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Handcuffed man escorted into courtroom Photo: Comstock/Getty Images

When Being a Good Lawyer Means Dressing Your Clients

Public defenders sometimes have to buy courtroom attire for defendants who can’t afford it.

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The first time I found a stray men’s tie in my wife Amanda’s backseat, I imagined that one of her coworkers had perhaps ripped it off in a fit of rage after a trial and forgotten it. Then the suit coats started piling up, all slightly stylistically out-of-date and hanging off plastic hangers. New trials brought new, unfamiliar clothes into her car, which would then disappear again after a few days. Eventually, she explained that the clothes were for her clients, indigent and accused men and women who could not afford court-appropriate clothes.

As a public defender, Amanda is tasked with zealously defending her clients, and that means that on top of negotiating with prosecutors and arguing in court, she also functions as a de facto social worker. When keeping a client out of jail means getting them into a recovery program, she’s on the phone finding a bed. When a client needs immigration help, she gets a referral. And when a client doesn’t have anything to wear to court, Amanda heads to the closet in her office building that houses a small collection of worn-down suit jackets to cobble together an outfit.

In order to qualify for a public defender, Amanda’s clients have to live below the poverty level and pay a $10 application fee. For many, paying the $10 is impossible. When even that is out of reach, it is not surprising that buying appropriate clothes for court is simply not a luxury that many defendants can afford. Unfortunately, being without proper attire can negatively influence a client’s case.

Just like an attorney’s suit, a defendant’s choice of court clothes matters. It has been shown time and time again that what a defendant wears to court can effect whether they are found guilty. In 2016, Elle tracked how female defendants’s courtroom clothing strategy has changed over time, from ultra-frilly to barely feminine. Criminal defendants are technically innocent until proven guilty, but that doesn’t mean that a jury will think a defendant who shows up to court in an orange jail jumpsuit or dirty T-shirt is innocent. In fact, some courts have found that forcing a defendant to wear a jail uniform in court inherently prejudices the jury against them. Last year, New York City banned the Department of Corrections from sending detained defendants to court in their jail-issued uniforms because of the potential negative effects of the jumpsuits on a jury’s neutrality.

Most public defenders’s offices operate on shoestring budgets that barely allow lawyers to provide adequate services, let alone try to find appropriate clothing for their clients. But public defenders are used to working under punishing conditions and have found creative ways to clothe their clients, with some offices holding donation drives for professional clothing and even more offices relying on the generosity of their own attorneys to stock closets with old suits and ties. When a client is in need, an attorney can duck into the closet and reappear with an old suit or skirt and hope that it’s enough to keep a jury from using their client’s clothing as an indication of guilt.

When I asked Amanda what kinds of clothes they keep in her office for clients, she actually laughed. It turns out that it’s largely comprised of old attorney suits and thrift-store womenswear that is decades out of date. In a year where so much felt insurmountable, I felt like this was something I could fix. Amanda and I decided to devote the following weekend to buying new business clothes for her office’s closet.

But how do you shop for people who are experiencing what is likely one of the worst days of their lives? It felt more emotionally fraught than bulk-buying slacks in flattering, dark neutrals. On our first attempt, I instinctively led us to the tie rack in the men’s section before Amanda politely redirected us to women’s blouses. It turns out that because her office relies on clothing donations from attorneys, most of the clothes available are for men because there are more male attorneys. Female defendants, she explained, are left with a sad selection of blazers and not much else. So I refocused our efforts.

Online, I searched out women’s black slacks and read reviews that focused on comfort and style. No reviews contained the information I really wanted to know: Would they stretch around lots of women’s different body sizes without losing their shape? Were they easy to clean, and would they survive being stuffed on a shelf in an airless closet until they were needed again? And, most importantly, would these pants help a woman feel dignified in court? Would they protect her from the bias of jurors who assume someone who looks poor must also be guilty of a crime?

In the end, I clicked buy without knowing these answers. The pants and shirts we ordered in various shades of gray and black arrived in boxes and bags over the next week, folded neatly. As they arrived, I stashed them in the back of Amanda’s car with the other musty coats and said a little not-quite prayer that they would do their job and help these women have a fair shot in court. I supplemented our purchases with jackets and dresses from my closet until we assembled a small but sufficient collection of acceptable court outfits. I made her promise to get rid of some of the most offensively old and sad-looking blazers we were replacing.

People buy clothes in aspiration of who they want to be, but when your dignity and your freedom are on the line, the clothes you can afford shouldn’t stop you from getting a fair trial. If what it takes is a pair of black polyester pants to make sure that a client has the best possible shot in court, you’ll see my wife digging around in her office closet and in the backseat of her car. And when it’s needed, we will refill the closet with clothes again — a tiny act of courtroom clothing equity.

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