Preparing for your first court appearance can be time consuming and stressful. By the time your hearing date approaches, you have probably had at least one meeting with your attorney to discuss the order of the day, review your anticipated testimony and familiarize yourself with exhibits. Up to this point, you may have tossed and turned at night over the unknowns of your case: What questions will I be asked on cross examination? What if I win? What if I lose? If you are like most of my clients, the last thing on your mind is: What will I wear?
Think of your physical appearance as your first exhibit. My first order of business at any hearing is to make sure I present to the Judge a client who is credible and put together, particularly if we are presenting testimony. If a client arrives late to the courthouse, unshaven and wearing a wrinkled dress shirt, one of my trial goals is defeated before we even take our seats at counsel table. In order to avoid such a mishap, I offer a few general guidelines to my clients regarding their appearance in advance of our courtroom appearances:
1. Make certain you are well groomed. Think about your appearance far enough in advance to ensure you have time for a haircut and careful shave the day of the hearing. If you have long hair, consider cutting it or at the very least putting it in a neat, clean ponytail.
2. Go easy on the jewelry. Leave your necklaces, facial piercings and earrings at home. A watch and/or a ring are the only male jewelry I believe to be appropriate for a court appearance with one important exception: do not wear your wedding ring. One of the most common allegations I have heard at divorce trials through the years is that my client has not accepted the end of the marriage and is therefore depressed, angry, and/or unable to co-parent or communicate with the opposing party as a result. Wearing a wedding ring only serves to bolster this generally unfounded accusation.
3. Wear clothes that you will be comfortable in while testifying. My personal rule of thumb is to ask my clients to wear clothes they would be comfortable in while interviewing for their job. If I am representing an investment banker, for example, then I presume my client will feel and therefore look comfortable wearing a suit during our court appearance. If I am representing an electrician, then I presume my client will not feel comfortable in a suit and subsequently spend most of his time in the witness stand pulling at his sleeves, straightening his tie and squirming in his seat. If you fidget and look uncomfortable while testifying the bottom line is that you appear as if you are lying. The vast majority of my clients look appropriate and comfortable in slacks and a button up shirt over a plain white tee shirt. Please do not wear a t-shirt with slogans, pictures or logos under a white dress shirt and expect that no one will notice.
4. Ensure your outfit fits well, is clean and in good condition, right down to your shoes. Please try on the clothing you anticipate wearing for your court appearance from head to toe so that you have enough time to repair, press and/or replace the clothing and shoes as necessary. Iron your clothing. Make sure your shoes are clean and shined. Do not wear clothing that is too tight or too loose fitting. Being clean and pressed is especially important in a custody case, where the manner in which you run your household and care for yourself and your children may be under attack.
5. Trial is not the time to make an individualistic fashion statement. I have had more than one client become defensive when I have suggested tattoos be covered, facial hair be shaven and a fashion forward designer suit be exchanged for a more conservative color and cut. You should certainly be yourself at trial, but at the same time, you will want the Judge to focus on your testimony and the facts of your case with minimal distraction.
Do not wait until the morning of your hearing to think about your appearance. Once you have reviewed the substantive nature of your hearing with your attorney, discuss the practical details of your court appearance. Don’t be afraid to ask for directions to the courthouse, confirm the time you should arrive, inquire about parking options and establish the location you will meet your attorney once inside the courthouse. Discuss your clothing and appearance with your attorney to gain his/her insight regarding the decorum in your particular courtroom. Do not be dismissive of any guidance from your attorney on this subject. Image is important in domestic cases. The way you care for and present yourself is important in presenting your overall case.
Jill Best is the Managing Attorney for the Overland Park, Kansas office of Cordell & Cordell, PC.