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A Life in the Law

What to Wear? Pantless in Seattle

By Susan Cohodes

Long before we collectively slid into pandemic PJs and swore off buttons and zippers, dealing with law firm dress codes was a nightmare. Now, as firms get hardcore about returning to the office, the question of acceptable attire is back. Some partners complain that now every day is “casual Friday,” but more than a jeggings takeover is at stake.

Firm leaders worry about retaining lawyers and making sure policies are inclusive and fair.

You might think dress codes have evolved long since the days when skirts and stockings were required for young lawyers like Susan Cohodes in the ’80s. But according to a new ABA Journal report, “Keeping Up Appearances,” dress codes are (still) tougher on women and diverse lawyers. (We’re shocked.)

For this edition of “A Life in the Law,” Susan addresses this pressing problem. — Ed.

What to Wear?

You wouldn’t think that would be a key question when it comes to practicing law, but it has followed me throughout my career.

When I started practicing in 1986 in Chicago, pants were a big issue for women attorneys because we were not allowed to wear them in court. I don’t recall the penalty, but it simply was not done. I suppose the judges must have thought wearing pants was inappropriate or disrespectful. As I wind down my legal career, pants are again on my radar.

To Court Come Rain, Sleet or Snow

As the baby lawyer in a three-attorney personal injury firm, I covered all the motions, which meant I was in court several times per week. I was fine with making the six-block round trip to court in high-heeled pumps throughout spring, summer and fall. I chalked up the monthly reheeling of my shoes as a cost of doing business.

I was not fine with it in the Chicago winters. 

Like my male colleagues, I had to walk through snow and slush to get to court. It may have been uphill, both ways, in the snow, but my memory is a little cloudy on that. Unlike my male colleagues, however, I could not wear warm socks to keep my tootsies toasty warm. I had to wear nylon stockings that left my toes and legs frozen. Eventually, the judges saw the light, and we women were no longer chastised for wearing pantsuits. Still, it seemed to me their decision took longer than it should have.

Jump ahead about 15 years.

I had long since moved to Seattle and tried a number of cases when I found myself in front of a judge who had a thing about female attorneys wearing pants in her courtroom. It was only by happenstance of the dry cleaning rotation that I wore a dress instead of a pantsuit during trial, but it turned out to be a very lucky break. Shortly after that trial ended, the judge went on a major public rant about female attorneys wearing pants in her courtroom. It seems she’d had it with the overworked and underpaid public defender who made the gross error of routinely appearing in pants. The press picked up on the judge’s rant, and a kerfuffle ensued. 

She then “reconsidered” her position, and from then on pants were A-OK in her book. 

(Of course, as a judge, all she needed was a stylish pair of shoes and maybe a nice collar, and she was all set fashion-wise. As I recall, she had neither.)

Jump ahead to the pandemic.

Once again, I am thinking about my wardrobe — particularly pants. For almost three years, “pants” had meant yoga pants or jeans on a fancy day. Hearings, depositions and appearances were remote, so all I had to do to fully dress was put on a nice blouse or sweater, some earrings and a tasteful necklace. 

That accomplished, I was hearing-ready.

But a few weeks ago, defense counsel on a case insisted on an in-person deposition. I had no good reason to object. My client was lovely, smart and generally delightful. She had been badly injured in a car wreck, and an in-person deposition was just the thing for the case. 

It was not, however, awesome for me. It meant that clothes-wise, my career had come full circle, back to the issue of pants — specifically, deposition-appropriate pants, which I don’t own anymore! At the last minute, I pulled together an acceptable look using the trousers I had worn at my son’s wedding rehearsal dinner. 

Do I Still Care What I Wear?

This wardrobe conundrum got me thinking.  

Here I am at the tail-end of my legal career. If I tried another case, could I possibly accessorize enough to get a jury not to notice I was wearing the same pair of pants every day? Did I want to?

After careful consideration, I have concluded that, no, I do not want to.

So I will muddle through with my lone pair of black trousers until year’s end, when I will happily don my Lulu’s as I ride off into the sunset. 

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

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Susan Cohodes Susan Cohodes

Susan Cohodes is a trial attorney who has practiced for more than 35 years, first in Chicago and for the last 31 years in Seattle. Susan has spent her entire career fighting for injured clients and will be riding off into the sunset at the end of 2023. She will then have more time to pursue her passions of knitting, writing and following her beloved Green Bay Packers around the country.

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