The fashion jury is out Attorney attire: Casually dressed lawyers defend their right to suit themselves, but still must take care to please the court.

March 06, 1996|By Elaine Tassy | Elaine Tassy,SUN STAFF

Woodlawn lawyer James R. Mudgett wears a lavender shirt and a ponytail to court, while Baltimore County Assistant Public Defender Gayle Robinson favors pantsuits.

Other attorneys show up in bright red dresses, cowboy boots, sweaters and casual shoes, sporting a full beard or wearing a Million Man March button.

While most lawyers still wear dark suits, ties and wing-tip shoes or conservative dresses or suits and pumps in area courtrooms, some lawyers say they have been increasingly able to wear less conservative styles without offending judges.

Sara Arthur, the Anne Arundel County Bar Association president who works at an Annapolis law firm, says she sees a shift toward more relaxed clothing, especially for women.

"I can remember when I first started practicing in 1984, women still wore the suits -- they had to be at least to the knee if not below, and it was the kind that resembled the man's. It had to be navy blue or gray, and a pinstripe was as wild as it got."

Now, she said, "You'll see more dresses and a lot more color. And if there are suits, they are more stylish and more feminine. Now that pantsuits are in vogue, I've seen it once or twice."

Seeking redress

Some judges just don't want to see them at all.

In September, a judge in Columbia, S.C., refused to let a lawyer enter a plea for her client because she was wearing a brown tailored pantsuit. A year earlier in Pompano Beach, Fla., three deputies handcuffed and removed a lawyer for wearing wide-legged shorts ending three inches above her knees with a double-breasted jacket and blouse.

And what's wrong with that fashion? Nothing, according to University of Baltimore School of Law Professor William I. Weston.

He says clothes can be expressive of an attorney's individuality, as long as a certain amount of respect for the court is displayed.

"Dressing formally shows that going to court has some meaning, just as you might dress up to go to visit someone or for a special event or special dinner," he said. "When you come in tennis shoes and jeans, and don't bother to wear a coat and tie, that's a sign of disrespect."

Gayle Robinson says wearing pantsuits shows no disrespect. She is one of the few Baltimore County lawyers to regularly wear them -- sometimes three times a week. "Things have definitely changed," said Ms. Robinson, an assistant public defender since 1989. TC "It's just more comfortable," she said of wearing pants. "I just think it's very nice where women feel comfortable now to pretty much be individuals."

No Baltimore County judge has ever admonished her for her clothing. "Basically, if you're doing a good job, I think the clothes go unnoticed," she said.

Not so, says retired Baltimore Circuit Judge Elsbeth Levy Bothe, who prefers women in skirts. On wearing pants, she said, "I think they are trying to be little men, and they're not."

Looking authoritative

But Judge Bothe also said, "I don't think they ought to be beauty queens," wearing skirts "up to their rears."

Jurors she has polled were critical of revealingly dressed women attorneys, Judge Bothe said. "Of course, a woman who is frivolously dressed doesn't look very authoritative."

Some attorneys have found ways to respect the bench while taking the coat-and-tie routine to new heights, and offered some reasons behind their fashions.

"My stuff can be bold on occasion," said William H. Murphy Jr., a longtime lawyer and former Baltimore circuit judge. He sports ties with asymmetrical designs, low-cut Italian leather woven cowboy boots, and a wide-brimmed Panama hat in the summer.

He says he dresses for his own pleasure -- and for the jury.

"I try to work a balance between my own personal taste and what I think the case requires," he said, explaining that in trying a case before a predominantly female jury, he will wear more colorful selections because he views women as more open to expressions of fashion than men.

Mr. Murphy, who also wears a ponytail, described himself as "too well established" to be criticized for his clothes -- except in jest.

Once, he said, a federal judge asked to talk to him privately. "He brought me up to the bench and showed me a pair of scissors -- he wanted to cut my ponytail. We both laughed about it."

Recently, on what was a typical day, Mr. Mudgett wore a lavender shirt under his suit -- just because it was there, he says.

"It was the next shirt in line in the closet," he said. "I try to rotate my shirts."

The defense rests

Gill Cochran, an Anne Arundel lawyer, says court clothes should reflect the free-spirited attitude he has about clothes.

He wrote two judges asking if he could wear Bermuda shorts and knee socks during a summer heat wave, but was rebuffed.

Since then, when he has left his jacket somewhere by mistake, instead of going before a judge without one, he may borrow a blazer from a bailiff -- even if there is a 50-pound difference in their weights.

He might like to push the envelope a little further by wearing removable tattoos or suspenders bearing his signature.

"I'd love to be a true barrister and wear a wig," he said. "I do think that would bring hoots of laughter at me, but it's costume. Courtroom is drama."

Pub Date: 3/06/96

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