Editorial: Judges give lawyers a dressing down

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Do Illinois’ judges have attention deficit disorder?
Or was Judge Michael McCuskey right when he said female lawyers enter their courts clad in “skirts so short that there’s no way they can sit down, and blouses so short there’s no way the judges wouldn’t look.”

One possible translation: the poor lads on the bench have met their matches when the clever temptresses of the law sashay into their domain.

Except, the issue was raised recently by one of their female colleagues, U.S. District Court Judge Joan Lefkow, who said lawyers of the feminine persuasion should pay heed to how they dress for court, noting one such offender turned up before her looking like she stopped in “on her way home from the gym.”

Lefkow made the casual observation during a panel discussion at the Seventh Circuit Bar Association meeting, which promptly erupted into a bit of a judicial whine and cheese party.

As the crescendo of complaint rose, Judge Benjamin Goldgar noted the issue is a “huge problem.” In fact, so huge a problem, he lamented that sometimes he wishes he could tell the female lawyer before him, “I’d really like to pay attention to your argument.”

Warming to his subject, Goldgar continued, “You don’t dress in court as if it’s Saturday night and you’re going out to a party. Dress as a serious person who takes the court seriously.”

Fortunately, Goldgar turned out to be an equal opportunity nitpicker, noting that male attorneys who appear with goofy ties like those with smiley faces also cross the line.

(Neckties with Bugs Bunny in various poses; cheap, tight, shiny suits; and feet shod in worn-out Wallabees or brothel creepers are my personal courtroom male fashion crimes.)

The average age in the room was estimated to be in the 50s, and naturally the problem was eventually pegged as a “cultural” issue with those darned younger lawyers the perpetrators. Some blamed law firms for not giving their legal hatchlings enough guidance as to what to wear, while others alleged the law schools should do a better job of telling the up-and-coming lawyers how the cool kids dress for court.

While it’s easy to poke fun at this fashion tempest, the judges do make a good point. And it’s a cross-border issue. But, as you can see in Glenn Kauth’s story on page 10, the Ontario Criminal Lawyers’ Association has found a great answer: a new training and mentorship program to provide tips for young lawyers on how to do their jobs better.

“Criminal law articling jobs have evaporated with the degradation of the [legal aid] tariff against the cost of living. They’re starting out without that first solid year of mentoring,” CLA president Frank Addario told Law Times.

So, in a neat event, lawyers with between zero and six years’ experience were partnered up with some seasoned professionals for guidance on an array of things they need to know to run a successful practice.

The erosion of decorum arose at the event as well, something senior Toronto lawyer Marcy Segal said she’s noticed. This includes issues like dressing appropriately in court and whispering and talking whilst someone else is addressing the judge. 

“The courtroom really is a play within itself, and we’re not seeing that anymore,” she said.
“I think it’s our duty,” she adds of her great decision to become a mentor.

Meanwhile, there was no word on what the Illinois judges were wearing while making their points, but maybe they should look to Canada where robes even the playing field.
Or, try the CLA’s fantastic idea on for size.
- Gretchen Drummie

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