“HIGH WATERS” AND BURLAP SUITS

June 16, 2010 § 6 Comments

Philip Thomas, a lawyer in Jackson who publishes the MS Litigation Review & Commentary blog, has a clever piece about effective attire for the trial lawyer.  You can read it here

What interested me was the emphasis that jury-trial lawyers place on image and the subtle appearance clues that can influence jurors.  Jurors have certain expectations bred from experience, years of watching dubious tv dramas about the law, and John Grisham novels.  I remember years ago an expert at a seminar telling his audience in all sincerity that a lawyer should never wear green in the court room because it is an insincere color.  If you want that billion-dollar verdict, you need to dress like a billion dollars.  With so much at stake, who can blame a lawyer for striving to attend to even the smallest detail that could conceivably influence the outcome of a case?   

Still, I almost laughed out loud at Mr. Thomas’ references to “high waters” and a burlap suit.  My trial experience has been primarily in Chancery Court, where, of course, juries are empanelled as often as total solar eclipses.  Chancellors are just not as susceptible as jurors to appearances, probably at least in part because Chancery Judges can’t afford to dress much better than the lawyers who appear before them.  And anyway, Chancery Judges are mostly a jaded lot who have so many factors to weigh and consider in even the simplest case that we just don’t have the luxury of paying much attention to what the lawyers are wearing.  Oh sure, a jacket and tie for males and “professional attire” for females in the court room are still de rigeur in Chancery.  But that is required to preserve decorum, not to create a fashion show. 

If it is true that “Clothes make the [man/woman],” I can say emphatically that in Chancery Court, clothes do not make the lawyer.  In my many years of practicing and judging in mostly rural counties in Mississippi I have seen many a lawyer in “high waters” and burlap suits.  I have worn them myself.  I have seen lawyers in poplin suits, boiled white shirts with short sleeves, clip-on ties and galluses who were wizards in the court room.  I have seen rumpled country lawyers in laughably poorly fitting suits send nattily dressed lawyers back to their sleek offices in the city rubbing equitable knots on their sore heads.  I once tried a case in a country court room against a lawyer who had yet to remove the sewn-on tag from the sleeve of his sport coat, and I was glad to escape that trial with a squeaky victory.      

Now, I am not trying to put down Mr. Thomas or other trial lawyers who navigate the rarified atmosphere of public interest and multi-district litigation, class actions, toxic torts and other legal train wrecks with billions on the line.  You have to do what you have to do to make it work.  I understand that.  I just marvel at how sophisticated some of us have become over my nearly 40 years in bench and bar.  

As I write this, I sit at my computer in my “professional golfer” attire (even though I don’t play golf).  Nothing on the docket today, so I can relax and work on getting out an opinion that addresses five or six sets of those factors I mentioned above.  Lawyers who pop in to open an estate are free to dress as they please as long as we remain in chambers and they don’t have a client tagging along.  If we do have to head to the court room, I will be costumed in my robe, and the lawyers may feel free to wear their “high waters” or burlap suits. 

And I’ll be thankful for our relaxed atmosphere where we can focus on the essentials.

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