What San Diego lawyers wear to court

The district attorney is a pretty good dresser

Hart Schaffner suit. “If an attorney deviates in his or her dress from the image people have of lawyers, he has to work harder to get the jury to listen to his case."
  • Hart Schaffner suit. “If an attorney deviates in his or her dress from the image people have of lawyers, he has to work harder to get the jury to listen to his case."

Gerald Davee. “When I’m trying a jury case, I wear no jewelry of any kind except maybe a watch and my ring."

Gerald Davee. “When I’m trying a jury case, I wear no jewelry of any kind except maybe a watch and my ring."

“What do you picture when you hear the word ‘lawyer’?” From her office in downtown San Diego, jury consultant Jilien Rubin spoke with me by phone on a bright December day. Rubin helps trial attorneys assess the strengths and weaknesses of their cases by impaneling focus groups to hear the evidence and rule as a jury might. Part of Rubin’s job involves advising attorneys on how to dress for trial. “Whether we realize it or not, we all have a collective image of how certain professions look,” Rubin told me. “Most of the attorneys I work with are pretty sophisticated. They know how to dress for trial. But when I do have an opportunity to advise someone, I tell them to be consistent with the best-case public image people already have of the profession. Inappropriate dress is too distracting.

“Do you remember the remake of Marcia Clark halfway through the O.J. trial?” Rubin asked. “They softened her hair. Made her start wearing pastels. It didn’t work. She no longer looked like herself. And more importantly, she no longer looked consistent with how people think female lawyers should look in court.”

How should lawyers look in court? Do an attorney’s clothes affect his relationship with the jury, with the court, with his client? “The jury notices everything,” Rubin said. “During a trial, the attorneys are really having a relationship with the jury. I always advise my clients to project the best that they are, to put others at ease. That involves their tone of voice, demeanor, bearing, and, of course, what they wear.”

According to Rubin, focus groups often refer to lawyers as “suits.” “People expect attorneys to dress conservatively. I tell my clients, ‘Don’t ever let your clothes upstage you.’ They need to avoid flashy jewelry, things that are out of date. If you wear a $2000 suit to court, the jurors will try to guess how much the suit cost. The jurors inevitably comment afterward about what the lawyers were wearing. Someone will say. Tell so-and-so I liked his tie,’ or ‘I liked her blouse.’

“If an attorney deviates in his or her dress from the image people have of lawyers, he has to work harder to get the jury to listen to his case," Rubin explained. “You’re always safe with a solid-color suit. A man can wear a small print tie and a solid or subtly patterned shirt. Women can push the envelope a little more. But if she wears a skirt that’s too short, the jury will definitely notice.

“Even for a bench trial [where a judge hears the evidence and decides the case without a jury], women need to be careful,” Rubin warned. “Some of the skirts are very, very short. I know it’s a popular look. I see it a lot. It’s still probably not appropriate to wear to a trial.”

The public’s image of attorneys includes a briefcase. “A briefcase is part of the uniform,” Rubin slid. “last week, I was taking the train back from a case in LA. I was wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase. Someone walked up to me and asked, ‘Are you a lawyer?’ I guess a briefcase for a lawyer is like a stethoscope for a doctor.”

Even though Rubin believes jurors notice everything about the way a lawyer dresses, she doesn’t think a lawyer’s clothing directly affects the outcome of a case. “I think the jury is smart enough to get past what the lawyer is wearing. For example, a mock juror from one of my cases called me last year. After he’d served on one of my panels, he was chosen for actual jury duty up in Orange County. He told me that the entire jury was taken aback when they saw the defense attorney in the case. He was overweight. His shirt didn’t fit him and gapped between the buttons. His pants were wrinkled. According to the mock juror, the jury talked about the guy’s appearance a lot during jury selection.

“But when the case began,” Rubin continued, “and this defense attorney started asking questions, they all thought he was brilliant. He was such a good lawyer, he overcame the hurdle of his appearance. Everyone changed their opinion of him. So it can be done. It just takes some work."

At the opposite end of the spectrum from the rumpled defense lawyer Rubin described, attorney Gerald Davee sat in sartorial splendor 26 floors up in One America Plaza. A partner in the San Diego law firm of Luce, Forward, Hamilton & Scripps, Davee has conducted close to a hundred trials during his 36-year career with Luce, Forward, approximately 60 before a jury. Among his colleagues, Davee is also known as someone who knows and cares about clothes.

