4 comments

in Fashion & Lifestyle, Guest Post

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This post is part of the MyShingle Solos summer series which will run between June 17 and July 3, 2014. 

ngoudreauThis post is written by MyShingle Guest Blogger Nichole Goudreau

My first job out of law school was as an assistant district attorney in a large metropolitan city.  On my first day of work, I learned that our office had a strict dress code; one that included a prohibition against the women in the office wearing pants. And before you ask – No, I’m not kidding and yes, this was in the 21st century!  Did it really matter if I was wearing pants or a skirt along as I’m wearing a suit? Honestly, I couldn’t imagine that my apparel in court would have any impact on a jury whatsoever. Turns out it does. There is research dating as far back as the mid-1970’s that suggests that an attorney’s wardrobe choice may actually have an effect on how jurors perceive lawyers and their evidence which can ultimately influence their verdict.  Of course, clothing isn’t the only extralegal factor jurors are using to assess attorneys in a courtroom.  Speech, body movement, and eye contact are some other items that jurors evaluate during a trial.  Surprisingly though, jurors are paying much closer attention to what we are wearing than we may realize.

Apparently, other attorneys knew this before I did.  Besides my wise boss, who refused to allow the lady lawyers in the office to go to court in trousers, a 2005 study determined that many attorneys wear a blue suit on the first day of trial because blue is thought to inspire trust.  While there is argument that the way jurors feel about the color of a lawyer’s clothing depends specifically on the person wearing them, the findings of behavioral scientists suggest that brown suits are actually slightly preferred over gray, tan, or blue ones. Furthermore, plaid sport coats are considered a definite no-no. The author of another academic study on attorney appearance suggests that no one will take a man wearing a bow tie seriously and women’s attire should always be current and stylish because female jurors pay close attention to those things.

As superficial as this all sounds, I tend to believe that there is some truth to the idea that jurors are appraising our lawyering, at least in part, based on our fashions. Why you may ask? Once, after completing a mock trial, a juror on the panel said that the shoes I was wearing, (a pair of red and gold Ferragamo heels), were ‘simply fantastic’.

Did those pumps have anything to do with why that jury found in my favor? I doubt it, but the fact still remains: my shoes were on the juror’s mind.  During trial prep, we run through everything we think will cross the jurors’ minds.  We try to answer every possible question and address every possible concern. However, it wasn’t until that comment about my shoes that I started to think about what exactly I was wearing to trial. Certainly, I knew that it was important to look nice and professional but I really had no idea that my personal appearance matters as much as it does, especially when it comes to the jury. Since the experience with the juror fawning over my shoes, I have been fascinated by the implications non-evidentiary factors have on juries. As a result, I have conducted some independent research on the topic of lawyer appearance and juror decisions.  The feedback is not one size fits all.  An ensemble that projects confidence for one person, can make another with a different body type look insecure.  Interestingly, I have learned quite a bit about my own wardrobe choices and personal appearance during this process.  For example, I’ve learned that I am better off wearing a blazer with slacks than a traditionally matching pantsuit and that jurors respond better when I wear contact lenses rather than glasses.

While I find this research to be intriguing, I have zero intentions of focusing more on my appearance than I would on gathering evidence or building a strong theme for a case.  But if I can convey the qualities of friendliness, honesty, competence, and confidence to a jury before I have even said a word, why not give my clients that small extra advantage?  I think it’s just one more tool to have in the arsenal.

So, what do you think? If you had ‘scientific’ evidence that the color of your suit could mean the difference between an acquittal and a guilty verdict, would you pay closer attention to what’s in your closet?  

Nichole Goudreau is a former prosecutor and award-winning criminal justice instructor admitted to practice in Pennsylvania.  Nichole has conducted academic research on comparative criminal justice, juror behavior, attorney performance and trial practices in the U.S. and abroad.  She currently maintains a freelance legal and consulting practice Freelance JD and is working with a team to launch The 6th Promise Foundation, a nonprofit that serves low-income criminal defendants.  

  • Paul Spitz

    Well, a plaid blazer is never appropriate anywhere, except maybe the very WASPy New England country club.

  • Rebecca

    I’m curious if you know there is any research to guide me in figuring out my court wardrobe while I’m visibly pregnant — do I try to cover it up or wear something that makes it obvious I’m pregnant?
    After being addressed at various times by my gender in court instead of my name, I’m particularly sensitive about further diminishing my credibility by looking vulnerable because I’m pregnant.

  • nahoskins

    Rebecca –
    You pose a really interesting question. I haven’t come across anything that discusses how jurors react specifically to pregnant attorneys – but there was an article in the Journal of Applied Psychology in 2007 that talked about a study of the treatment of pregnant women in professions that are considered traditionally ‘male’. In this particular experiment, pregnant women were more often treated with hostility (by both men and women) when seeking jobs that are considered non-traditional for women. That leads me to believe that some jurors might be hostile about it as well. When I was pregnant, I sometimes felt patronized by colleagues, so I can definitely empathize. At some point you won’t be able to cover your bump, so you might be able to mitigate some of the perception of vulnerability by watching what other non-verbal messages you’re sending. I’m definitely going to be looking into this topic further!

  • Rebecca

    Thanks!

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