The Power of Non-Verbal Communication for you and your lawyer, in and out of the courtroom
The New Year is almost here and some may have to start it with legal matter which will require them to appear in Court. For the most part, zoom appearances will become almost non existent in 2023. Even if you are zooming, however, you should still follow some very basic rules about the way you dress.
What you wear to Court matters. While it won’t necessarily win the case, it is one less thing for you and your attorney to worry about in your case. It is also the easiest issue to address?
Clients often ask me what they should wear to court and how they should act when they get there. As a general rule your overall appearance and that of your defense counsel should always try to convey trustworthiness/credibility (I believe you) along with strength/competence (I respect you). I cannot stress this point enough and lawyers who tell you that “it really doesn’t matter” are simply not being honest with you or themselves.
With regards to your actions in the courtroom or on during Zoom, your attorney should prepare you and your witnesses for their testimony and prosecution’s cross examination. The trial is the performance, witness prep sessions are the rehearsals and your attorney is the director. In addition to the obvious content of your testimony, witness preparation should cover tone of voice, speed of communication, and eye contact. It is also a good idea to be aware of your conduct when sitting next to your attorney. This will be your position for much if not all of the trial.
Understand that at least someone will always be watching you.
While outbursts, eye rolling and snickering are obviously unacceptable, you must practice just sitting calmly with a pad of paper and a pen. You don’t need to give an Oscar winning performance but you and your attorney must do your best to convey trustworthiness/credibility (I believe you) along with strength/competence (I respect you). Good preparation will get you 95% to that goal and the proper dress can finish it off or derail it.
Wear what makes you comfortable is the wrong answer!
With regards to dress the wrong answer is something that makes you “comfortable”; jeans, sneakers, any form of sweats, t-shirts, and joggers are always inappropriate even on zoom where all meetings are often video recorded. The same rules apply to any professional environment with exception to the medical field where “srubs” are necessary for hygienic reasons. While you don’t want to be uncomfortable, you don’t want to give the impression that you are not taking the proceedings seriously. Your lawyer is obviously required to dress professionally (while I’ve seen some very poor examples recently from male and female attorneys) this rule also applies to YOU!
There is obviously nothing wrong with a suit for men and a suit or a longer skirt for women. At minimum men should wear a collared button down shirt (tucked in), a sports coat, and slacks. Clothing should never be baggy or fit poorly (too big or too small). Women should avoid wearing anything too revealing or provocative. Neither should ever wear t-shirts, sweatshirts, hoodies, sneakers, sandals, flip flops, or jeans (no matter how much any of these items cost.) Men and women should wear conservative dress shoes and women should avoid open toe footwear. Male and women should be well groomed; a conservative hairstyle and makeup for women is advisable.
There are some who claim that proper appearance will not determine the outcome of your case. While I agree that a professional appearance will not necessarily make a bad case great, a poor appearance will just give the judge or jury one more reason not to believe or respect you.
The momentum in a criminal trial can shift from the defense to the prosecution and back again on the response to a single question or a person’s nonverbal communication. Your appearance and that of your witnesses therefore factors into that positive or negative impression. Appearance must reinforce your attorney’s arguments.
In most cases, especially those in front of a jury, your attorney may present a fabrication theory (it wasn’t my client) and so your appearance should reinforce the argument that you couldn’t have committed this type of crime because you don’t fit the part.
Non-Verbal Communication is sometimes as important the words coming out of your mouth!
Proper appearance can reinforce good character when your attorney can talk about it but it can also perhaps imply it when your attorney can’t talk about it. The law understands that appearance and nonverbal matter. In their final instructions to a jury, prior to their deliberations, judges tell jurors that they are permitted to use a person’s nonverbal responses and cues to determine credibility.
Again, you must always try to convey trustworthiness/credibility (I believe you) along with strength/competence (I respect you) during a trial. The burden is on the prosecution to prove you guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. If the jury believes and respects your defense, it will be virtually impossible for the prosecution to prove its case. Your appearance is solely in your control so don’t waste an opportunity to help your defense.
Listening is an important skill
Finally, aside from your appearance, recognize that power of silence and listening. Your attorney needs to listen to be effective when it’s his turn to actually speak. Interrupting him or her during opposing counsel’s direct examination or cross examination could cause him to miss a critical response or lose his train of thought. Write down your questions or comments and wait until the other attorney is finished questioning the witness before you speak to your attorney. There is nothing worse for a criminal defense attorney than an elbow in the arm when he is focused on witness’s testimony. Your attorney should address this issue during your preparation sessions.
The bottom line is that appearance matters and preparation is critical! Be prepared and give them every reason to like and respect you.
Attorneys and Client Meetings—What signs is your lawyer sending with jeans, a t-shirt or sweats (even Lululemon)?
When you meet with your lawyer and his or her staff, you can often tell a lot from their presentation. If the office is cluttered and the staff is dressed more ready for a softball game or CrossFit workout, you should question their commitment to you and your case. Someone who doesn’t appreciate a professional environment and a lack of one, should raise some warning signs. It takes time to get dressed and it is much easier (and cheaper) to throw on sweats, jeans and, a t-shirt.
It is isn’t about feeling or looking superior but it is about immediately commanding respect. Obviously, you have to be competent but this really goes without saying. Why would a lawyer want to show up to meet a client or potentially meet a client and have to explain your sneakers, blue jeans and sweatshirt with “I’m dressed down today but I’ll be dressed at your deposition and court appearance.” If I was a client, I would more likely think that you didn’t respect me enough to get dressed or that you didn’t take the work seriously and wore the suit on game day as almost like a costume.
Lawyers who choose to wear jeans and T-Shirts to the office rather than a suit/tie to meet a client are stating that they have other things going on besides practicing law and therefore less time to focus on your case. Further, if the attorney doesn’t feel it necessary to go the extra mile for something as simple as dressing professionally, why would they go the extra mile for much more difficult areas in your case.
Dressing professionally is easy and lawyers who flaunt their jeans/t-shirt look as some type of badge signifying their freedom, comfort, or creativity, are obviously interested more in their own comfort than your success. They are asking for thousands of dollars of your money and don’t think you’re worth a suit/tie. Think about it! This doesn’t apply just to lawyers!
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