Legal Realism and Fashion Consulting: A Misunderstood Relation?

dresssuccess.jpgSome years ago a colleague gave me a copy of John Molloy’s 1975 book Dress for Success. Perhaps the fact that he asked me whether I own an iron contains a clue to his message; I’m not sure.

I found it buried in a box of books I unpacked recently and began to read the chapter “For Lawyers: How to Dress Up Your Case and Win Jurors and Judges.” It contains the following sage commentary on the behavior of judges:

Before the urban judge you should avoid the Ivy League tie. You should avoid any sign of ostentation. You should avoid any look that is with-it, chic or “in.” Urban judges tend to be quite ticklish about their newfound socioeconomic positions, even if they’ve held them for some time, and often look upon anyone coming into their courtroom as a threat to them personally. Anybody who doesn’t treat their courtrroms with respect, and that means anyone who dresses in a manner that they find is unbecoming, will be dealt with harshly. Their response may well be subconscious; no judge will ever tell you that he’s ruling against you because of your smartass tie, but believe me, many of them will.

So that set me to wondering whether Judge William Hutcheson’s “The Judicial Hunch,” a foundational article in legal realism, might have had some influence on the modern fashion consulting industry. Compare, for example, the passage above with Hutcheson’s statement that a judge:

brooding over the cause, waits for the feeling, the hunch–that intuitive flash of understanding that makes the jump-spark connection between question and decision and at the point where the path is darkest for the judicial feet, sets its light along the way.

Or, to make the case a little less abstract, take the example of a study of the disposition of criminal cases in the New York City Municipal Court reported by Jerome Frank in Law and the Modern Mind.

Of 546 persons charged with intoxication brought before one judge, he discharged only one and found the others (about 97%) guilty, whereas of the 673 arraigned before another judge, he found 531 (or 79%) not guilty. . . . Everson [the author of the study] concludes that these figures show to what a remarkable degree the individuality of the magistrates is mirrored in their disposition of cases. “Justice,” he says, “is a very personal thing, reflecting the temperament, the personality, the education, environment, and personal traits of the magistrate.”

Were the lawyers were wearing smartass ties? Of course, mere order of publication is not always an indication of influence of the former upon the later. For, perhaps, Hutcheson learned his legal realism from the same source as Molloy: observation of the behavior of judges. Then again, they may all be wrong. For perhaps their observations are yet further examples of the ways that biography (of judges’ behavior) is autobiographical.

Of course, as Dave Hoffman’s recent discussion of dress codes at the AALS hiring conference illustrates, fashion consulting for lawyers continues to be an important topic.

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8 Responses

  1. Paul Gowder says:

    Well, one relationship between law and fashion: Molloy’s book has been the subject of at least one successful race discrimination claim (pdf, but check out the crap in there! I especially like xviii on page 10 of the pdf)…

  2. Mike says:

    You’d not believe how many defendants wear trashy (though, frequently expensive) clothing in front of judges. If a defendant wears a suit to court, he usually will be mistaken for a lawyer.

    Anyhow, the whole “how to dress in court” tends to show why people get into trouble. What kind of parent doesn’t have the sense to tell his kid to dress up for court. (And that “dressing up” doesn’t mean having pants hanging off one’s arse.) Of course, the answer is: There isn’t a parent, or if there is a parent, it’s not a very good one.

    By looking at the way someone dresses in court, we can learn a lot about the person’s background. It’s very sad, actually, to think that some things most of us take for granted (re: how to dress up) is something a large segment of society never learns. What else aren’t they learning at home? What kind of school system fails to teach kids these things? (Hey, if we gave poor parents a choice, and let them send their kids to Catholic school, at least the kid would learn how to dress appropriately.)

  3. Alfred Brophy says:


    very interesting on Molloy’s book and the race discrimination claim. I hadn’t seen that before, though I’m not surprised given the content. The 1975 version (which is what I was reading) is antiquated.

  4. Paul Gowder says:

    Mike: I’ve gotta tell my absolute favorite civilian-dress-in-court story here. I was working for a legal aid office, and we were in court on a domestic violence restraining order (representing the victim, natch.). The defendant came into the hearing wearing … I kid you not … a wife beater.

  5. Tom says:

    I got a speeding ticket last year and went to court to try to avoid the insurance penalty. I had heard that one should always dress nicely for court, so I wore a suit and tie. No big deal. I found I was a distinct minority in the courtroom (if not the only one). The ticket was reduced to 5 over from 15, but the judge told me that because I was respecting his courtroom, by coming in a suit, he was remanding all court costs. There was quite a murmuring going on in the gallery as I left.

  6. Klaralee says:

    I am currently writing a paper on this topic and was wondering if anyone has any statistical info regarding the effects of dress on a person’s case, or even some generic numerical data on how dress can effect the courts decision.

  7. gary says:

    today a judge in calif. ruled that when a person is on probation gives your address . the police can search your home at any time without your concent. even when they have never lived at the address

  8. gary says:

    today a judge in calif. ruled that when a person is on probation gives your address . the police can search your home at any time without your concent. even when they have never lived at the address