Dr. Noelle Nelson, a California-based jury consultant, recalls the time she was helping a law firm prepare witnesses for trial and asked a woman to come to her prep session dressed as she would in court.
“I used to say, ‘your Sunday best.’ So this gal came in fishnet hose. Now, fishnet hose is generally not thought to be what’s Sunday best. It’s usually what’s party best, or something else, dot, dot, dot.’’
Another time, a physician defendant in a medical malpractice case showed up for trial in a black suit with a black T-shirt underneath.
“And we took one look at him and went, ‘Mafia.’ ’’
They had no time to run out to a store, Nelson said, so one of the junior lawyers had to take him into the men’s room and give him his shirt and tie. The lawyer went back to the office, presumably to change out of the black t-shirt.
Nelson, a jury consultant whose Ph.D. is in clinical psychology, travels the country and consults on all aspects of trial preparation, including as a dress consultant. She said dressing appropriately in court – for lawyers, witnesses and clients – is an important component of winning.
People form an impression of you almost immediately upon seeing you, said Brenda Swauger, a Chicago-based custom clothier and dress consultant for corporate CEOs, sports stars and lawyers preparing for trial. She wrote about proper courtroom dress in an article for the ABA Journal earlier this year.
“People judge you, whether you like it or not, on the way that you look,’’ she said. “It’s the way that you’re dressed, the way that you’re groomed, the way that you speak. So you have seconds to make that impression.’
Swauger suggests a suit and tie on male lawyers and usually on clients and witnesses. It should be blue or gray with a white or light blue shirt and muted tie. Women need to be understated in their attire. They can wear a skirt and button-down blouse, or a sweater. It could be a conservative dress or a navy or charcoal pantsuit. And nude hose versus dark-colored.
“The females that are going to court, they’re definitely overdressing and not having enough clothes on. That’s a common complaint,’’ Swauger said, noting that it sends the wrong message.
The jury wants to perceive you as being professional, she tells them. “You want to show that you’re serious about the matter at hand and that you’re taken seriously.’’
Geography makes a difference
Nelson’s advice on dress for trial varies with the location, she said. She would suggest different attire for lawyers, clients and witnesses in Minnesota or Montana than in San Francisco or Texas.
“For example, a large belt buckle is not only appropriate in Texas courtrooms, it is normal. …The thing’s the size of a saucer,’’ she said. “And cowboy boots. Absolutely, cowboy boots. And I think it’s called a bolo tie. All that is not only appropriate in Texas, but jurors like that. That’s what they know, that’s what they wear on their Sunday best.’’
Nelson works in the civil realm – from eminent domain to medical malpractice to personal injury – and as a jury consultant specializes in cases that are going to trial.
“The cases vary hugely, but what does not vary is that the lawyer and the parties that I’m working with must always have some way of identifying with the jurors.’’
Swauger, who consults on dress for both civil and criminal cases, said different cases call for different attire. She offers suggestions on the best look for hypothetical defendants in criminal cases:
- A man charged with a white collar crime: Dress conservatively in navy blue, or medium blue suit and white shirt and tie. Neutral colors are always the best. Nothing too flashy. “The really important thing about white collar criminals is to not look like you have expensive clothing on,’’ she said. “My suggestion is to buy a suit at an entry level store, even if it’s a Kohl’s or a J.C. Penney.’’
- A woman middle school teacher charged with having sex with an underage student: She needs to be professional looking. “Definitely more in tailored clothing. I’d say like a pantsuit would be more appropriate for her. She doesn’t want to look like a girlfriend. She doesn’t want to appear as a potential aggressor. Nothing feminine, nothing sexy looking.’’
- A man charged with armed robbery: “Definitely dress slacks, and they need to fit appropriately, so not wearing them below the waist. Dress pants in a dark color and a collared shirt – it needs to be buttoned up – with a jacket. Not necessarily a suit, but someone on trial for armed robbery could definitely get away with dress slacks … with a tie and a separate blazer.’’
San Francisco lawyer Debra Bogaards, who has hired Nelson as a jury consultant on cases for decades and who writes on courtroom attire, related a case she wrote about in a 2017 issue of Plaintiff magazine. She represented a client who had had an affair with her physician boss. He had signed an employment contract with her but fired her after the affair ended. She sued.
The client wore tight-fitting clothes that drew undue attention to her large breasts, so Bogaards sought Nelson’s advice. It was a bench trial before a male judge, so the client showed up in a soft baby-blue sweater and a small-print floral skirt that Bogaards and Nelson thought would make her look “sweet and vulnerable,’’ as she wrote. Upon Nelson’s advice, the sweater was a size too large. “By carefully choosing her clothing for trial, the judge’s focus was on the doctor’s breach of contract rather than on plaintiff’s ‘assets,’ ” she wrote.
“And the judge actually gave some feedback to the court reporter during trial,’’ Bogaards said, “and he couldn’t understand how she had gotten herself in this situation because she appeared so nice and sweet. It definitely worked.”
Bogaards said it’s quite common for large firms in big money cases to hire a jury consultant from preparation through the end of trial. She hires Nelson for pretrial prep of witnesses and to help her with the word choice and structure of her opening statement.
As Nelson said, she doesn’t have to be their ally. Their attorney has to be their ally.
“I’m the one who says, ‘No, you can’t have trouser pants that stop at your ankle and wear white socks. And, okay, your shoes are shined. I’m happy about that,’’ she said.
“I’ve had to ask a witness to use deodorant.’’
Here are general tips from Nelson and Swauger:
- “The bottom line is neat and clean,’’ Nelson said. “Whatever it is, it’s going to be pressed. … And it’s got to be clean, and your shoes have to be shined. Your nails have to be clean and your hair has to look like you’ve washed it recently.’’
- Dress in a way that doesn’t distract from what you have to say, she added. No large floral prints. No huge plaids. “And sometimes for gentlemen it means please don’t wear that diamond encrusted Rolex. All they will see is the flashes of light from his wrist.’’
- The two consultants always recommend ties for male attorneys. “Even though ties are not big in the work environment now, this is a completely different scenario,’’ Swauger said. “You’re in front of court and it’s very serious. Nothing too loud with the tie. Conservative, solid is fine or a very small print.’’
- Nelson said that it may be more appropriate for a witness or client, however, to not wear a tie. “For some people, wearing a full-on suit with a tie is so far out of their normal, and not because they’re sloppy, but because in their socioeconomic position, it doesn’t happen.’’ So sometimes she will suggest a sport coat with a long-sleeve shirt underneath buttoned to the second button from the top. “I will never ask a witness to exceed the limits of their comfort zone.’’
- “If you have tattoos, they should not be showing,’’ Swauger said, adding that makeup can cover neck tattoos. “If you have any kind of piercings other than earrings, they should not be showing.’’ And no jewelry other than a wedding band and small earrings.
- Swauger said women need to wear minimal makeup. Women with long hair should have it pulled back. She does not think male attorneys should have long hair. “I prefer if you’re an attorney and you’re practicing and going to the courts, you should have a clean-shaven face.’’ If the lawyer has a beard, it should be short and very well-groomed.