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Keeping Up Appearances: Legal Dress (Program)

Eyal Katvan, College of Law and Business (Israel); Elizabeth Cooper, Fordham Law School (US); Maureen Howard, Associate Professor of Law and Director of Trial Advocacy, University of Washington School of Law (US); Shaeda Isani, Professor emerita, University Grenoble-Alpes (France); and Sandrine Chapon, Lecturer in Legal English at Grenoble Law School (France)

Moderator: Matthias Kilian, University of Cologne (Germany)

Keeping Up Appearances: Legal Dress

Professional dress code is very dominant within media coverage, TV legal dramas, art etc. However, it is less so in academic research. Professional dress codes (and court dress in particular), are regulated within social norms, ethical rules or court rules, but their meanings, rationales and consequences are neglected. In these sessions, we intend to initiate a new platform, a research group, to discuss the various aspects of professional dress codes and professional appearance. Historical, empirical, semiotic, literature and practical aspects will enable us to know more, and to understand better the rationales and consequences of professional (legal) dress codes and appearance.

Elizabeth Cooper: Appearance of Professionalism: Clothes, Cleavage, Conformance and Clinical Pedagogy

This article explores the countless ways in which lawyers are required to conform to a particular set of expectations concerning their professional appearance and analyzes the consequences of failing to meet those expectations. Moving from theory to practice, the article poses difficult questions about whether and how law professors in general, and clinical law professors in particular, ought to guide our students in navigating this aspect of professionalism. Seemingly straightforward questions are appropriately seen as far more complex in light of issues of identity, experience, and opportunity – perhaps most accurately viewed through lenses of race, gender, class, and law.

Legal scholars have commented on the ways in which the law and its structures inhibit and replicate structural racism, sexism and homophobia, and some scholars have described the legal and social/cultural pressures on women (and men) and people of color to conform to conservative expectations in the legal workplace.  The article draws from numerous theoretical constructs, based primarily in law and sociology.  More specifically, it explores theories of identity – actual and perceived, draws from the implicit bias literature, examines the relevance of social capital, and investigates the role of autonomy in student/lawyer professional appearance and in the choice of (clinical) faculty concerning whether and how to engage with their students in this complex area.

Maureen Howard

Clothing is an important tool of persuasion for the trial advocate. The biggest risk of adopting "off the rack" clothing advice is ignoring one's own sense of personal authenticity in dress and manner. In such a situation, the clothing and become a costume, undermining the lawyer's credibility and emphasizing the "play within a play" aspect of trial work. A lawyer who maintains her individual integrity in dress and demeanor and who is consistently genuine -- consistently herself -- is more likely to be perceived as credible and trustworthy by the jurors. In turn, the lawyer is better positioned to persuade them.

Eyal Katvan: Keeping Up Appearances: Court Dress – Your Honor or Lawyer’s Honor?

In 1929, the Chief Justice in Mandatory Palestine set the rules regarding: "The professional conduct of advocates and the etiquette and practice of the profession of advocates including... the forensic costume to be worn by advocates, and the Courts in which such costume should be worn". Israeli authorities have changed these rules several times since then, but the court dress requirement stayed in force. Nowadays, there are calls on the one hand to abolish the court dress’s rules, and on the other hand to expand the rules to lower courts.

In this presentation, we will present findings stemming from a series of surveys we conducted among lawyers, judges and clients. Based on these surveys, we will investigate the validity of current as well as historical justifications for the use of court dress. In particular, we will examine whether lawyer’s robes enhance court’s honor or lawyer’s honor, or maybe lawyer’s awareness to ethical rules.

