Courtroom attire might seem low on the expert priority list, but what a witness wears does have an effect (both positive and negative) on a jury. While the typical attorney uniform of a suit and tie is ubiquitous in the courtroom, an expert’s choice of clothing is more nuanced. Because expert witnesses have more leeway in what they can wear, that freedom should be exercised strategically. If what an expert wears can have even the slightest positive effect on jury perceptions, it is a topic worth considering.
Start With the Basics: Formal Business Attire
As a general rule, all witnesses want to appear professional and respectful in court. One non-verbal way of conveying one’s respect and deference to the court is by dressing appropriately. If you have never testified in court before and are unsure of what to wear, simple business attire is a safe bet. There are various levels of business attire—some more formal than others—but traditionally, this means wearing a suit. For men, a dark-colored suit, tie, crisp dress shirt, and pair of oxfords work best. Women can wear either skirt suits or pants suits, with a blouse, and closed-toe shoes. All clothing should fit appropriately and conservatively, neither ill-fitting or too loose. Accessories, such as jewelry, watches, or bags, should be subtle. The general color palettes in business wear are shades of black, grey, blue, or brown.
Traditional business attire is the style of dress most often seen in courtrooms and is typically the look most jurors associate with attorneys. As an expert witness, one advantage to business wear is that it helps you appear professional and experienced, and conveys the message that you belong in a courtroom. By dressing uniformly with the other attorneys, your outfit will not attract much attention, meaning that a jury will not be distracted from your testimony.
Taking it Down a Notch: Business Casual Attire
On the spectrum of business wear, business casual is (how the name implies) less formal than traditional business attire. Typically, this style of dress allows for a brighter color palette, more accessorizing, and does not require a suit. Different colored blazers and slacks (or skirts for women) can be worn together without the monotony of a uniformly colored, matching suit. While business casual is not as formal, it still follows the same foundational requirements of traditional business wear – oxford shirts, blouses, conservative shoes, and a look of professionalism.
Business casual attire might be the best choice for an expert witness for a few reasons. First, the cultural norms of courtroom apparel somewhat vary by geographical region, jurisdiction, and trial type. What might be appropriate in Texas may not be in New York, and what might seem professional during a trial in federal court may appear overdressed in a traffic violation hearing. Take cues from how those around you dress. Are the court staff and personnel dressed in sweaters and khakis opposed to suits? Are the attorneys dressed in lighter-colored suits or uniquely patterned shirts opposed to the black-grey- blue-brown color palette? If so, then it may be safe to err on the business casual side.
Second, business casual attire might simply better reflect your area of expertise. If you are an engineer that is outside in a construction uniform all day or a nurse who lives in scrubs during work hours, it may make more intuitive sense to dress less formally. While most juries expect to see lawyers donned in the typical dark-colored power suits, that same style of dress may appear stuffy on a witness whose profession would never require such attire. In that case, business casual attire may be a smart alternative, as it allows the witness to still look professional without seeming disingenuous or superior to the jury.
Dress in Attire that Reflects Your Expertise
In order for a jury to consider an expert’s substantive testimony, credibility and trust must be established. This is done in many ways—through the expert’s qualifications and work history as well as his demeanor and manner of speech. Likewise, the expert’s attire also sets off non-verbal cues as to credibility. Therefore, the main goal for an expert’s ensemble is that it is an accurate reflection of the professional area of expertise. While traditional business attire and business casual wear are safe and professional choices, sometimes neither will precisely convey the expert’s message. If there is a style of dress that is frequently associated with the expert’s profession—and is still considered generally professional enough to wear in court—then the expert should consider that attire.
For example, experts in law enforcement or the military may elect to wear their uniforms, perhaps decorated with ribbons or pins that showcase any commendations. Likewise, if you are an expert in chemistry or other scientific field and you plan to testify about all of the complex experiments you have conducted, donning a lab coat may be a tactful accessory. Overall, the main purpose is to dress in a way that adds credibility to your testimony and presents you as a professional in your respective field.