A courthouse in Oklahoma was recently evacuated after an attorney arrived with, as local media reported it, an “abundance” of bedbugs crawling on him. These bugs are “blood-sucking insects” that bite humans. This attorney supposedly had so many bed bugs on his person that they were falling from his clothing as he walked around the courtroom.
Since it would be pretty hard, if not impossible, to not notice bugs falling off you and your clothes, one might wonder what could possibly have been going on in this attorney’s mind. The first thing that came to my mind was that he was probably tired, incompetent and unprepared in large part from all the itching and lack of sleep caused by the bites from the bed bugs.
If he was hoping that the judge, jury, opposing counsel, observers and his own client wouldn’t notice, he clearly was mistaken. And if he thought that this type of action would not influence the probable outcome of whatever business he had before the court, he was sorely mistaken on that point as well.
Pundits’ commentaries about the general decline in hygiene, societal manners, dress and speech over the past few decades are not at issue here. What is at issue is this lawyer’s blatant disregard for what is considered appropriate in any professional setting.
Some may argue that, in the end, it is substance that matters and not how someone looks or acts. And while it is true that an initial negative impression can usually be corrected over time (assuming you weren’t the bedbug version of Typhoid Mary), the reality is that you probably won’t have time to change first impressions. This is because research suggests that you only have a maximum window of 30 seconds to make a good first impression. In some cases you may even have far less – as few as 7 seconds. In that time, the person you are meeting makes a slew of judgements about your education, competence, knowledge, personality and trustworthiness, all of which are critical in any legal or business interaction.
If you consider the impact that the “curb appeal” of a house has on the offers the owners receive, and how a product’s packaging can attract your attention and even influence how you judge its quality, it makes sense that the same applies to you. Perhaps even just as important, is that this first impression can create a residual effect that can follow you around for a long time after your first meeting. If your first impression is negative, the person you’re meeting will start to ascribe negative attributes to other things you do. For example, if a juror’s first impression of you is “sloppy, arrogant, shifty, not trustworthy, obnoxious” these characteristics may dictate how they perceive your arguments. If you represent a hospital provider, this same “halo” – whether negative or positive – may “rub off” on your hospital.
This is also the reason that defense attorneys routinely tell their clients to dress for court “as if they are going to church” and why judges traditionally wear a black robe to court. In many states, there are no laws, regulations or other codified rules that require either. But experience over the years has shown the benefits of doing so.
For a defendant, dressing for court makes them less threatening, more credible and more likeable. It also reduces negative cues that could influence a jury. For example, imagine the effect of wearing a t-shirt with a marijuana leaf on it would have on the jury’s impression and attitude toward an accused drug dealer? And a judge’s black robe projects authority, neutrality, respect and dignity. Imagine how the dynamic in a courtroom would change if the judge showed up in shorts, a t-shirt and flipflops.
Acting the Part Influences You as Well
And you are not immune to the impact of how you dress and act. There is evidence that both can bolster your self-esteem as well as your mental and physical performance. While further studies are needed, initial results suggest that something really does happen to us on a physical level when we look and feel our best. Most people have a “lucky suit” or “lucky tie” or “lucky shoes” that they always wear to an important business appointment. They report feeling better, more confident and, well, just “luckier” in them. Science now is showing that this is not just silly superstition. There may be a biological basis for it.
Other studies go so far as to indicate that specific clothes can reinforce or improve certain behaviors or professional characteristics. For example, one study suggested that wearing formal business clothing improved a person’s ability to come up with “big ideas.” Another suggested that wearing casual clothes to a negotiation resulted in the wearer getting a poorer deal. If he was a male and dressed down, he also had lower testosterone levels. Since testosterone is associated with more aggressive behavior, this finding, which may just be coincidental, is not surprising. Another interesting finding is wearing a doctor’s lab coat help you focus better. What is even more intriguing is that if you believe it is something other than a doctor’s lab coat, this “better focus” outcome vanished.
How to Look and Act the Part
While there is a wide variety of opinion on what constitutes appropriate and inappropriate behavior and dress, based on common practice at many law firms and healthcare providers along with published guidelines ranging from the American Bar Association to individual state Justice Departments, there are some common themes to consider. These include:
- Dress modestly and never wear shorts
- Never wear dirty or wrinkled clothes
- Make sure your clothes fit well
- Wear shoes appropriate to the business environment
- Never wear jeans, t-shirts, tennis shirts or workout clothes
- Remember personal hygiene and always be well-groomed
Other suggestions and recommendations include:
- Formality and conservative are better than informal and trendy
- Smile and maintain eye contact when talking with people
- Speak clearly, confidently, slowly and avoid jargon or slang
- Cover up tattoos
- No gum chewing
- Act respectively and seriously (especially in a courtroom setting)
While it many nice to think that the saying “don´t judge a book by its cover” is just a quaint metaphor, the reality is that most people do just that – judge us by initial impressions based on our dress and behavior. Given what can be at stake by botching that impression, it’s very much worth it to watch our proverbial P’s and Q´s.