Imagine this. Because you are an all around super awesome person, you have been granted an audience with the Queen. Yes, Queen Elizabeth II of England has sent you a personal invitation to drink tea and eat crumpets with her at the castle. She has paid for the airline tickets and allowed you to stay in one of the 74,208 guest rooms in Buckingham Palace, too, so it is at virtually no cost to you. What is the first thing you think? (I mean after “what’s the catch?” and “yeah right” and you have verified this is actually legit.) You think, “What do I have to wear for tea with the Queen?” If you are me, you will probably do some research and try to find someone else who has had tea with the Queen to answer protocol questions. Even the person who spends the least time worrying about attention to detail would pack his or her best suit of clothes for the event, and probably even buy a new suit/dress/outfit for the occasion.
And imagine that you get there, and sitting next to you at the tea table is a guy wearing jeans with paint stains on them, and a wrinkled t-shirt. The t-shirt has a ‘witty’ slogan on it like, “FBI: Federal Boobie Inspector.” He might have shaved yesterday, but it was more likely a day or two before that. He’s got on flip flops that have clearly been to the beach a time or two. Next to him is a woman, wearing a skirt so short it might be a belt, a shirt so low cut it might be part of the same belt, and rhinestone spangled six inch clear heels.
What conclusions do you immediately jump to? (Besides, “I wonder which reality show these people have been on?” and “Where are the hidden cameras?”) It is obvious that these folks don’t have any respect for the dignity of the occasion. If someone were to give you a quiz right then and there and you had to jump to a conclusion as to whether or not they were good parents, rule-followers, honest and trustworthy business people, or respectful of others in general, what would you say?
You only get one chance to make a first impression. Being in a Courtroom is as close to ‘tea with the Queen’ as the average person is likely to get in the United States. It is a place where formal rules of behavior rule the day. There are certain strict protocols about what you can say and when and to whom, where you can sit or stand and when, and what you can wear.
Most Courthouses these days have a sign in the front that makes me sad for our future every time I see it. It lists the basic rules of the Courtroom, most of which should be painfully obvious. Things like, “Keep your cell phone on silent.” “No flip flops.” “No tank tops.” “No shorts.” Despite the ‘duh’ like nature of these rules, almost every day I see someone turned away to go home and change into appropriate clothing before entering the Courtroom.
When you enter a Courtroom, unless you are a lawyer or a Courthouse employee, it is for one of three reasons: 1) something in your life is going to change and you don’t get to make the decision what it is; 2) someone else’s life is going to change and you are a witness trying to make that (or prevent that from) happening; or 3) you are a juror who is going to help decide how someone else’s life changes. This is true whether you are talking about a traffic ticket (will your insurance rates go up? will you lose your license? can you afford the fine and rent at the same time?) or an armed robbery charge (will you spend your life in prison or walk free?) or a divorce (will you be penniless? Will you be relegated to only seeing your children 96 hours a month?) or any of the many other things that take place in a Courtroom.
It is true, theoretically, that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. But we are human beings, and our brains are conditioned by our upbringing and our natural inclinations to judge books by the covers they choose for themselves. If you see someone dressed in a sloppy way, it is only natural to think they have a sloppy attitude towards their work and other obligations. If you see someone dressed in a sexually provocative way, it is only natural to think that this person holds their attractiveness to potential sexual partners as the highest priority. If you see someone looking rebellious, you are likely to assume that rule following is not on the top of their list. I’m not saying these things are necessarily true, and I can give you several anecdotal examples to the contrary, but I am saying that people as a general rule instantly sort other folks into categories. (For a fascinating look on the topic, read Malcom Gladwell’s book “Blink.”)
In a Courtroom, whether you are the defendant, a litigant, a witness, or a juror, you want to present the impression that you are honest and trustworthy, morally upright, and an all around stand-up person and rule follower. Denim does not belong in a Courtroom. Men — at a minumum — should wear khaki pants and a shirt with a collar. Women should ensure that their skirts follow the middle school rule – the hem should be ‘below’ your fingertips when your arms hang down. When you sit, if you feel the fabric of the chair on your upper thighs, odds are good your skirt is too short. Women’s blouses should have enough sleeves cover their entire armpits. I don’t care how little money you have, this is absolutely doable through the merchandise at a thrift shop or by borrowing from your friends. There is too much at stake to do anything else.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to get ready for my trip to meet the Queen.