What Should You Wear To Court When You Represent Yourself?

It’s not hard to find advice on how to dress for court. It boils down to dressing conservatively to make sure your clothing doesn’t detract from your presentation. But little of that advice takes real advantage of judicial bias against pro se litigants. Of course, most courts have a dress code.

The Slidell (Louisiana) city court is typical. You may not wear flip flops, see-through tops or baggy pants that fall below the waist. For juvenile court, the only jewelry allowed is one earring per earlobe, and you must wear a belt on pants with belt loops. Men must wear socks with their shoes.

But meeting the court’s dress code does nothing more than get you in the door. We want to dress to impress, right? For men, RealMenRealStyle.com recommends “a solid charcoal or navy suit with a white shirt and coordinating tie” for most court appearances. Their short list of the do’s and don’ts of how to dress for court:

  1. Know the court’s dress code.
  2. Be sufficiently groomed.
  3. Wear comfortable, fitted clothing.
  4. Cover any tattoos and remove removable piercings.
  5. No beach clothing.
  6. Avoid excessive jewelry.
  7. No hats.
  8. Minimize pocket bulk.
  9. Do not overdress.
  10. Never wear a costume or try to enter the courtroom naked!

For women, the general advice is to dress like a woman lawyer. Unfortunately, advice for women lawyers is all over the place. Best bets are conservative pantsuits, low-heeled shoes, minimal jewelry, and light (or no) makeup. The law firm of Cohen & Jaffe has a useful summary on what to wear to court for their male and female clients.

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That’s all well and good, but it’s important to think strategically in litigation, even when it involves how to dress for court. Bias against self-represented litigants is real, but it can be used to one’s advantage like any other bias. Remember the low expectations facing Susan Boyle’s first audition on Britain’s Got Talent? Did you see the response when she flew past them? That’s the experience you want in court.

So I don’t wear a suit to speak with a judge. I dress for court like Joe or Jane Sixpack on the way to or from work, or on a lunch break. Of course I’m neat and conservative in my dress, but I do everything I can to subtly remind the judge I’m not a lawyer. And then I start saying things like compulsory joinder and res ipsa loquitur and watch the judge’s lip hit the floor. When your dress lowers expectations, it’s easy to surpass them.

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