People are often apprehensive about what they should wear to their court dates. Going to court can be a nerve-wracking experience, and making the right or wrong first impression can make a big difference in your case. While appearance should not make any difference whatsoever, the fact remains that lawyers and judges are human, and first impressions stick with us just like everyone else. I have seen over the years clients who follow my advice and exhibit proper courtroom decorum and dress consistently receive better treatment than those who treat court as a trip to the beach or a bar.
In San Luis Obispo, we see all sorts of people coming into our courtrooms from all walks of life. Regardless of your background, you should make every effort to present yourself as someone who is responsible and trustworthy. Let’s talk about what not to do. If you are facing drug charges, leave your favorite marijuana leaf t-shirt or Tupac t-shirt at home. I once saw a client facing criminal charges for not paying his child support wear a t-shirt to court that said “#1 Dad”. The Judge was not amused. As a rule, I advise clients to leave the t-shirts at home. While a t-shirt might express who you are, or send a funny message to your friends and family that they might appreciate and respect, the message it sends to the judge and the prosecutor is that you are not taking this experience seriously. With that in mind, leave your hats at home as well. Do not come into the courtroom with sunglasses hanging anywhere on your body. Do not wear shorts or revealing clothing. You are encountering people who are judging your level of responsibility and the only message you want to send is that you are trustworthy and responsible.
So what should you wear? I made the mistake of telling one of my first trial clients to dress professionally and was mortified when she arrived in the courtroom dressed as a prostitute. So to clarify, professionally means church clothes. For men, you certainly can wear a suit but it is not required. You will certainly stand out if you do wear a suit, but really nice slacks and a button down shirt are ideal. For ladies, business professional is recommended. Either a dress or a nice business casual outfit is ideal. Jeans, shorts, flip flops, t-shirts, hats, and sunglasses send a message that court is just part of your day and you just want to get out of there as soon as possible so you can get back to your life. While that is likely true, the message the Judge and Prosecutor are looking for is that you are not going to repeat the behavior that got you into court in the first place, so make a special effort to portray the right image.
The other aspect we need to address is courtroom behavior. When you are asked a question by the Judge, you stand up. Your responses should be “yes your honor” and “no your honor”. Just answering yes and no like a teenager responds to his or her parent shows a lack of respect for the court. Even if no one corrects your behavior, everyone in the courtroom just formed a negative opinion of you. This is important because as your lawyer is working hard to work out a plea bargain for you, human nature tells us that a prosecutor is not going to want to cut an extra break for someone they hold a low opinion for. Who is going to get the better deal between two people facing identical charges? Lets say we have two clients who facing driving while intoxicated charges with a .15 BAC. Client 1 is wearing a Bud Light T-Shirt and keeps complaining about how long the proceeding is taking while Client 2 is dressed professionally and is polite and respectful. Who do you think gets the benefit of the doubt?
In a perfect world, both clients should be treated the same, but if you are facing criminal charges, it is not a risk you should take. Courtroom appearance and decorum can make a big difference in your lawyers ability to persuade a prosecutor or Judge because it goes a long way towards generating their overall impression of you. Make sure it is a good one.