Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Dress code for the courtroom.

Last year I blogged on professional etiquette in the courtroom. I wanted to follow-up on that post and talk some about appearance in the courtroom. The old adage goes on to say that you never have a second chance to make a first impression. I would like to modify that by saying you never get a second chance to undo a continuing bad impression. Unfortunately, I have seen over the years some very questionable attire during a trial. I would like to preface this posting by saying I do not hold my self-out to be an image consultant. Rather just a silent observer who has been left scratching his head on occasion.

First, I would like to touch specifically on our most important visual aid, our witnesses. Their clothing not need be expensive, but it should not appear worn, stained, or the wrong size. Instead it should fit well and not have the appearance that it was slept in, e.g. wrinkled tremendously. Often the appearance of a witness can completely sabotage their credibility on the stand. It is very important that a case team manage the presentation of their witness from both a testimony standpoint and their attire. You may have the greatest expert in the world but it will do you no good if the jury is fixated on their outlandish attire.

Years ago, I was involved in a case where an expert showed up to testify dressed in a blazer and t-shirt. Not only was his chest hair showing but also was the Mr. T starter kit of gold chains. What possible good opinion was the jury to cultivate from this visual presentation? On the surface he looked like he was not taking his role to testify very seriously. Furthermore, his expensive fee was confirmed by all the jewelry he was proudly displaying. I find it hard to imagine that some of the jurors did not make the same assumptions that I did.

Another awkward appearance situation I have seen involves over dressing a witness. This is a judgment call and every case is obviously different. Others may have a better experience with this but I have never seen it work correctly in my fifteen years. For example, last year I was involved in a case where a truck driver was wearing a suit during his testimony. Not only did he seem obviously uncomfortable wearing the costume but also it did not fit him properly. Worse was another case where the plaintiff had on a blazer with the price tag still on the back of his sleeve. It was there all through the morning session and chuckled at on various occasions by jurors.

By far the worst was the witness who had his pant cuffs held up by staples. This was a clear indication that his suit and accompanying accouterments were purchased the morning of trial. Nothing helps credibility more then new designer staple slacks! Trust me when I say the jurors are very aware of all these attire oddities. They have nothing to do but sit in a box for hours to observe and listen. These are not first impressions but rather potentially ongoing and damaging impressions. Do you want your witness to be remembered as the person with staples in his pants during deliberations?

Another witness fashion fopaux is the use of large amounts of makeup. According to the makeup expert in my house (my wife) female witnesses should be using neutral lipstick and very basic foundations. Everything should blend and enhance their features and not stand out dramatically. I was once involved in a trial where our expert was using so much makeup I think a putty knife would have been required to remove it. She was wearing a white lab coat which just amplified the attention of the rainbow of colors decorating her face. I can only imagine the jurors wondering if this was a doctor or a circus clown on the stand to testify.

In addition, we need to be cognizant that our witnesses are not projecting an image that is enticing for the wrong reasons. There is nothing wrong with being attractive but flaunting it to the point where credibility is ruined is a bad thing. Cases are not won with a nice pair of biceps or the shapely legs of a witness. Dressing conservatively makes fewer distractions for the jurors who need to be concentrating on questions and answers.

Finally, all these basic attire rules apply to legal professionals working on the big stage called a jury trial. Being competent and well educated does not matter if you look ridiculous. The jury will have the potential to be an unforgiving audience if they want too. Therefore, do not give them anything negative to latch onto from day one. They WILL talk about you. Having a case team and witnesses in neutral, natural and professional attire is the beginning of a correct visual presentation.