putting in a good appearance


On Halloween, the word “party” conjures up masks, costumes and poseurs — and looking less than your best can garner applause.   At court, however, parties need to show some discretion when deciding how to look for their appearances.

PhantomMaskNV    The article “The Beauty Bounty,” in the new Nov.-Dec. 2006 issue of Harvard Magazine reminded me today to talk about how the pro se litigant dresses and otherwise preens for court.  The article discusses the paper “Why Beauty Matters,” by economists Markus M. Mobius of Harvard and Tanya S. Rosenblat of Wesleyan University, in American Economic Review, 2006, vol. 96, issue 1, pages 222-235 (abstract; prepublication pdf. version; summarized in NYT article, April 6, 2006).  Professors Mobius and Rosenblatt took the fact that attractive people earn higher wages than ordinary-looking people and designed an experiment to “decompose” the root causes of the beauty premium (which was 12 to 17 percent in their study).  The professors found that employers have a visual stereotype that more attractive people are more productive; beyond that, attractive people are themselves more confident (probably because of a lifetime of positive feedback); and they also have better conversational skills.   


This study is obviously not directly applicable to litigants at court.  However, we can say with some certainty that human beings in the judicial system have similar positive “visual stereotypes,” and respond well to those who are self-confident and have good conversational skills.   The best evidence of a visual stereotype is the fact that court after court, across the nation (and even in Canada), stresses the importance for the self-represented of making a good impression by their appearance.  For example:

  • PhantomMask  The Kern County [CA] Superior Court has a A Guide for Self -Represented Litigants that states:”What should I wear to court?  Court is a business type of environment. Dress as if you are going to a job interview. Be clean and neat. Shorts, tank tops and flip-flop sandals are not allowed.”
  • The West Virginia Courts, in “Going Solo“, emphasize in their first tip: “Make a good impression: If you dress nicely, it tells the judge that you respect the courtroom and care about your case.”
  • In Massachusetts, the Plymouth County Probate and Family Court has as its second of Ten Suggestions (after “be on time”): DRESS IN A WAY THAT SHOWS RESPECT FOR THE COURT. You do not need to dress like a lawyer or buy new clothes.  Do, however, dress in a dignified way.  Unless it is an absolute emergency, avoid wearing jeans, T-shirts, shorts, tank-tops, sleeveless athletic shirts, cut off shirts, and undershirts in the courtroom.
  • Similarly, the Superior Court of Arizona, offers Tips on Self-Representation that advise: “The Court is a very traditional and polite place. When you are representing yourself in Court you are trying to persuade a judge or a jury that you are right. So you must act, dress, and speak in a way that helps you with your case. Here are some tips: [listed first] When you come to Court, dress as professionally as possible. This means clothes that are neat and clean, and without holes. You should be clean and neatly groomed.” 


  Personally, I was amazed when I first walked into the Schenectady County, NY, Family Court, in 1988.  The hallways and courtroom were far less “courtly” than I had expected.  More surprising, I had never seen so many “wife-beater” sleeveless t-shirts, tattoos, and unsightly legs in short pants, in one place, in my entire life.  However, in a decade going to that Court (for hundreds of cases), I never noticed a beauty premium.  The two presiding judges were especially fairminded, which might account for that result.  But, I might have been unaware of the bias.  If you are a practitioner with extensive courthouse experience and would like to share your perceptions and perspectives, please leave a comment.

 Meanwhile, don’t count on the judge being blind to aspects of your appearance that are within your control. Dress neatly and “respectfully.”  Don’t overdo it by trying to be fancy or alluring.  Appearing in a Model Litigant Costume that looks like an act might not win you any prizes. 

p.s.  After reading about the Mobius-Rosenblat study, Media trainer TJ Walker pointed out the importance of a confident voice in making any presentation.  He notes “It’s a lot easier to develop a beautiful voice as we get older than it is to develop a more beautiful face as we age.”

update: See Courtroom Composure from Divorce Guide for Modern Women.

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