Proper Attire for a Female Lawyer

Lawyer working on digital tablet in courthouse
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In the legal profession, there is a disparity of expectations for how men and women should be dressed in the courtroom. While the sartorial standards appear to be firmly established and straightforward for men, the standards for female lawyers seem to be more subjective when it comes to what is considered proper attire. Prevailing gender perceptions can help fuel unspoken bias,

Females Face More Scrutiny

A growing trend in the legal profession these days is for everyone to think they should have a say in what the proper attire is for a female attorney. Everyone from law school professors to judges to stylists feel obliged to offer their opinions about how female lawyers should dress. There are numerous examples of these types of gender bias perceptions being prevalent and perpetuated in the legal world.

In 2015, the Marin County Bar Association in California published an article in their newsletter titled “Beyond Black: Revising the Lawyer Dress Code for Women.” The controversial article received backlash from at least one respected attorney in the area who blasted the article as being "blatantly sexist," noting how the article, which opined on the attire of more than a dozen female attorneys, offered no criticism whatsoever of their male counterparts and their wardrobe choices.

In 2009, the Chicago Bar Association hosted a "What Not to Wear" fashion show in that featured a panel of judges weighing in on the attire of female law students who walked down a runway clad in items picked from their own personal wardrobe. One Chicago area blogger who was tapped to cover the show by the legal website Above the Law described the event as “How To Dress Like A Lawyer As Told By Some Women Haters, Old Men And Random Law Students.”

The blogger also noted in her recap how one the event's judges, A. Benjamin Goldgar, a United States Bankruptcy Court judge for the Northern District of Illinois, previously made his preferences clear, having been quoted by the New York Times in 2009 as saying, “you don’t dress in court as if it’s Saturday night and you’re going out to a party" at an annual Seventh Circuit Bar Association meeting in Indianapolis.

As a woman, it is difficult enough to figure out what to wear without being subjected to other people’s opinions on the matter. Aside from a written wardrobe policy, you should be able to keep your sense of style while still following all the dress codes applicable to the courtroom. To be sure, there are distinctive ways in which a female lawyer can exude professionalism while also expressing her unique flair within the conservative confines of the courtroom. Here are just a few ideas.

Follow Explicit Dress Codes

If your firm or the court has a specific dress code, do your best to follow it. Dress codes are in place for a reason, even if the reason doesn’t seem to make sense. Not following the dress code is the easiest way for things to go amiss. Nothing says “unprofessional” like someone who blatantly disregards the dress code. If you want the freedom to start incorporating your style into your wardrobe, start by making sure everything you’ve chosen to wear follows the dress code and build from there.

Show Your Sense of Style

There is nothing wrong with weaving some of your style into your business wardrobe. Do you have a favorite color? Wear that color shirt under your suit jacket. Do you like sparkly things? Include one accessory, as long as it’s not distracting. Just because you’re in a stuffy courtroom doesn’t mean that your style has to be stifled.

Dress Conservatively

At the same time, people in the room should notice your intelligence before they notice what you wear. With that in mind, make an effort to ensure that your outfits cover you in such a way that your clothing does not distract from the points you are trying to make. Pantsuits and skirt suits are safe options here, along with moderately comfortable shoes. ​

Wear Clothes That Fit

While showing too much skin is distracting, wearing ill-fitting clothes is also cause for alarm. One of the most important things to remember when choosing work clothing is to make sure you’re buying what fits you—feeling good in your clothes is half the battle.