Vail Daily column: The fashion of conflict | VailDaily.com

Vail Daily column: The fashion of conflict

There is an operative myth that the law is a pure meritocracy. It is a comforting fiction that undergirds the entire system, which requires the faith of the citizenry to perpetuate itself. But legal outcomes are influenced by myriad factors that have little to do with facts or precedents. On a theoretical or philosophical level, most would scoff at the importance of something as seemingly trivial as clothes. We would prefer to believe that the way that a defendant or attorney dresses has no bearing on the result. Yet fashion matters. Lady justice is depicted as being blind, but as it happens, she has a keen sartorial sense.

Our legal traditions being largely derivative of the British system, American judges still preside over courtrooms in anachronistic robes. It is a powerful symbol of respect and authority. Although some jurists take the resemblance to a deity a little far, it would nonetheless be strange to stand before a judge who was clad only in a dress or suit. Taking orders from a man or woman wearing a Broncos sweatshirt would be a nigh impossible task. While our judges still wear robes, American attorneys have fortunately moved past the powdered wigs worn by our barrister brethren.

It is not just judges who appear to derive power from their appearance. To those litigators who view their work through a military lens, donning high-end tailoring feels as important as stepping into a suit of armor. The superfine wool affords no physical protection, but the psychological insulation may be more important. Even for someone with a less combative perspective, there is something special about putting on a tie; it changes the mindset and signals that it is time to get down to business.

Danger of Looking too good

While it is important for clothes to reflect a professional bearing, there can be danger in looking too good, particularly before a jury. People tend to side with an underdog. If a fleet of Armani-clad lawyers marches into the courtroom, then they risk alienating or antagonizing the jury member whose annual income is less than the cost of the suits. There are many trial lawyers who purposefully dress in a haphazard fashion to impart the impression that they are earnest pursuers of truth and justice, too focused to shine shoes or tie a tie properly. I know an attorney who wears a bolo tie in an apparent effort to curry favor with Western juries. He is from Massachusetts.

Attorneys who ply their trade in the boardroom and not the courtroom have no less reliance on their apparel. Yet their incentives for sartorial splendor are different. They need not worry about coming across too affluent. Indeed, bespoke suits and heirloom-quality watches may be used to intimidate the other side in a negotiation. The ritzier the duds, the stronger the signal that their client has the resources to impose their will. When the deals being discussed are in excess of a billion dollars and the legal fees can push into the millions, a thousand-dollar suit is a mere pittance. It is no wonder that the profession has a propensity to draw the public’s ire.

Conversely, mediators do not have a reputation for being dapper. Most have an almost professorial appearance, perhaps to accompany their general mien. A neutral’s wardrobe is tricky business. The mediator must strike a balance between relatable and authoritative, sympathetic and antagonistic. A full litigator’s kit may have a tendency to put off the disputing parties, but a slovenly appearance will not garner the respect that a mediator must earn in order to effectively perform their mandate. A mediator should apply the same imagination to his attire that he must use in resolving disputes.

Although any reader of this column knows that I seek almost total reform of the legal system, I do honor the traditions that have brought us to this point. That includes presenting oneself appropriately before the court and clients. While I understand the general trend toward a more casual world, I do take issue with the way that this has bled into what is meant to be a profession and procedure apart. From a litigant’s perspective, particularly a criminal defendant, it is imperative to live up to certain standards of dress. There is much to be gained from showing respect for the process and little to lose. The opposite is also true: coming to court in a football jersey and hat fails to signal that one is in control and responsible for one’s actions. The clothes make the man and may also seal his fate.

T.J. Voboril is a partner at Reynolds, Kalamaya & Voboril LLC, a local law firm and the owner and mediator at Voice Of Reason Dispute Resolution. For more information, contact Voboril at 970-306-6456, tj@rkvlaw.com or visit http://www.rkvlaw.com.