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Dress code matters, or is a lawyer allowed to wear jeans?

Jessica Markham

Jessica Markham

I’m self-conscious about my blog because of two things: a) I don’t have everything figured out and b) I know I don’t have everything figured out.

With this in mind, I submit to you today’s topic: dressing for work.

Several things have got me thinking about this topic lately. One is the recent publication of a dress code by the clerk of court of the Anne Arundel Circuit Court. What most strikes me is the level of attention devoted to the sartorial choices of women who enter the courthouse. Comparing myself to this code on the daily, it appears I often fall short.

When I go to court, I don’t go for suits. When I wear a suit, I always feel I am dressing up like someone else – that I’m wearing my parents’ clothes or, worse, a lawyer’s “uniform,” or clothes that lawyers think they are supposed to wear. I usually end up wearing black pants and some type of blazer or a dress and tights.

When meeting with clients, I take it down a notch. I try to look polished and professional, but I never wear a suit. If I am meeting with a client that I know fairly well, or who is my age, I often wear jeans. If I know a client very well and the client is my age, I most definitely wear jeans. And in the most casual circumstances, when there is no client present, I wear jeans 100 percent of the time — and about 90 percent of the time there are holes in them (the kind you pay for).

I find that dressing down takes less emotional energy, and sometimes emotional energy is in short supply. Who am I kidding: Emotional energy is usually in very short supply. Wearing jeans just makes me feel good.

When I had been practicing for only a few years, an attorney who was close to retirement told me, “I realized my bottom line is not affected by whether I wear jeans, so I choose to wear jeans.” That’s basically the attitude I have adopted.

But recently, as I noted in my previous blog post, I attended the ABA midyear conference. I showed up to the first session in jeans. Everyone else was wearing a suit. Was I self-conscious? Honestly, I was not. But I laughed at myself a bit because the idea of wearing a suit hadn’t even crossed my mind. Am I obtuse or what?

At lunch I talked to a retired woman judge who noted that, in her early days, she never would have dared dress casually. What she said, in not so many words, was that she had been trying to prove herself. Women of her generation had to dress a certain way to prove themselves and to be treated equally. I realized that wearing what you want is a luxury.

So tell me: Is wearing jeans disrespectful? Am I overthinking this? Tell me what you think.

Jessica Markham is the owner of Markham Law Firm, a family law firm in Bethesda.

5 comments

  1. I’m a creative director in the agency space. I’m a TERRIBLE judge of what you should wear to work, because in my field NOT wearing jeans and some sort of cool band/game/ironic tee shirt is sort of the same thing as not wearing a suit in your field.

    But I truly think there are some archaic dress rules that just don’t fit into the modern paradigm (seriously, businessmen… ties? Still? Why?). But I like to think that if you’re great at your job, you shouldn’t have to worry about “dressing up” to fulfill some code. Jeans vote from me? Yes.

  2. I am a physician. I wear a white coat and rarely if ever wear a tie. I think it puts patients at ease if I am casually dressed.

  3. I have some age on me and I practiced through the suits and ties to work age. Had a robust practice!
    I switched to wearing boots, jeans , button-down shirt and a sport coat to work. My practice remained robust for many years even though I was dressed comfortably. I did and do the full uniform for Court.

    The only difference that I ever noticed was that my clients seemed more comfortable and I certainly was.
    All that being said, no one ever accused my of being a fashion leader.

  4. One of the advantages of being a solo is that I make the rules. And I am far more comfortable in casual attire – sometimes really casual. Th vast majority of my clients do not go to any length to dress up to come see me, so I feel that everyone being comfortable lends itself to better communication and relations. And I even take the same approach, largely, to networking and bar association activities.
    When I appear in court, I wear a suit or at the very least, slacks and a nice sports coat and tie. The only time I get envious is during the height of summer when it’s 100º and I am wearing a coat and tie and opposing counsel is wearing a comfortable sun dress.

  5. Relatively New Lawyer

    I’d like to submit a related question for your informal judgment.

    I am admitted to the Maryland bar, but haven’t done much work at the courthouse thus far in my career, although I would like to start doing more (AA, MoCo, PG).

    I have some very painful physical health issues, and have yet to find an appropriate oxford shoe that doesn’t leave me in terrible foot and back pain. I have spotted a few pairs of “dress sneakers” online (full brogue wingtip upper, with sneaker outsole). They look like something that might barely “pass” as a dress shoe.

    If I wear these to the courthouse do you think I would risk being humiliated by a judge who would take such footwear as a sign of disrespect?

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