Dressing for (legal) success: Fashion strategy for the courtroom and office

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Assistant Public Defender Shelley Duff is passionate about clothing and style, and when a client was on trial for homicide last summer, she strategically employed her fashion sense -- together with her legal know-how -- to help sway the jury.

Subtle touches like stilettos and sparkly earrings might seem trivial, but they may actually have made a difference.

"My trial lasted a week, and every day before I went to sleep, I would lay out my clothes for the next day, really putting an effort into my outfits and picking a great pair of shoes to wear," said Ms. Duff.

After two days of deliberation, the jurors told the judge they were hopelessly deadlocked.

"I had a chance to speak to the jury about the case and why they could not reach a verdict," she said. "In the middle of my conversation with them, this woman says, 'I have to tell you that I couldn't wait to see what you would be wearing every day and what shoes you would have on. I love all of your shoes!'

"That made me so happy. It also shows that juries really look at what you are wearing, how you act and how you handle yourself."

While there is no hard-and-fast rule about proper courtroom and office attire, most lawyers follow basic guidelines. The courtroom calls for decorum, deference, solemnity -- meaning suits for men and skirt suits or pants suits for women, proper shoes (generally heels for women), conservative adornments (watches, strands of pearls) and neutral makeup (if any).

Attorneys headed to interviews in jail or conducting a site visit may dress down. In the office setting, women sometimes wear slacks and a sweater set, lower wedge heels or even ballet slippers, insiders said. Some firms expect their employees to dress formally at all times.

Meghan Moran, an insurance and liability defense litigator at Zimmer Kunz, a midsize firm in the U.S. Steel Tower, said those who under-dress are often called out for doing so.

"If somebody shows up with sloppy jeans or sloppy shirt on, they will say, 'Way to dress up for the occasion!' It will always be a joke, but obviously they are noticing," she said.

Judges sometimes comment lightheartedly about unbuttoned suit jackets, run-down heels or scuffed shoes. Other practitioners noted too-tight blouses or too-short skirts as fashion faux pas, along with (witting or unwitting) displays of chest hair or cleavage.

Fashion-forward attorneys like Ms. Moran and Ms. Duff argue that how juries, judges, clients, witnesses, court staff and, of course, fellow lawyers see you does matter.

"Sloppy attire encourages sloppy performance," said Assistant District Attorney Julie M. Grant, who occasionally goes up against Ms. Duff as opposing counsel. "I feel most confident and perform at my absolute best when I am dressed professionally."

Men tend to have less room for variation in their overall look.

"People are always trying to separate you from the pack, to make an assessment as to whether or not you are a good attorney," said Elliot Howsie, who has clocked thousands of hours in the Allegheny County criminal courthouse as a prosecutor and as defense lawyer and will begin serving as the Allegheny County public defender this week.

"They're going to look at your suit, your tie, your shoes. Shoes matter the most. Because I think if a person doesn't take pride in their shoes, I think it says a lot about their overall presentation," he said.

It didn't take long in an informal courthouse survey to come up with a short list of the local standouts, proof that people are paying attention.

Those called out for their style included defense lawyers Turahn Jenkins (great color combinations with brightly patterned ties), R. Blaine Jones II (cuff links, impeccable shoes), Shelley Duff (great shoes), John Elash (bold color choices) and Patrick Thomassey (tailor-made suits), as well as Lisa Middleman, Casey White, Marc Taiani, Brian Sichko and Gary Zimmerman.

For the prosecution, names mentioned included Rachel Fleming (T-straps, Mary Janes), Matthew Wholey (well-tailored mod), Lisa Pellegrini (stylish suits), Julie Grant and Simquita Bridges.

Those making fashion statements from the bench, according to those surveyed, included President Judge Donna Jo McDaniel of Allegheny County Common Pleas Court, who sometimes comes to work in a fur coat and rarely obscures her suits, skirts and jackets with a judge's robe, as well as Judges David R. Cashman (monogrammed shirts), Jill E. Rangos (classic suits) and Anthony M. Mariani (old school). Edward J. Borkowski and Thomas E. Flaherty were also mentioned.

Private lawyers in the criminal and civil sector pay particular attention to how they appear to their clients. That doesn't always mean toning it down, either.

"I think some of the best attorneys are flashy in court. It shows you're a risk taker; you have a bold personality," said Jeanette Oliver, a former litigator who practices energy law at Burleson LLP.

"You should always have an air of professionalism, but you don't need to stifle your personality or style. The profession really is about confidence and assertiveness. The worst thing you can do as an attorney is not to be memorable," she said.

There is a wider fashion margin for women. Some wear open-toed shoes with bare legs in the summer. Ms. Oliver offered a rule of thumb: If you are second-guessing your choices, your outfit is probably not appropriate.

Ms. Fleming, from the county district attorney's office, always keeps a basic black suit jacket in the office for unplanned court appearances. Others stash a nice pair of shoes by their desks for such occasions.

Defense lawyer Frank Walker II said the old standbys are standbys for a reason. "I was always taught that dark suits were the way to go. You can jazz up the shirts and ties, but you really can't go wrong with the dark suit as the foundation."

Lawyers' fashion sense can change as they matriculate from one firm to another. Candace Komar, a divorce attorney and partner at Pollock Begg Komar Glasser & Vertz LLC, said law school stifled her creative instincts. As a young lawyer, she adhered to tradition -- navy or gray tweed suits, small pearl earrings, low heels.

But when she made partner at Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney, she stepped out of the box, experimenting with, "God forbid, color, even bright color" she said. "A fuchsia blouse. Those sparkly beaded bracelets with elastic."

When she started her own firm in 2001, she said, "I started to dress more how I wanted to dress, though, obviously, always in a professional manner."

She would wear a V-neck top or a wrap instead of a coat. People expect her to be edgier, even more aggressive in her subspecialty. She opts for accessories that add punch, like her topaz necklace, her Philip Stein watch, her bronze pearl Honora earrings, her herring bone hosiery, her South African buck Indiana Jones hat with zebra stripes -- and the deep red patent leather briefcase she bought at the Philadelphia airport.

"I saw that and thought, 'It looks like a divorce lawyer.' I get compliments on it all the time," she said. "I don't want to look like I'm a cookie-cutter version of an attorney. That is not why people hire me."

Where Ms. Komar channels Coco Chanel, Blaine Jones, a criminal defense lawyer, favors a Daniel Craig-as-James Bond look. He has been meticulous about what he wears his whole life: His parents taught him, and he has taught the same to his children.

Whether he's headed to the county jail or to federal court, he invariably wears a European fitted suit, a pocket scarf, a French cut shirt, cuff links, neatly buffed and polished shoes (pointed, not boxy, is his preference), and either a Burberry or an Armani watch (he has two of each). He considers the tie "the centerpiece of the outfit." His cuff links include a pair of Buffalo nickels; a pair from his alma mater, Howard University; a pair with his initials; and another with his law firm's logo. He also has his initials embossed on his briefcase. He has between 17 and 20 suits in his closet and he always gets them tailored.

"It matters, absolutely," Mr. Jones said. "Clients want to know that you look good. You have to have a certain confidence in yourself and what you're wearing."

Ms. Moran, the litigator at Zimmer Kunz, noted that while some of her colleagues set a high bar, the majority are not fashionistas -- and that's to be expected in this city.

"Well-dressed is very different in Pittsburgh than in other East Coast cities. ... People are wearing a suit, but it might not be the right size. Some people dress really nicely, some dress phenomenally, but it's not New York standards," she said.

Gabrielle Banks : pggbanks@gmail.com . First Published March 12, 2012 4:00 AM


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