Pigs and Prudes: Skirting the Lawyers’ Dress Code

3247758442_e267bec4d3_zAs if passing the bar wasn’t hard enough, women lawyers and law students are faced with contradictory and often unwritten dress-code rules.

First of all, every court has its own set of dress expectations. For example, the Tennessee Supreme Court has rules for how long the sleeves on a woman’s jacket should be. And at a 2010 Chicago Bar Association “fashion show,” the Association told women never to wear pink, show their arms or wear their engagement rings in court (because a big rock might cause jealousy among other women in the room).

Then, women lawyers have to be aware of judges’ personal preferences. Some prefer black-and-white suits, while others still view women’s pantsuits as inappropriate. Not following the rules can make it harder to win your case.

On the other hand, men have it pretty easy when deciding what to wear in the courtroom. A navy or charcoal suit, a white button-up and blue or red tie will do the trick. As Above The Law, a blog written for lawyers, puts it, “Men are basically given a free pass. So long as they don’t show up to court looking like they just rolled out of a dumpster.”

Anna Akbari, a New York University professor, wrote a memo in 2012 that first introduced the non-law world to the over-the-top dress-code rules facing women lawyers:

If you’re going to wear  a suit, a skirt suit registers better than a pant suit. In male-dominated fields like law, skirts and dresses are particularly rewarded, as they are more appealing to men.

She goes on to recommend specific footwear:

What about flats? Avoid flats, except in emergencies. They do nothing for your stature or outfit, and they are some of the least powerful footwear you can wear.

Last month, a Loyola Law School professor told women to cover up:

I really don’t need to mention that cleavage and stiletto heels are not appropriate office wear.

But Judge Richard Kopf, in another March blog post, offered some contradictory sentiments:

Around these parts there is a wonderfully talented and very pretty female lawyer who is in her late 20s. She is brilliant, she writes well, she speaks eloquently, she is zealous, but not overly so, she is always prepared, she treats others, including her opponents, with civility and respect, she wears very short skirts and shows lots of her ample chest. I especially appreciate the last two attributes.

Kopf has since written an apology on his blog, but his comments on how women should dress have made the impossible standards facing female lawyers crystal clear.

Not to worry, Kopf has some advice: “You can’t win. Men are both pigs and prudes. Get over it.”

Photo courtesy of Flickr user genibee licensed under Creative Commons 2.0




Lindsey O’Brien is currently studying journalism at Ohio University and interning at Ms. Follow her on Twitter.




  1. I think this is an important conversation to have.

    In his 1978 book The Woman’s Dress for Success Book (which I see was updated in 1996) John Malloy anticipated objections to his (well researched, not just opinionated) advice that professional women dress to impress men by explaining that they were (still are, mostly) the ones with the power. We can choose, based on our goals, whether to follow the norms or to go our own ways.

  2. Carolyn Frazee says:

    Women who are attorneys know that much more is at stake here than the lawyer’s personal comfort. The outcome for CLIENTS is influenced by how the attorney appears. This is the real pressure, not the issue of fashion or the male gaze.

  3. I cannot imagine what the objections to a pantsuit and flats on a woman attorney could be; and I don’t care. 15 years ago, I wore a pantsuit in federal court in a jurisdiction where I wasn’t supposed to. When the judge brought it up, I said I could remove the offending pants, but I was pretty sure that would only exacerbate whatever perceived problem there might be. The issue was never mentioned again. Cheaply made counsel tables often do not have “modesty panels” in the front; and the last thing I have time to think about while I’m litigating is who can see what if my skirt has shifted; or tripping over my own high heels while approaching the bench or a witness. Fortunately (or unfortunately), I have a pretty good case of osteoarthritis at age 54, so a judge can order me to wear high heels, or hold me in contempt for not doing so. I am not doing it. I have a genuine dis-a-bil-i-ty that makes wearing high heels impracticable for me. I don’t do Chinese foot binding, either.

  4. This issue and many many others are addressed in my play “And That’s What Little Girls are Made Of,” which premiered in San Francisco, October, 2012. The setting of the play is 1989 and this issue has not changed a bit, no matter how much fashion has changed.

  5. A sleeve length code?! Who is pulling out a ruler in the middle of the court room? I have run into several areas of professional life like that and its so problematic for women being evaluated on the same playing field. My sister is currently in law school and always talks about how she isn’t sure if she is wearing the right thing to court. She should be worried about her clients, not her jacket.
    I compete in collegiate speech (forensics) where the implied dress code is business- suits for everyone. But men have it so much easier than women with a simpler dress code. I know judges at speech tournaments who will lower someone’s score if they aren’t dressed well– and who more often than not doesn’t meet the requirements? Women. Judge me on my intellect and argument not the height of my heels.

  6. Meredith McLaughlin says:

    I have a friend who graduated law school in the early 80’s. She and I have had discussions about feminism, where she-despite agreeing with all the major tenets OF feminism-told me that she HATES the term and does not claim it. This is in LARGE part related to the ‘dress codes’ of female law students and lawyers that she’s had to deal with. She said that a large percentage of her female contemporaries dressed in very “masculine” ways and she was often derided for NOT doing so. While she never wore clothing that was overly revealing, she chose to dress more ‘femininely’ than most of her peers. This was at a time when judges could-and did-say things like, “We don’t appreciate girls coming down here trying to take on men’s jobs.” or opposing counsel talking to her in a sexist and condescending manner. She hasn’t practiced for over 12 years, but I’m completely unsurprised that, while the PARTICULAR style divisions may have shifted, the argument is still occurring.

  7. David Rego says:

    Everything old is new again. Take a look at historian Virginia Drachman’s “Women Lawyers and the Origins of Professional Identity in America: The Letters of the Equity Club, 1887 to 1890”.

  8. Nyla Jebousek says:

    This article is spot on. I’m sure the problem is worse in ‘red’ states. I am in a blue state and was constantly shocked by the bench.

  9. These MALE judges are highly inappropriate. There is a concept known as common sense. I would not expect a woman to wear a bathing suit and shorts to court. I would not expect a man to wear a t-shirt and shorts into court. We KNOW instinctively what types of clothing are and are not appropriate in the legal environment. Let us concentrate on working for the client instead of staging a fashion show!

  10. I think this is a made-up problem. Most of the examples cited are less a matter of etiquette and more a matter of strategy.

  11. Hopefully one day, men and women will wake up and discover that women and men can be dressed up without wearing a torture suit, especially non-flat shoes. Foot-binding leaps to mind, and look at any podiatrist’s office and count the number of men vs. women. Enough said.

    Skirts are “easy access” for men.

    Perhaps soon there will be a preponderance of female judges, and therefore, this “pig” factor might be lessened.

    • You’re right I’m only ten years old and I want to become a lawyer and I want all this to change. I want women and men to wake up and just don’t go buy a dress code of a certain dress code they can dress wear something appropriate

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