On being a ‘lady litigator’

As women, a lot of us are our judged on appearance, attire and our accessories. Whether it is a female celebrity on the red carpet or a female attorney in a courtroom, the audience is likely taking notice of several superficial details of a woman’s presence before anything else.

Trial lawyers spend a significant amount of time persuading complete strangers why they should side with their clients. While oral argument, witnesses and evidence — you know, the essential stuff that has to do with the merits of your case — are very important, so is how the jurors perceive you and your client. So, perhaps more so than transactional attorneys, litigators also need to focus on their appearance because the persuasion is done in person and in very close physical proximity to the ones in power – the trier of fact.

I think women in general devote more time than men on attire and making sure the clothes, watch, bag, shoes, sunglasses, earrings, etc., all are in line with the theme for the day. And on trial days, we lady litigators likely do so with added precision. Earlier this month, I helped organize an event on behalf of the MSBA Young Lawyers Section regarding women in private practice. The topic of pantyhose, appropriate footwear, and skirts vs. pants were all part of the lively discussion. One of the panelists, and a role model of mine, Laura Zois, had a lot to share about this matter.

Laura is a fearless litigator and a well-respected attorney in the personal injury world. The golden rule she follows when picking out appropriate courtroom attire “that transcends county lines, hem lines, and fashion trends is: I must feel confident with what I have on, I don’t want anything distracting me from doing the best possible job I can for my client.”

Laura jokingly admitted she has a shoe problem. “Wearing fabulous shoes is like having super powers or a secret weapon,” she said. “I can wear a classic suit with nothing flashy, but having on a fabulous pair of shoes, makes all the difference.”

I personally am in awe of women who can walk in high heels. So me and my flat feet prefer a solid wedge-type shoe. These usually come in boring colors like black and brown but the all-day comfort make it my go-to footwear.

We also talked about sex appeal and juror impressions. “Some outfits just aren’t appropriate for the courtroom,” Laura said. “Women that dress too sexy in a courtroom are a distraction to the male and female jurors. The female jurors may hold it against you and the male jurors will ignore what you are saying.

“Jurors talk about the attorneys during deliberation,” she added. “This happens all the time. If you think it does not, you are kidding yourself. They talk about what the attorneys look like, jewelry, hair, clothes, shoes, personal ticks, and if you have a messy desk. You do not want to have the subject of your wardrobe or anything else you can control, become a strike against you, or be an unflattering distraction from the real reason you are there, your client.”

Plaintiffs’ attorneys (and prosecutors as well) have the burden of proof in any given case. We cannot afford to alienate any juror. My colleagues across the aisle have a different and equally difficult job, but the numbers game is easier for them since they only need one or two ardent supporters on the jury. We have to win them all.  It’s an unfortunate reality, that to carry the day, female attorneys have to understand that often their book may be judged in part by their cover.

One comment

  1. A very relevant article, Divya! This I feel applies to all professional fields. And yes, unfortunately especially true in the case of lady professionals. A very well written article. Concise and to the point.

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