Court Dress: A Sartorial Brief for Lawyers

Gregory Peck’s redoubtable Atticus Finch commands the courtroom, setting the bar for lawyerly dress.

By Andrew Yamato

Law has always been among the most sartorially sophisticated professions. Its practitioners must always be representing not only themselves, but their firms, their clients, and even the dignity of the law itself. These imperatives, along with the generous means that are often a lawyer’s prerogative, have produced generations of well-appointed attorneys who appreciate good clothes and understand their power.

The relaxation of dress codes in even the most traditional law firms may have shifted the paradigm toward less imposing and more comfortable attire, but it hasn’t diminished the importance of presenting a professional impression. This can be difficult to pull off in the more subjective context of a casual workplace, and there’s nothing comfortable about finding oneself inappropriately attired. Alan recalls being stunned when one of the real estate lawyers handling the closing of his Fifth Avenue apartment showed up in khakis and a polo shirt —  not because of any stylistic offense per se, but because such casual attire called into question the man’s judgment and authority to oversee such a important transaction.

Alan’s pale pink and rich brown ensemble is a model of understated elegance, with subtle details like a horizontally striped shirt and gauntlet suit cuffs marking him as a sartorialist, but not a dandy.

It’s never a bad thing for a lawyer to be the most formally dressed person in a meeting — the grownup in the room, so to speak. While this once may have meant a dark three-piece suit, today it might mean a subtle sportcoat and well-chosen tie. Sartorial standards may shift, but lawyers benefit from maintaining a relative formality that helps them project the following timelessly essential professional qualities:

Trustworthiness - Whether being appraised by a judge, a jury, a client, or a senior partner, a lawyer’s attire should give an open and honest impression. This translates to well-tailored but simple, sober clothes that don’t attract attention to themselves, but rather serve the wearer by focusing attention on his or her face. The bolder patterns or brighter colors that an entrepreneur or an entertainer might favor with will tend to come across as flashy, distracting, and perhaps even suspicious when worn by counsel.

Thoroughness - Tailored clothing presents many opportunities to demonstrate one’s attention to detail. Nuances like a precise trouser break or a properly knotted necktie are subliminally impressive to even the least sartorially inclined among us; their mastery won’t come across as fussy or fogey, but rather refined and authoritative. A discrete pocket square is a polished touch, (especially in the increasingly common absence of a necktie) but it’s generally well-advised to steer clear of more fastidious or anachronistic details like collar pins and braces — at least until you’re more established in your career.

Gravitas - A lawyer’s attire should respect the seriousness of the law he or she practices, and the magnitude of the stakes for clients. A well-cut solid dark suit, a crisp white or light blue shirt, and an elegant tie is an admittedly formal but entirely appropriately ensemble to wear to what is essentially one of the highest ceremonies in secular society: a court of law. Not quite the white wig required in British courts, but the same idea: symbols of continuity that transcend whims of fashion.

Jonathan’s houndstooth suit is sober yet lively, and completely appropriate for the courtroom.

There is certainly a long tradition of lawyers who enjoy deploying the full arsenal of menswear finery — e.g. double-breasted suits, waistcoats, watch chains — to make a statement and perhaps even a personal trademark, but such dandification is generally a prerogative of seniority at most firms, where high-style dressing is underwritten by proven professional records. If you’re not quite there yet, remember that more conservative dressing need not be dull. A restrained sartorial aesthetic can be highly elegant, emphasizing quality of material and perfection of cut over ostentatious flair or detail. Indeed, this was the mantra of the original dandy himself — the early 19th century English arbiter elegantiarum Beau Brummell, credited with creating the modern suit as a masculine rejection of the baroque gorgeousness that had characterized fashionable male dress for centuries. “If John Bull turns around to look at you,” he observed, “you are not well-dressed.”

A more relatable inspiration for lawyers — sartorial and otherwise — is of course To Kill a Mockingbird’s Atticus Finch, memorably portrayed by Gregory Peck in the 1962 film adaptation. Finch’s rumpled cotton three-piece suits might be better suited to a courtroom in Depression-era Alabama than one in Manhattan today, but their timeless appeal lies in their enobling effect — the way in which simple, unpretentious, yet dignified clothing can serve a man serving the law. Finch’s personal style is hardly mentioned in the story, but no reader or viewer will ever forget it. It’s an object lesson in how good clothes work.

NOTE: Alan Flusser Custom will be exhibiting at the New York State Bar Association’s Annual Meeting at the New York Hilton Midtown from January 15th through the 17th.