Social norms are changing. Casual Friday is now casual Monday through Friday. When I started practicing law, certain norms applied to lawyers’ dress and demeanor. For example, a suit coat was required in court, and dress codes (including bans on open-toe shoes) were enforced at work. Staff members addressed lawyers as Mr. or Ms. rather than by first names. Many of these requirements have disappeared, and that is a positive thing. Not wearing a suit every day makes sense when clients also dress more casually.
But some formality in dress and manner distinguishes attorneys’ work from other activities. Formality sends a signal that what we are doing is important and demonstrates respect. For example, rising when a judge enters the courtroom shows we acknowledge the importance of the judge’s role in the judicial process. Similarly, wearing a suit and addressing each other by Mr., Ms., Miss, or Mx. in court acknowledges that we are in an important setting.
The advent of videoconferencing has led to further declines in formality, especially in court appearances. People do not necessarily dress up for court, and sometimes there is an impressionof disrespect for the court in how litigants and even attorneys appear. Early in the pandemic I was surprised to see an attorney appear at a hearing via videoconference wearing a muscle T-shirt. It certainly detracted from the attorney’s arguments, if only because it was distracting.
Some judges do not like videoconferencing for this reason – lawyers and litigants sometimes show a lack of respect for the process. They appear from inappropriate settings (is it an urban legend that litigants have appeared from bed wearing few clothes?). Some courts have instituted rules to address the problem. One court notice states:
“A Zoom hearing is a formal court proceeding. Participants should dress appropriately and as if they were appearing in court. Special care should also be taken in selecting the location where you will participate to avoid background noise.”
The convenience of a videoconference appearance need not be mistaken for a lack of respect for the process. Because many litigants have never been in a courtroom and have only appeared by videoconference, their attorneys need to prepare them to appear in a quiet environment, behave respectfully, and wear appropriate attire.
Some of the formality of courtroom activities is also appropriate in other work settings. For example, many individuals prefer being addressed with a title, such as Ms., Mrs., Mr., or Mx. Another example is that when clients come to the office to sign their estate planning documents it is an important, memorable occasion and one for which noncasual attire is appropriate. For many people, this will be the only time they meet their attorney in person.
Our work is a profession, and formality and decorum are a part of what distinguishes us as lawyers from work in a retail store or in a trade. Maintaining some formality, especially in our attire and how we address each other, shows respect for the work that we do and the people and system we serve.
Our work is a profession, and formality and decorum are a part of what distinguishes us as lawyers from work in a retail store or in a trade.
» Cite this article: 96 Wis. Law. 4 (February 2023).