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.