Tucked away in one of his desk drawers, Reynold Berry keeps a bottle of shoe polish. It is there to quickly cover any scuff marks when he has to go before a judge.
The attorney at Rubin & Levin P.C. has kept the polish handy since being advised during a seminar to never appear in court unless his shoes are shined.
Shined shoes, closed-toe pumps, crisp shirts and blouses, pants, skirts and jackets are the closet staples of lawyers. While the business world has gone casual, pitching the tie and welcoming sandals in some cases, the legal profession has largely remained true to conservative business attire.
Foregoing the flashy for the traditional is one way attorneys show respect to their clients and the judicial system.
Attorneys polish their shoes and don jackets not because they eschew fashion. To the contrary, they mix patterns and splash colors but they do so in a manner that reflects the gravitas of their work.
To this day, Andrew Bunger keeps a spare jacket hanging in his office, a reminder of when he worked as a full-time attorney. Although he has switched careers to being the senior assistant director of the Career Services Office at Indiana University Maurer School of Law, Bunger retains the belief that attorneys should look as well as act like professionals.
“If someone is going to pay for my time, I want to show them I want to respect that,” he said, “even if they’re in jeans.”
A recent court order from Blackford County concerning lawyer attire made national headlines and underscored the importance of proper dress in the legal profession.
Blackford Circuit Judge Dean Young admonished Marion attorney Todd Glickfield for not wearing socks in the courtroom. When Glickfield challenged the judge to point to a legal authority on dress codes, Young cited a Blackford County Local Rule of Court that mandates attorneys appear on time and be “dressed in appropriate business attire when appearing in court.
In addition to the attorney being sockless, the order noted that on other occasions Glickfield had not worn a tie for some proceedings.
Alice Morical, partner at Hoover Hull LLP, echoed many attorneys when she articulated the non-negotiable fashion rule for court that applies to both men and women – wear a suit. The courtroom has a formal atmosphere and the business conducted there is a formal situation so everyone should treat the court respectfully, she said.
In 20 years of practice, the most dramatic change Morical has witnessed to courtroom attire is that many women no longer wear stockings.
Situation dictates dress
During his legal career, Clayton Miller has seen the dress code in law firms relax a bit.
“I do welcome the flexibility,” he said of being able to wear more casual clothes, “but I don’t want to go too far.”
A partner in Bamberger Foreman Oswald & Hahn LLP’s Indianapolis office, Miller may leave the suit at home when he has no appointments outside the office. He will likely keep the tie off and his collar opened, but he will still wear a blazer. For clients he knows very well, he may even slip on his white buck shoes.
Anytime he presents in court or before the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission, Miller is back in a suit. He does, however, add his own twist by opting for a bow tie. Indeed, so well-known are his bow ties that judges have commented when he has worn a straight tie into court.
Bunger can look at his grandfather and father to see how the legal profession has grown more tolerant of casual dress. His father, an estate attorney, wears khaki pants, a tie and sport coat while his grandfather wore a suit every day. He speculated his grandfather’s heavy court schedule probably kept him in formal attire.
Why the suit remains popular may be due, in part, to fear of breaking tradition.
“I don’t want to be the lawyer who shows up for court and isn’t wearing a suit,” Bunger said.
Ice Miller LLP partner Melissa Proffitt Reese attributed the staying power of the suit to the lawyers themselves. People who are attracted to the legal profession tend to be analytical and risk averse, she said, and they spend their days helping clients identify and minimize risk so they are naturally inclined to dress conservatively.
Professional yet personal
But dressing professionally and adding one’s own unique flair are not antonymous concepts.
Reese, a former managing partner at Ice Miller, breaks the mold a little by embracing color in her professional wardrobe. She loves color and she wants her clothes to show who she is.
Even as a young associate, she would wear a bright green suit with a purple and green scarf to court. And, she said, she maintains a professional appearance but has become less conservative as she has gotten older and more experienced.
She tends to develop close personal relationships with her clients so in meetings, she wears clothes that show her personality. When speaking before a group, she selects something colorful and stylish to maintain the audience’s attention. For court, she reaches for a subdued suit.
“I think people should dress how they feel comfortable,” Reese said. “I feel very comfortable being able to dress in a way I enjoy. I don’t feel judged. I’m happy and I’m pleased.”
Lawyers today have more options and can be more creative in their professional dress than 20 years ago, Morical said. Instead of a suit, women can now wear pants and a blazer or a dress and a blazer and still be considered professional.
She agreed with Reese’s assessment of clothes, saying professional wardrobes have become more interesting and can reflect the personalities of the lawyers. Morical likes being able to vary her attire. Besides, she added, “I think it would be hard to find five black suits that were different.”
Yet, as Berry’s bottle of shoe polish demonstrates, lawyers are still very conscious that they maintain a lawyerly appearance. The public expects it, and television emphasizes it by always dressing attorney characters in suits.
When he is meeting clients or going to court, Berry wears a suit. And when he is unsure what the occasion calls for, he still wears a suit because, as he explained, it is easier to remove the jacket and tie and become less formal than it is to dress up a golf shirt.
He injects his own sense of style with sweater vests. For “men of a certain size,” he said, the vests give a neat appearance by helping keep his shirt tucked in and his tie straight as he stands and sits multiple times throughout the day.
Berry acknowledged his sweaters have been the topic on conversation and maybe even the subject of ridicule, but that is OK. He has no intention of banishing the knitted tops from his wardrobe.
“I have far too many hanging in my closet to give them up,” he said.•