A Lawyer’s Look at Unconventional Advice About Being Unconventional

Over the holidays I had lunch with a law student. The setting was perfect — great food and excellent cocktails. She had great questions about legal practice and the conversation was delightful, although there was one topic that stood out and I wanted to share it with you.

Lighting Up the Whole Room

This student entered law as a second career. She comes from a very successful career in finance. Having grown up in Europe, she has had an interesting back story. She also has an impeccable fashion sense — a star quality. I noticed her interactions with staff. She connected with everyone. The bartender even sent us over a dessert drink to try.

We talked about her one day becoming a trial attorney in Georgia and she asked me how much about herself would she have to change to one day do jury trials in Georgia — including rural parts of the State.

My advice — (get ready) ignore conventional wisdom! I told her to literally pay no attention to what she would soon be told at CLEs and trial advocacy conferences in terms of what is “too fancy.”

What They Tell You & What You Do

I have gone to these talks my whole legal career. And they always tell you things like:

  • Drive a pickup truck to and from the courthouse
  • Don’t wear cufflinks
  • Don’t have monogrammed shirts
  • Wear okay suits but not suits that are too nice.
  • Don’t wear pinstripes

All of this advice is well-intended. It is aimed at making us likable. The idea here is not to use things like clothes and other items as a barrier between the jury and you.

Lawyers are forever angsty about being too fancy.

But I think the whole point has gotten lost along the way. Today’s trial advocacy seminars have turned out a cadre of drably-dressed advocates who can’t fit their truck into the courthouse parking lot. It is as if factories have issued trial attorneys and set them loose on our courts.

My Advice to New Lawyers

My advice to her is not to change a thing. Do not try to fit some arbitrary mold. The whole point is authenticity. Juries connect with us best when we are at our most honest about who we are. Clients and juries want to see authenticity. And I think they expect and appreciate personality (as long as it isn’t tacky or awkward).

I have every confidence this lawyer could do well in a courtroom anyplace in Georgia.

And just so I am clear, if I had had lunch in a barbeque restaurant with a lawyer in western wear who drove to the place in a huge truck, my advice would be the same. Keep the truck. Try to incorporate the western wear into the court wardrobe. Don’t change a thing. Authenticity and connection are the name of the game.

when-to-say-when

Know When to Say When

Note that I am not saying that boundaries don’t exist. Modesty and appropriateness are still very much the standard. What I am saying is that the people who told you how to dress by an overly-prescribed code really are not qualified to tell you what is best for you.

Let us not forget that juries are great at detecting authenticity. If you love your pickup keep it. If you don’t like them, then don’t drive one to court just to be seen in it.

PS: Also, I am speaking to lawyers here, not clients. Clothing for court for clients is potentially a topic for a different blog post.

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