On the day we spoke, Davee wore the pants of a charcoal-gray suit, a medium-gray shirt, and an abstract tie splashed with varying shades of gray and mandarin-red Chinese characters. His suit jacket hung on a hook behind the door. Sitting at a desk scattered with papers and manila files, Davee looked out the windows of his corner office at the Coronado Islands and the ocean beyond.

“I think clients expect that an attorney will look professional,” Davee told me. “Some attorneys feel that ‘my clients dress casually, therefore I must dress casually.’ I’ve never subscribed to that philosophy. I think if you’re the trial attorney or if you’re representing the client in front of counsels or administrative bodies, the client expects you’ll be professionally dressed and make a good appearance. I think most people want to be proud of their attorney, to be able to say, ‘That’s the person I’ve selected to represent me.’ ”

Davee believes looking professional means wearing a suit. “If I’m going to be with a client. I’ve always made it a practice to wear a suit. With one caveat. And that would be if I have a jury trial, depending on where it’s located, I might dress in a different fashion. I don't want the jury pool to think I’m a big-city lawyer who’s got expensive clothes. I might, for example, wear sport coats and slacks if that’s as formally dressed as anyone in the jury ever gets.

“When I was first in practice, there were attorneys in this firm who kept old suits to wear to trial when we defended certain types of individuals,” Davee remembered. “If you’re working for Ford Motor Company or General Motors or Convair, you wear a suitable suit and tie. You look nice. If you were defending an insured [a party who has insurance and is being sued] who was not very wealthy or didn’t appear to have much money, then you might wear a much lesser appearing suit and wear it several days in a row. I know attorneys who do that. They want to give the impression that their client is a poor person and this is the best counsel they could get. Those kinds of things go on. I don’t particularly subscribe to them because I’m not comfortable doing that. And I don’t represent people who are insureds.”

Because Davee often represents plaintiffs in high-profile personal injury and medical mal practice cases, he tones down his clothing when going before a jury. “When I’m trying a jury case, I wear no jewelry of any kind except maybe a watch and my ring,” Davee explained. “Today I have a bracelet on. I wouldn’t wear that for trial. Women attorneys also don’t want to look like they’ve got a lot of jewelry, particularly when you’re representing someone who’s asking for money. All it does is spawn discussion. The jury doesn’t want to believe that they’re going to give the attorney a lot of money. They don’t want to see this ostentatious display of jewelry that leads them to believe, ‘Aha, this person is just in it for the money.’

“Under those circumstances, you have to dress for the best interests of your client. I no longer would consider wearing the same suit everyday. But I also don’t wear my best suits. If I have a really nice double-breasted suit that I might wear for a speaking engagement, I typically don’t wear that for a jury trial. I dress down a little, so the jury doesn’t believe that Tm some very wealthy lawyer. You want to look successful, but that just means that you look nicely tailored and your shoes are polished and your clothes are tended to. Your hair is combed. You know, the little things that are necessary to show attention to detail. Beyond that, I don’t think you need or want to make a big splash.

“I think in a bench trial it’s completely different,” Davee said. “I’d wear anything to a bench trial. Most of the judges know me anyway. If you were out of town, you might want to consider what you wear. If I were trying a case in San Bernardino or up in North County, I might wear something a little different even if it were a bench trial. Typically I’m not that concerned about a bench trial. The jury, on the other hand, looks at everything in much more detail. I’ve had jurors come up and compliment me afterwards, ‘Oh gosh, you have the most beautiful suits.’ And in fact I was wearing the least quality of my suits. So it’s all in the eyes of the beholder. I was then thankful that I hadn’t worn something that was more tailored or looked like an anchor person on the television news.”

According to Davee, he doesn’t buy specific suits for specific purposes. “I try to buy a range of suits that will cover everything I need from black tie to sport coat outfits. For the most part, I’m just looking for suits that fit well and are nicely tailored and are pleasing to me. I’m not looking for something that’s iridescent or sheeny or shiny to make some splashy show. I’m not out buying a canary-yellow sport coat to wear in court. Although I have seen people like that.” Davee laughed. “Walter Christensen was a plaintiff s lawyer. He had all these suits he’d wear to court. They were canary yellow. He had them in sky blue. And he wore them all the time. You know, he had reasonably good results. He was a good lawyer.

