Robert Van Pelt American Inn of Court

Decorum and civility—two concepts that were once commonplace and deeply ingrained in our profession have faded over time. The Roscoe Pound pupillage team of the Robert Van Pelt American Inn of Court in Lincoln, Nebraska, revisited the historical foundation and current view of such formalities as courtroom attire, courteous address in and outside of the courtroom, and professional conduct with bailiffs. A video clip from the movie “My Cousin Vinny” set the scene.

The team began its presentation with a review of wigs and robes from English courts. Rules concerning an attorney’s dress and conduct in a courtroom date back to the regulation of a barrister’s dress in English courts. During the Stuart Period (1603–1715) wigs became popular.

Aristocrats and those of higher social standing quickly adopted the practice of wearing wigs, but English courtrooms were slower to act. Only recently, in the 21st Century, did new dress regulations omit the wig requirement.

After the historical review, the team explored the modern basis for attire standards in the Rules of Professional Conduct and similar court rules. Although dress requirements are not specifically mentioned, the ethical rules do require an attorney to maintain courtroom dignity and decorum; it is under this general umbrella of behavior that dress requirements fall.

The Supreme Court of the United States requires attorneys to “wear conservative business dress.” In Nebraska the rule is equally vague: “Attorneys shall be attired in ordinary business wear.” Neb. Ct. R. § 6-1511 (West 2020). Local court rules have attempted to provide more detailed direction to the attorneys practicing in those courts. For example, “Ordinary business attire for male attorneys shall include a jacket and tie. Ordinary business attire for female attorneys shall include a jacket.” NE R 9 DIST Rule 9-6 (West 2020). Some local courts get very detailed and even add what is not acceptable: “Unacceptable attire includes T-shirts; sleeveless tops such as tank tops, halter tops, spaghetti-strap tops, or any top that does not completely cover the midriff area; clothing which is excessively tight, low-cut, revealing, or sheer; shorts; denim; flip-flop sandals; slippers; Crocs; or tennis shoes (unless medically necessary).” NE R 3 DIST Rule 3-6 (West 2020).

A review of these rules generated lots of discussion among the Inn attendees, including interesting war stories of inappropriate attire and sample comments from the most particular judges. In addition to attire, the presentation also covered the importance of showing respect to the tribunal in word and action.

The discussion then shifted to a presentation by a local bailiff who discussed topics such as being nice to the bailiff/clerk, knowing the local rules, calling the bailiff to determine the judge’s preferences, marking exhibits ahead of a hearing, keeping the court informed of complex issues that may take additional time, and notifying the court of settlement, particularly if a matter is already under advisement.

The evening ended with questions posed to a panel of four judges serving at various levels of the court system. A lively debate ensued over how to address a judge when one bumps into them in workout attire at the grocery store or in line at the liquor store.


Photo: The panel of judges answering questions at the February event.