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Craig Mastantuono Oct. 19, 2009

Sprucing Up Your Criminal Client for CourtOctober 19, 2009Wisconsin Law Journal Staff

Image matters. And it especially matters when your criminal client is facing trial.

Lawyers need to convey the importance of wearing clothes which won’t be distracting or disrespectful, said attorney Paul E. Bucher.

“Never assume that your client knows how to dress for court,” said Bucher. “You will prove yourself wrong more than you prove yourself correct.”

At the same time, you don’t want to make your clients feel uncomfortable.

“The most important for thing for my clients is that they dress in way that makes them comfortable and not self-conscious,” said Madison attorney Christopher T. Van Wagner.

Appropriate attire can also depend on the image the attorney wants to convey to jurors, he said.

Someone who comes to court nattily attired, but is normally a jeans and T-shirt person could be seen as “putting on a show” for the jury, said Van Wagner, of Van Wagner & Wood SC.

Van Wagner represented a truck driver accused of assault and rather than have his client wear a suit, he told him to come to court casually dressed, complete with a hat the man wore regularly.

“We wanted the jury to understand that he was a simple-blue collar guy,” he said. “If he was uncomfortable, it would have been hard for the jury to pay attention.”

In some cases, attorneys have to dip into their own pockets to craft a wardrobe that fits the client’s personality.

Rebecca M. Coffee of Mastantuono Law Office SC in Milwaukee has gone shopping for a client the night before trial on more than one occasion.

“I’d say three or four times I’ve gone out and bought pair of pants or a nice shirt for clients simply because they don’t have anything or any family members in town to provide an outfit for them,” she said.

Attorney Raymond M. Dall’Osto said that when he did work for the State Public Defender’s Office in the 80s, he helped establish a “clients’ clothes closet” to provide defendants with some court-worthy wardrobe options that they would feel comfortable in.

Not too comfy

There’s a risk that allowing a client to be too comfortable can damage his or her credibility.

Dall’Osto recalled a robbery case in which he was summoned as a potential juror. During voir dire the defendant came to court wearing a black T-shirt which featured a skull and hatchet.

“As soon as I saw that shirt, as a juror my first thought was ‘I don’t like him and in the recesses of my mind, that person is guilty,’” said Dall’Osto, of Gimbel, Reilly, Guerin & Brown, (http://www.grgblaw.com/) in Milwaukee.

He typically recommends that clients dress for court as if they were dressing for church.

Bucher currently practices at Gatzke Ruppelt & Bucher SC in Waukesha but previously served as a district attorney. He said on at least on occasion, a defendant’s attire probably helped his case as a prosecutor.

“There was a drunken driving case that I felt like I got a conviction just by the person walking into court with an alcohol-related shirt on,” he said.

While criminal defense attorneys agree that sloppy or too-casual clients can be a problem, “overdressing” a client is also risky.

A defendant who appears with gaudy jewelry can be just as distracting to jurors as someone with a visible facial piercing, suggested Dall’Osto.

“In a fraud case someone with a $50,000 watch might be seen as too ‘Madoffian,’” Dall’Osto said. “Have a client be in something that is understated and neutral.”

Van Wagner often follows this standard rule of thumb.

“Never let clients dress better than their attorney,” he said.

Outside appearances count

Hurley, Burish & Stanton attorney Erik R. Guenther notes that the need for a professional appearance can extend outside of court.

If there is a trial with significant public interest, Guenther recommends controlling the client’s image in the media, even before opening arguments are made.

“I generally will try to provide a studio photo of a client [to the media] rather than a mug shot,” he said.

Assuming a client is not in custody, Guenther typically makes arrangement to have the person get a professional head shot done at a local studio. He then circulates the pictures to various media outlets that may have an interest in the case. He said that most choose to run the head-shot.

“It’s really not just white-collar crimes, but anything that generates media interest,” Guenther said. “It’s a way to remind people that there is a presumption of innocence and my client has a right to a fair trial.”