“Certainly judges don’t care. Jurors would tend to look at that and say, ‘Geez, this guy’s a peacock.’ If you act like a peacock in addition to having a wild suit on, you’re in real trouble. Then they feel that you’re too ostentatious, not serious enough. On the other hand, I see attorneys who go into court with ponytails, other hair arrangements or turbans or whatever, and I think all those can have a very adverse effect. You can overcome that if you’re a good lawyer. But you start out having to jump over a hurdle you wouldn’t have to if you wore suitable clothing. So why create the hurdle for yourself?”

As for accessories, Davee said he has always used a standard-issue, nondescript, black or brown or burgundy trial bag “I’m comfortable with those," Davee told me, pointing to a burgundy trial bag that sat by his office door. “They’re big. They look like they hold a lot of materials. You look like you’re carrying a lot of important stuff around. I’ve seen attorneys who have these beautiful bags that look like they cost $500 and must be made out of ostrich skin or something. They open them up and put them on counsel’s table. If you’re trying to create an impression of austerity or an impression that you’re not glitzy and glamorous, that wouldn’t be the thing to do.”

Davee didn’t know the half of it. A few days before we met, I stopped by the Luis Vuitton store in Horton Plaza to see what kind of briefcase an attorney might buy. While holiday shoppers hustled by outside, gleaming leather valises and trial bags sat displayed like museum pieces behind glass. The rich smell of finely stitched and oiled leather hung in the air like smoke. The manager Rich Bennett flew around the store opening cases and unclasping golden buckles with the manic energy of someone who never gets enough sleep.

Bennett started by showing me a basic briefcase. “This is part of our Taiga line,” he explained, pulling a textured, green briefcase onto the shining glass counter. “It comes in the green you see here and in burgundy. Inside there are three compartments, so it can hold lots of documents as well as a laptop.” Glancing at the small, subtle price tag, Bennett said, “This one runs $1630."

Bennett said he sells lots of briefcases and other merchandise to attorneys. “We have one customer, an attorney from Rancho Santa Fe, who came in and bought this briefcase and the matching desk set. The desk set goes for $3500. Then he had a desk custom made to match the desk set, all glass and marble.”

According to Bennett, most attorneys don’t buy so many items at once. “They start progressively and buy piece by piece.” Special-order briefcases at Louis Vuitton can cost as much as $4000. “They’re special-order pieces made entirely of natural leather. It usually takes four to six months to get them in after they’ve been ordered. The price comes from the selection of the leather. It’s very high. There are no flaws when the pieces are put together. And all the work is done by hand.”

Back on the 26th floor, Davee questioned the wisdom of such accessories. “Once again, I think these things can cause hurdles that you might have to overcome. You’ve got 12 people in the jury box, and all you need is 1 or 2 who don’t like you for some reason, and you may lose a case on that basis. Or you may get a less successful result than you’d like to have. It shouldn’t be that way; people shouldn’t be that superficial. The analysis should be: what’s the case about, what are the legal issues, what are the facts? But to ignore the effect of superficialities would be like saying a prospective president of the United States can wear a big plaid sport coat with garish accessories. There’s a certain dress you have to employ depending on the position you’re in. Certainly people in politics dress for what their constituencies expect. Dark blue suits, dark gray, not-too-flashy ties. Generally speaking, I think that’s pretty good advice for a lawyer. You’re hoping that your case and your presentation of the case will be the standout, not your suit and your tie.”

Davee remembered the first suit he owned as a lawyer. “I was just graduated from law school,” he reminisced. “I bought a dark charcoal-gray suit that I could wear with both black and brown accessories. I didn’t have a lot of money. I might have worn that suit several times a week until I got enough money to get another one and mix it in. Over a period of time. I’ve acquired more than that in number. Now I can go at least a couple weeks without wearing the same thing, at least ten days with different types of clothes.

“My favorite suit is a black Mani. It’s done by Armani,” Davee said. “Armani clothes tend to be loosely structured and more casual. The Mani line is their secondary cut that has a little bit more of a squared, business style. If you looked in a catalog from Neiman’s or Nordstrom or Brady’s, you would see this kind of suit as a business suit. I like it because you can dress it up or dress it down. It always looks very professional. I wear it just because I think that color looks better on me than some other colors."