Shaeda Isani: Cross-cultural Analysis of the Discriminatory Dynamics of Professional Sartorial Semiotics: Bar Court Wear in the UK and the USA

One of the principal premises justifying adoption of professional dress code is that it serves to generate strong visual representations of collective professional identity and cohesion. This paper posits that closer attention to the semiotic discourse of legal court dress often reveals discriminatory cracks in the façade of professional cohesion caused by tensions of individual identity. The analysis is based on a cross-cultural study of the highly divergent court wear culture of the two most emblematic Common Law countries, the UK and the USA. It shows that, in spite of the strongly contrasting semiotic discourse underlying British dedicated Bar court wear and American “business” dress code in court, both present similarities in that the primary objective of forging a strong visual image of professional cohesion through unified dress is subverted by the discriminatory dynamics of sartorial individualization. As an introduction, the paper provides a brief overview of the history of sumptuary laws, the antonymic duality of their exclusionary/inclusionary discourse (Lurie 1981), and their role in the construction of professional ethos (Shapiro 2014). (1) In a first part, the paper describes traditional dedicated Bar court wear in England and Wales and the age-old argument of “professional detachment” advanced to justify the adoption of such anachronistic attire today (Bourdieu 1984). It then goes on to discuss the subtle but nevertheless patent cracks of discrimination formed by the dynamics of sartorial individualization namely with regard to issues of inter-pares and inter-professional rivalry on the one hand, and ethnic identity variances on the other (Isani 2006). (2) In a second part, the paper focuses on the absence of dedicated court wear for American lawyers and describes the often divergent court room dress code guidelines issued by State Bar Associations. In this context, it analyses three manifestations of the semiotic dynamics of sartorial individualization in Bar court dress in the US: the sartorial ostentation associated with American lawyers analyzed in the light of Weber’s Protestant Work Ethic (1905) and Veblen’s theory of “conspicuous consumption” (1899); the gender cleavage highlighted by focus on women lawyers’ dress code in the US; and, finally, the emergence of sartorial deviances adopted by counsel in court with the aim to manipulate stakeholder perceptions and influence proceedings (Isani 2010).  In view of the failure of both English dedicated court wear and American lawyers’ “business” dress code to present a unified professional identity, the paper turns towards the so-called “plain” Continental gown now adopted and adapted for certain members of the British judiciary, and shows that, for all its comparative “plainness”, the Continental gown also exploits the sartorial dynamics of court wear for discriminatory purposes.

References Bourdieu, P. (1984). Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste , London, Routledge Kegal Paul. Isani, Shaeda. 2006. “Visual Semiotics of court dress in England and Wales: failed or successful vector of professional identity?” In A. Wagner & W. Pencak (eds.), Images in Law , Aldershot (UK), Ashgate: 51-69. Isani, Shaeda. 2010. “Semiotic Dialectics of Legal Courtroom Attire and the Cross-Cultural Erosion of Professional Identity”. In ESP Across Cultures 7, 2010, Edipublia, Italy. Lurie, Alison. 1981. The Language of Clothes . USA, Random House. Shapiro, Jonathan. 2014. Lawyers, Liars and the Art o f Storytelling . ABA Publishing, Chicago, Illinois. Veblen, Thorstein. 1994 [1899]. The Theory of the Leisure Class . New York, Penguin Classics.

Sandrine Chapon: “Now, gentlemen, in this country our courts are the great levelers”: An analysis of the extralinguistic symbols of the French Courtroom

In 1987, David Crystal, renowned British linguist said : “At a trial, language counts for everything. […] Resolving the conflict depends totally on the linguistic skills of all concerned (1987: 391)”. This paper will explore the possibility that extralinguistic systems of signification, or semiotics (Barthes 1967) also play an important communicative role at a trial. Two systems of signs will be analyzed:

- The institutional value of the gowns worn by lawyers, judges, prosecutors, court clerks and bailiffs as an object of interpretation and decoding from a diachronic and synchronic perspective.

- Proxemics : The semiotics of the spatial organization of the courtroom (positioning and distance among people, reserved areas etc..) as nonverbal reminders of the distinction between insiders and outsiders and as symbolic of the sanctity of the act of judging. 

We will show that the complex association of these signs may carry legal issues with regards to ethics.

View other papers and programs within this theme.