Life at the bar: Using your dress sense

Lawyer 2B’s tame barrister negotiates the intricacies of life in practice. This issue: dressing for court

Rachel Tandy

I remember hearing a story from a friend who had been in the robing room in a crown court somewhere. A fairly junior barrister walked in and the room went virtually silent. It took my friend a while to work out why until someone whispered loudly: “She isn’t wearing TIGHTS!”

Thankfully, this story dates from a long time ago. Things have moved on a bit since then and you’re probably less likely these days to be sent to Coventry by your learned friends at the bar if you get make a sartorial error. But there are still several pitfalls to be avoided.

The place to start is the Bar Council guidance on court attire. It’s nothing groundbreaking and there are essentially two options: when in court, if we are not bewigged and in “court dress”, we are required to wear “business suits”. There is even a definition of business suits as “dark-coloured, formal non-court dress as appropriate”.

So there you go. Pretty hard to get that one wrong – or so you’d think.

But cast your mind back just to August to the story of some chap being royally torn to shreds in court for dressing “like something out of Harry Potter”.

Many of you may be thinking: “So what? His client didn’t choose his outfit. All that matters is what he is saying, not how he looks.”

But that, dear reader, is precisely the point. What you wear has the potential to detract from what you are saying in a major way (which, unless you are talking pure codswallop, has to be a bad thing for your client). There are two points to make here.

First, and most obviously, any energy your tribunal spends noticing what you are wearing is energy not spent on noticing what you are saying. 

To take an extreme example: it would be mighty distracting (for both you and the judge) if your opponent turned up at court dressed as Xena, Warrior Princess, or as the back of a pantomime horse.

Maybe that would never happen but here is a case in point. When I was at bar school, I judged a GDL moot. One of the participants – let’s call her Julie – wore a tight, transparent white blouse. After we had sent the mooters out so we could decide who had won, one of my co-judges said: “I can’t remember a word of Julie’s submissions but I can tell you a lot about what her bra looks like. It shouldn’t be that way around.”

Second, it is widely acknowledged that a lot of communication is non-verbal. (The most commonly quoted statistic is that only 7 per cent of communication is what you are actually saying, 38 per cent is your voice and 55 per cent is generic “Other Stuff” – which would, of course, include your clothes). So even when you are sitting in front of the judge not saying a word, your clothes and general presentation are speaking volumes about you.

Of course, a judge is highly unlikely to decide a case purely on the basis of whether you have brushed your hair this morning. But why give them the option? Your job is to present your client, and their case, in the best light possible. That includes presenting yourself in the best light possible. And that includes (among other things) brushing your hair.

Essentially, then, when in court, the punchline is this: make your appearance anonymous and let your voice do the talking (funny that). How? Here are my suggestions: 

Sartorial tips

Women

Keep jewellery discreet: Stick to silver, gold, pearl or diamante studs, or small, simple drop earrings. Save chunky necklaces for when you’re off duty.

Nail varnish: If in doubt, stick to nudes and neutrals. I have friends whose pupil supervisors didn’t allow them to wear nail varnish.

Skirt length: Skirts that fall above the knee are dangerous territory and are not recommended.

The two things that always separate female barristers from female solicitors at court are the colour of their clothes and the height of their heels. Barristers are usually in muted greys, blues or blacks. Don’t be tempted to add a brightly coloured blouse. 

Shoe-wise: You can’t go wrong with a plain, dark, low kitten heel. Skyscraper heels are a big no-no. As are patterned tights; and laddered tights. It’s always wise to keep a few clean, un-laddered pairs in your desk in chambers.

Bright red lipstick: No, no, NO. You are not Martha Costello.

Men

Be careful with accessories: Skinny, knitted or madly coloured ties are not to be advised. Ditto novelty cufflinks. 

An ex-boyfriend used to say that the rule about men’s work shoes was “No brown in town.” I suspect it’s one of the only things he said with a ring of truth to it. Black (or navy) shoes only please, boys, and ensure they’re polished.

Suits: The tradition is to go double-breasted or three-piece. This rule isn’t so prevalent any more – and you probably won’t get kicked out of a county court if you turn up in a single-breasted suit without a waistcoat – but in case you end up as a fancy-pants so-and-so who is in the chancery division all the time, it is worth having at least one of these options on standby. But be careful with black. Someone told me recently that men aren’t supposed to wear black suits, except to a funeral. I had never heard this but, on reflection, the times I have seen members of chambers in black are rare. Dark grey and navy blue are the order of the day. 

And short-sleeved shirts are never OK. Ever. 

Hair: Long hair is generally frowned upon. Even if you are David Gandy with a full grooming entourage, it will be almost impossible to keep it all looking tidy. Keep it short and low-maintenance instead. 

Also: Make friends with your iron. Or pay someone to do your ironing. Just don’t turn up to court looking as if you slept in your shirt.

Both

No shiny fabrics or garish patterns: Don’t be tempted to jazz up your suit; keep it plain. Aim for generally tidy – no scuffed shoes or buttons missing. Buy a lint roller: it will change your life.

Piercings, tattoos, coloured hair and so on: Get rid or cover up. I know it can be a wrench; when I was at uni, I used to dip-dye the ends of my hair bright pink. Aged 19, I thought it looked awesome. Perhaps tragically, I still think it would look awesome, but I don’t do it. Why? Because it would make me look 19. And as if I am not taking my job seriously.

One final note: These suggestions should stand you in good stead as you are starting out but all rules are made to be broken. Become a well-liked and well-respected counsel with a great reputation and you will probably get away with committing a lot of these legal fashion faux-pas. Unless, of course, you plan to turn up to court dressed as the back end of a pantomime horse.

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