Women lawyers wearing pants: part II

Posted in Ethics

We are all – men and women alike – judged on our appearance, but it’s tough to shake the feeling that in law, we women are scrutinized more closely than our male counterparts.

And it isn’t always the men who are doing the judging. In many instances it is other women who are the arbiters of the dress code for women lawyers.

Pennsylvania attorney Debra Nathanson was just out of law school when she worked for the Atlanta office of a large Chicago law firm in the late 1980s. She tells a story of being corrected by a female colleague when she got a little “too comfortable” at work.

“One day, I wore a skirt suit, hose and heels to work, but wore a short-sleeved blouse under my suit jacket,” Nathanson said.

“I was warm, so I took off my jacket in my office. Sometime after I had taken off my jacket, I left my office to go to another attorney’s office to ask a question. Later that day, an older female attorney came into my office, shut the door, and instructed me that I was not to leave my office without my jacket again, because women attorneys could not walk around the office in short sleeves.”

As Staci Zaretsky noted at “Above the Law,” and as most of us know all too well, women don’t even need a senior or enforcement role to use appearance as a weapon against other women. In addressing alleged remarks about a woman attorney from women staffers in the chambers of blogging federal judge Richard Kopf, Zaretsky echoes the plea that we have been making to men in the workplace for decades: stop focusing so much on what we look like, and start focusing on how well we do our jobs.

I do my job very well. As a former litigator who has chosen an alternative career in legal marketing and communications, part of my job has been to develop a keen awareness of how I will be perceived by my clients, employees, and other business partners. For instance, one of my former clients repeatedly complained about how the professionals in his office dressed, in particular the women, and often criticized women who wear open-toed shoes. The result? I wear open-toed shoes when appropriate but never to his office.

Unfortunately, this makes me just as guilty as others of choosing my attire based on how I might be perceived. Yet, to be as effective as I can be, I evaluate each audience as best I can and take them into account when choosing how to present myself. This dance – of balancing the desire to be true to oneself with the anticipated perceptions of others – never stops. It’s relentless.

Not everyone agrees. Also blogging for “Above the Law,” Tamara Tabo says that dress codes, whether written or unwritten, “cover up distracting superficial individual differences, so that character, intellect, and skill get the attention … Women in law ought to acknowledge that the uniform of courtroom-ready attire is meant to help them. Should a woman refuse that help, she assumes the consequences. Those consequences may include scorn from women, ogling from men, and not being taken seriously as a professional from both.”

Having been caught off guard on a casual Friday many years ago when a client was dragged into court on a bench warrant, I do agree with Tabo that attorneys need to have courtroom-ready attire available at all times. I don’t agree, however, that women need to wear suits (i.e. what I define as courtroom-ready attire), to work on a daily basis.

And while I agree that “uniforms” deflect distraction, I also take issue with telling women who stray from the proverbial legal “dress code” that they are inviting scorn. That is just as bad as saying it is okay for a man to be inappropriately aggressive when a woman wears sexy clothes.

In Women Lawyers Wearing Pants: Part I, I recounted the story of a female attorney who, in 2005, was not allowed to participate in a federal judge’s courtroom because she was wearing a pantsuit instead of a suit with a skirt. One male commenter wrote, “That is, quite simply, completely [messed] up. Time for that old codger to retire and do some macramé or something.” A woman named Valarie said, “It’s unacceptable, but one of those times that a woman has to stand up for herself. What does it say about everyone else in the courtroom, including the first chair [who did nothing to stand up for his colleague]? I would have asked for a continuance to put on a skirt. How ridiculous would that have been?”

While I was criticized 20 years ago for wearing pantsuits into court, I always have preferred them and continue to wear them instead of skirts. And this was back in the day when Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne Abraham required her women lawyers to wear skirts.

Sometimes, being the arbiter of change requires that we stand up for what we believe is right – especially when it’s for a woman who wears the pants.