Monday, December 28, 2009

Tips from the Fashion DA

By Robin Sax

“Fashion crimes” and associated terms such as “fashion police,” are expressions  loaded with meaning.  Of course, there's the pure pop culture meaning: when someone is wearing something so atrocious it deserves a citation, a warning, or even a filing! But there's another context where the words “fashion” and “crime” intersect, and that’s in the courtroom. 
One unintended consequence of the O.J. Simpson double murder trial was the spotlight on clothes, fashion, and what worked in front of a jury.  Not only was the defendant's choice of clothing important, but with the televising of the trial, the lawyers' dress became significant as well. As People Magazine  reported in its September 19, 1994 issue:  “Not since L.A. Law have so many sharp dressers filled a televised courtroom. But this time it's real life.”

Attorneys spend much of their time advising their clients how to act, how to behave, and what to wear in court.  But now lawyers must pay attention to their appearance, as well.  “Let's face it, human nature being what it is, when we pay attention to looks, looks matter,'' says Susan Powell, a licensed clinical psychologist and principal with New York-based jury consultants Strategic Litigation Research.  “And an attorney who doesn't look right is an attorney who will not have the confidence of his client . . . or, possibly, a jury.''

Lawyers can easily dole out advice to their clients on what to wear and not to wear in court, as I did in The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Criminal Justice System 

“APPEARANCE: Dress like you are going to church or interviewing for a job that you wanted.

- If you want more specific suggestions, a dress for women/girls and slacks and button-down shirt for men/boys.


- Women should avoid wearing too much makeup. You don’t want to look flashy or tough; you want to look soft and natural.”

For those professionals who must appear in court -- the lawyers, the expert witnesses, the cops -- who regularly find their way into a courtroom, here are some suggestions to make you likable and effective:

 1. Present yourself as a professional in that role should be presented.   If you are the lawyer in front of a jury, wear a suit.  Other professionals should dress as they would in a business setting.  People watch TV and surf the web---they have preconceived notions of what professionals “should” look like.  Failing to meet those preconceived notions might make the judge or the jury doubt the professional and his or her opinion.  Accept it—looks and demeanor count!

2. More important than what you wear, you must be truthful.   Be transparent in your conversations; avoid vagueness or confusing terminology.
 For those of you who are willing to go a bit further, other advice I would give you includes:

 3.  Speak plain English.  Simple and concise statements are easy to understand.  If you don’t speak “over” the jury’s head, they are more likely to understand and be persuaded by your position.

 4.    Be yourself.  Don't try to play a role or be pretentious. A jury wants professionals to be truthful, and if you aren’t “being yourself," the jury will know it.  Acting pompous or unnatural is likely to turn the jury off and possibly create distrust when you present  information. They'll also be less likely to reach the conclusions you want them to reach.

 5.    Be prepared.  Someone who speaks easily and freely (due to careful preparation) in front of a jury seems honest and truthful.  Again, the more honest a professional appears, the more likely the jury is to accept that professional’s opinion and point of view.  Also, a well-prepared speaker appears knowledgeable, whereas someone who lacks preparation often reveals a sense of insecurity about the subject they are presenting.

We live in a media-savvy world where jurors, judges, potential clients, and society as a whole expect those in the courtroom to look and act like professionals.  Following the suggestions above can help legal professionals achieve their  objectives--both in and out of the courtroom.