The old adage that you only get one chance to make a first impression rings particularly true for attorneys.
Still, law schools see a need to teach proper dress, and younger attorneys are looking to older professionals for examples.
“We require that people dress in an appropriate manner,” said Judge Thomas M. Van Strydonck, administrative judge for the Seventh Judicial District. “Of course, that’s a term that’s difficult to define these days.”
When he was a young attorney in the 1970s, he wore a suit and tie when appearing in court. He usually wore a white shirt — always if he was appearing in an Appellate Court.
Judge Van Strydonck said that when he was at the University at Buffalo Law School, students wore coats and ties. Just four years later, when he got out of the service, they were showing up to class in very casual attire.
“Appropriate dress — or at least dress that’s acceptable — has evolved over the last 40 years,” Judge Van Strydonck said. “Thirty years ago or so, it would be usual to see someone with a coat and tie. Now, it’s unusual to see someone with a coat and tie.
“On the other hand, 30 years ago, it used to be common to see people who took air travel in suits and ties. Now, you see people show up for air travel in flip-flops and shorts, so I think it’s a cultural thing as well.”
Judge Van Strydonck said dress codes have evolved — or devolved, depending on your opinion — in other businesses too. There was a time when casual Fridays didn’t exist.
“We stress with our attorneys that you need to dress professionally in court,” Monroe County Public Defender Tim Donaher said. “Senior staff impress upon the younger attorneys the need to dress professionally to convey a professional appearance to the court, our clients and the public.”
He said it is only human nature to equate someone’s appearance or dress with how seriously they might handle certain legal matters. Donaher himself prefers to wear a suit and tie, and said he believes that is the appropriate attire for male attorneys. Donaher said he would never wear a blazer in a courtroom.
“If somebody shows up simply wearing a sports coat and loafers, I think most people do feel they’re not considering the matter as seriously as they should,” he said. “With that being said, you always have to leave room for personal style. You certainly have to leave room for a bright shirt or garish tie.”
Donaher said he thinks most people strive to dress professionally in court, but that it is not always an option for his indigent clients, whose incomes are less than $12,000 a year. He said he knows judges sometimes think his clients are being disrespectful by the way they dress for court.
“With all due respect to judges, I think that that’s not always a fair conclusion,” Donaher said. “I think a lot of times, with the clients being poor, they dress the best that they can. Sometimes, it means a T-shirt and jeans because that’s all they have. If you’re poor, you don’t have the luxury of going out and buying a suit.”
To help clients dress for court, the department maintains a “clothes closet” from which appropriate attire can be chosen for clients who otherwise don’t have any.
Donaher said he learned to dress for work by emulating an older attorney. He suggests younger attorneys reach out to older colleagues when they have questions about what to wear.
Donaher and Judge Van Strydonck cited John F. Speranza as one of the best-dressed attorneys in town.
“I would say to a younger attorney, if you want to emulate somebody, I would point to John,” Donaher said.
Speranza also was mentioned by attorney James Nobles.
“He just always looks impeccable,” Nobles said, who also pointed out Joseph S. Damelio. “Both guys always have the tailored suits, the pocket square, the cuff links and all the details.”
“There’s a sanctity around the whole procedure and being in court is a serious thing,” Nobles said. “I think formal dress helps to signify that.”
Speranza said he has always thought it was important for an attorney to be well attired.
“I’m flattered and I’m gratified that people would think I’m one of the best-dressed lawyers in town,” he said. “I think an attorney is a learned profession, and a major part of this profession is your ability to represent clients effectively.
“If you’re in the persuasion business and you’re dealing in intellectual concepts, then looking and acting like a professional, someone who is learned and knowledgeable, is all part of it.”
Nobles said he has seen someone dressed in a martini shirt show up in court to plead guilty to a driving-while-intoxicated charge, or defendants appearing with big marijuana leaves on their shirts.
“I always tell my clients to dress like they’re going to church,” he said. “That seems to resonate with them more than any other instructions I can give them. I would never let my client show up in a purple suit, but you see that.”
What about women? And younger attorneys?
The men interviewed were reluctant to discuss appropriate dress for women, but Laura A. Myers, of Ward Norris Heller & Reidy LLP, prefers the traditional, conservative look as well.
She is the Community Outreach co-chairwoman and immediate past section leader of the Monroe County Bar’s Young Lawyers Section.
“Depending on what you’re arguing, I think it can be very important,” Myers said. “If it’s a very brief appearance in front of a judge, [your appearance is] the first thing a judge sees. It’s human nature to make judgments based on a first impression.”
She said that when she was at the University at Buffalo Law School less than 10 years ago, female students were told they always should wear a skirt suit — not pants.
“I think I was a little surprised by that,” she said. “I think that was the standard. Now, you see more pantsuits.”
Myers said women attorneys’ dress also depends on an attorney’s practice. Her firm deals with a lot of corporate clients, so she believes it is important to be dressed professionally when meeting with them.
“I think it just depends on the level of comfort you want the person to have,” she said. “Depending on the type of law you do, you want to make your client comfortable and I think sometimes more casual clothing is appropriate.”
Myers said she defines casual as business casual — a nice pair of pants with a blouse or a skirt and blouse. The ensemble also can also be seasonal. Myers prefers to wear more skirt suits in the summer months and pantsuits during cold Rochester winters.
Barbara A. Sherk, director of Academic Support on the faculty at the University at Buffalo Law School, said it would be nice if law schools didn’t have to teach students how to dress, but it is important that students get the message.
“First impressions are everything,” she said. “You always put your best foot forward. You might see things on TV, but it’s not how you want to be remembered. You want to be remembered for what you do and what you have to offer.”
Syracuse University College of Law also offers programs on proper attorney attire, and updates handouts on the subject periodically. Professional and Career Development Director Kim Wolf said the school plans to bring in a local tailor to speak with students this year.
“It’s something we always counsel the students on individually,” she said. “It’s incredibly important. Being professionally dressed lets the employer know they’re serious about their legal career and prepared to get started.
“There’s sort of this trend for a pop of color in an outfit, however it’s not something for a job interview. It’s not the place to make your fashion statement, with red pumps or a leopard print. Save that for another time,” Wolf advised.