“I think color is also an important factor,” Davee explained. “I don’t think it’s as significant as the type of suit you wear for trial. But I think if you want to be properly dressed, you ought to know what kinds of clothes go with your appearance. I’m blond and blue-eyed and have a certain type of skin. I can’t wear camel, and I can’t wear gray. I never buy those colors. When I’m talking about gray, I mean a light gray that really leaves my face looking nondescript. I wear more browns or beiges, also black and brown. Very seldom do I have a dark blue suit. Dark blue doesn’t look that well on me. Black does. I’ve just learned that over a period of time. Somebody can do this for you. You can go to a store, and if they’ve got the right people, they can tell you what looks right on you and what washes you out.”

While Davee may dress down for a trial, he doesn’t hesitate to wear his best clothes to a settlement conference. “If I’m going to a settlement conference before a judge, and I’ve got a big case, and I want a lot of money, I don’t go looking like some pauper. I go looking like a guy in his best suit that deserves the money, that has money, gets money, and has a reputation for getting money. That’s the impression you want to create. It’s different than for a jury. For a settlement, I’d be happy to go in wearing the best suit I have. Particularly representing the plaintiff. I’m looking for as much compensation as I can get for my client within reason. So I have no reluctance going there looking like someone who deserves that amount or whose client deserves that amount or who gets those kinds of amounts.”

Earlier in his career, Davee represented the Ford Motor Company, defending it in the many types of lawsuits brought against any major automobile manufacturer. He dressed differently than he does now as a plaintiffs lawyer. “When I was representing Ford, I went back to the Midwest frequently. There was a distinct difference in the type of people that I dealt with. The engineers or the attorneys who were house counsel for Ford tended to dress conservatively. It was all grays and nondescript colors. They all looked alike, and they all had a red tie on. So I didn’t feel comfortable going back there wearing my slickest suit with a racy tie. Something that you would see in an ad in San Diego magazine is not what you’d want to wear when you go back to the Midwest to see these people. They want to think of you as being one of them. And it’s better to be one of them than to be the outsider, the big guy from California who’s trying to blitz them with his savoir faire.

“When I started out in practice, I wore traditional clothing, what originally was called Ivy league stuff and was later called natural-shoulder clothing. No pads, no double-breasted, basically a three-button, the kind of thing everybody wore. Then, probably 10 or 15 years into my practice, I got tired of wearing those clothes. I was looking for something different. I started going to double-breasted because I’m relatively slim and I can wear double-breasted. Then I started buying clothes at different stores where I was getting more of a tailored look, broad shoulders coming down to a narrower waist. That’s what I started wearing in my day-to-day clothes, not necessarily before a jury. I would tailor it for when I was going to be before a different audience. Some people I know, including people in this firm, haven’t changed their clothing since I’ve been here. That’s been 36 years.”

Because of his own interest in clothes, Davee notices what other attorneys wear. “When he was alive, Dan Broderick was dressed very nicely,” Davee remembered. “I think Vince Bartolotta has some nice clothes. So do Harvey Irvine and Craig McLellan. Some attorneys take the time to buy nice clothes and do some shopping. You can tell that by looking at them. I don’t think it always means you go to some tailor and have someone make your clothes. You might need to do that if you are an unusual size. I think you can buy off the rack at any good-quality store including Nordstrom or Neiman’s or Brady’s, or there’s a place in North County called Russell Charles that I go to. Those places have the type of clothing where you can go in and really look a step-up.

“A thing that’s really pleasing to me is both my son-in-law and my son have copied my kind of clothing,” Davee continued. “Not that they didn’t come up with it independently. When they come to my house, they frequently go into the bedroom and look through the closet to see what kind of clothing I have now. My son’s a CPA, and my son-in-law’s in the advertising business.”

Davee could think of few judges he considers particularly well dressed. “Because they wear judicial robes, it’s very difficult to tell how well the judges dress,” Davee explained. “And the judges tend to wear more sports coats because it isn’t necessary that they have the suits. They throw on a sports jacket and go to lunch. Not many of them are what you’d call stand-out dressers. Some of them certainly look better than others. David Gill, who’s a criminal judge and has been a friend of mine for a number of years, always looks very nice. He wears natural clothing, but it’s always very well-tailored. He wears white shirts; he looks crisp. Paul Pfingst, the district attorney, is a pretty good dresser. He has nice clothes. And you can see that he takes some time in buying his clothes. And there are others who are good attorneys who don’t particularly have great clothes.

