Witness Preparation… You only get one chance to make a good first impression.
Yes, appearance does count! I’m always amazed when witnesses or parties appear in court and are dressed like they’re going to be working in their yard or are going to a dive bar. First impressions are lasting impressions. Before your client or witness says a word the jury or judge will be sizing them up as they approach the stand. The case could be lost before the witness has ever uttered a single answer.
Always have your client or witnesses (when possible) meet you for preparation as to how they plan to dress in court. Do they have a crazy hairstyle? Are they covered with tattoos? Are they unshaven or unkempt? You need to know this before they make it into the court room whenever possible. Sometimes this is either impossible or somehow unavoidable. If such a situation arises, you need to be able to explain it to the jury. If their claim is they are poor and cannot afford to buy new clothing, there’s nothing to prevent your client from going to a local Goodwill or Salvation Army center and obtaining suitable attire. I remember when I was a prosecutor and first met with an inmate who was supposed to testify for me in a major trial. Almost every inch of his body was covered with tattoos. We obtained a collared shirt, sweater, nice slacks and dress shoes for him to appear in court. We also asked him to get a haircut at the penal facility where he was incarcerated. After he put on his clothing and with his new haircut, not only did he look one hundred percent better, he also felt much more relaxed and confident in his own ability to testify. In fact, he was proud of how he looked. He remarked, “I look like I should be in college.” It also helped him to testify in a more dignified and calm manner. Truly, clothes make the man or woman.
All that being said, I try to make sure that if a client or witness will not be dressed in a suit or an equivalent, then I try to have them choose clothing that respects the proceeding, the court and the jury, while still allowing the witness or client to feel comfortable in their own skin.
Overly flashy or expensive outfits should be avoided. You want to choose apparel that will be found acceptable by a broad range of individuals, because that is who the jury is going to be made up of… a cross-section of the community.
I once had a client who had an elaborate braided hair style which undoubtedly cost hundreds of dollars, yet we were claiming that as a result of her injury she was placed in difficult financial straits. Obviously, there would be those on the jury who would view such an expensive hair style as contradictory. As a result, we had her obtain an appropriate wig to avoid any misimpressions. On another occasion, I had a client who always wore tinted glasses. As the saying goes, eyes are the windows to the soul. I knew that no jury was going to trust someone whose eyes they could not see. Obviously, if my client had been blind, there would have been no problem. However, absent such an extraordinary circumstance I would never allow a client to appear before a jury in sunglasses. When the client initially fought me on this, I asked her what was more important to her: Obtaining a fair and full verdict to compensate her for her injuries or looking dishonest? She made the right choice and ultimately obtained a sizable verdict.
Remember, first impressions are lasting impressions and people (including juries) do judge a book by its cover.