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They usually wear somber black robes in the courtroom. After all, the judiciary must radiate impartiality. But now that court hearings are being held online because of the coronavirus, the dress code appears to have changed. Some lawyers no longer seem to attach much value to the image of legal impartiality.
A new dress code?
This change of style has caused quite a stir in America. Some lawyers attend court hearings from their beds, even lying under the sheets. There was even a male lawyer who appeared on the screen without a shirt. Needless to say, this did not go down well with a lot of colleagues.
Florida attorney Dennis Bailey has written a public letter urging his colleagues to dress appropriately. “Please, if you don’t mind, let’s treat hearings as hearings. Whether or not it’s on Zoom,” said Bailey.
Douglas Keith, counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice, NYU School of Law, understands the message:
“What this letter makes clear is something that all courts should be aware of, that people will be judged by their appearance (…), on their surroundings, and the quality of their internet connection. Law firms with better resources will have the means to ensure that their lawyers appear in the best possible light – both figuratively and literally.”
What are the rules?
Although the appeal has received a lot of support, Jack Tuter, chief judge at the court where Bailey works, emphasizes that he had not approved the letter. And so it is not an official instruction on behalf of the court.
“Many people in family court represent themselves and may or may not follow the dress code. We expect appropriate attire, but have not necessarily enforced it,” says Tuter.
Determining the boundaries
At the moment, every court in America deals differently with the new measures as a result of corona. One has reliable technology in house, so online court hearings are no problem, while the other is struggling with this new way of working. And so it is with the dress code. Some courts are stricter than others when it comes to clothing.
To help the courts conduct online court proceedings, the Texas Office of Court Administration offers webinars and guides. These explain how to use the technology, but also how to sit and what to wear. So everyone has clear guidelines on what is expected of them.
Could you have known?
It will amaze many people. You know that as a lawyer or judge, you should have a neutral appearance during a court hearing, don’t you? That’s why they bought the black robe in the first place? Well, yes and no.
On the one hand, this is logical. For a professional look, it is important to be consistent with your style. If you wear a robe in court during a hearing, you will also wear it when the hearing takes place online. By doing so, you show that you respect the rules, the environment, and the people with whom you are having the conversation. Why ignore these rules just because you work from home?
But on the other hand, this is another example of the growing trend for casual wear in the workplace. This trend has been around for a long time now. The line between workwear and casual wear is blurring, and people are increasingly pushing the boundaries. Casual Friday now seems a thing of the past, as many us wear jeans to work every day. So, why not if you are a lawyer or judge?
In addition to gradually relaxing dress codes, you have less social pressure to deal with online. Previously, when you turned up at work in casual clothes or even bare-chested, you were confronted with eyes staring at you all day long. If your clothes are not appropriate, you will quickly know. Your colleagues are quick to let you know in person, not so much when the conversation is taking place on the screen. The screen makes the threshold for dressing differently a lot lower.
What do you think? Can the dress code be more flexible during online court hearings now that many people work from home, or should it be the same as in the courtroom?