“I talked to Joe Cotchett one time, who’s a well-known trial attorney in California. He handled the suit against Charles Keating and Lincoln Savings & Loan in Tucson. He told me that when he went over to Tucson to prepare for trial, he went out to the various little communities into bars and things with some fellow who had been a former councilman or a former mayor. He saw what the people in Tucson wore and what kind of people they were. Then when he got the jury' list, he went and asked this former councilman. This guy knew most of these people. So he had some background, not just some jury consultant who’s going to try to predict what that person is like. This person knew what most of them were like. So he gave Joe Cotchett information about a lot of the people who were on the jury venire.

"When it came time for trial and Cotchett went into court, he always wore a simple blue sport coat. The other side had all these Lincoln Savings & Loan lawyers. They were all dressed up to the gills, from New York and all over. Cotchett came in, even though he was from out of town, as sort of the country guy. I don’t know if he went down to cowboy boots. There are people that do that, go to court in cowboy boots or whatever they think the constituency in that area will wear. I think people generally are more comfortable with people who dress like they do. They think people who dress too nicely or get too dressed up are some kind of slick-talking salesmen. Whereas the other are the country-bumpkin type. I couldn’t sell the country-bump kin type; it’s not my personality. And if I put on the cowboy boots and went in there and tried to say ‘y’all,’ it wouldn’t come off. But it worked for Joe Cotchett.”

In the end, even Davee hopes people don’t pay too much attention to his clothes. “What you hope for is that your clothes will not be the item that will be the standout in the case. You want the jury to focus on your case and your client’s case and your presentation of your argument.”

Jim Addis agrees that most of the lawyers he sees dress conservatively. A mens wear buyer for Nordstrom, Addis met me a few days before Christmas in the Horton Plaza store. Sparkling garlands curled atop the racks of suits nestled in the southeast corner of the store’s first floor. Addis looked to be about 30. Dressed in a suit the color of soft pine and a matching monochromatic tie, Addis showed me the kinds of suits he might show a lawyer out shopping for work clothes. “Mostly the attorneys are going to want darker colors and more conservative cuts,” Addis told me. “Solids or maybe a small texture. Nothing too dramatic.” He pulled four suits off a rack and arrayed them across the tops of the suits left hanging.

“This is our Nordstrom label,” Addis pointed to a solid, charcoal-gray suit. “It goes for four and a quarter.” I assumed that meant $425. “As you can see, it’s pretty much your basic suit.”

Addis moved to the next suit, also charcoal gray. “Now, if it’s a lawyer starting out, and they’ll be wearing the suit quite a bit, you might want to move up into something like this. This is a Hart, Shaffner, Marx. It goes for six and a quarter. It’s got a great cut. It comes in blues, grays. A suit like this will last for a longtime. It’s 100 percent wool. It’s called Super 100. It’s got a finer nap to it.” Addis held the Hart, Shaffner up to the Nordstrom suit. “You can see, it’s appealing to the eye.” The more expensive suit, although precisely the same color, looked smoother, like a patch of still water unruffled by the wind.

Moving down the rack, Addis showed me a $900 Hickey Freeman suit. Subtle white pinstripes interrupted the fabric’s smooth gray planes. “You can spend even more than this for a suit,” Addis said. “In our Fashion Valley store, we’ve got some Italian suits that go for $1100 to $1200. When you pay that much for a suit, you’re paying for fabric and make. Italian piece goods [fabric] are really high quality. There's maybe a little more make in the suit, some handwork as opposed to machine made. You also generally get a more expensive lining, silk and rayon. The suit just slides on. It feels good.”

According to Addis, accessories can help a less expensive suit look more high-end. “Most lawyers are going to go with a white shirt. Maybe some subtle striping. Maybe a blue shirt. It just looks classic. The right shirt and tie can make a four-and-a-quarter suit look like $1000.” Addis held a series of ties up to the mid-priced Hart, Schaffner suit. “You could go with burgundies, real rich colors. Or you could go with red, small pattern or stripes. Real conservative.” Addis held up the last tie, flying gold swirls on a burgundy base. “It just depends on how flashy you want to go.”

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