As a civil litigator in Ontario, when I appear before a judge (in most circumstances) I must wear my court attire consisting of black or grey "court striped" pants or skirt, a white wingtip collared shirt, waistcoat, my robe and my tabs (white flappy things that flow from my collar – see picture). If you are interested, there have been several articles written about the history of our stuffy courtroom attire and how to properly wear it, gussy-it-up, and about the makers who make them.
Some litigators loath the robes, wishing to do away with the old-fashioned garb and the blue velvet carrying bags with our initials on them (see photo below); others feel at home in the serious and traditional uniform. What I appreciate the most about my robe is that, as a woman, I feel like it helps level the playing field for me in the courtroom. Women are often judged on how we look and are dressed, and women lawyers in the courtroom are no exception. Judges judge us by appearance whether consciously or unconsciously - they are human. The robes act as a great equalizer. We all look equally ridiculous in them, whether we are hiding breasts or a pot belly underneath. When I am wearing the same Hogwarts outfit as counsel next to me, I know the judge is not judging me on my choice of dress. If I had my way I would bring back the wigs and then I wouldn’t have to worry about my hair either (Up? Down? Bun? Pony tail? Curly? Straight? Pig tails (probably not)).
Unfortunately, we don’t robe before Masters (yes, we have individuals called “Masters” in our court system). When I appear before a Master I waste so much time thinking about my attire: should I stick to a boring black suit? Skirt or pants? Skirt too short? What colour of top? Too bright? Too dowdy? Too low cut? Not serious enough? Too serious? And don't get me started about my shoe choice! And I admit, I tend to be an over-thinker, but if how I dress can potentially affect the outcome for my client, then of course I am going to put thought into it. Men have it so easy: suit, shirt and tie. I totally prefer wearing my robe.
I know change is coming to the legal profession (including potentially renaming the Law Society of Upper Canada) and I welcome change, but I hope some traditions remain, including our wacky courtroom attire.
Erin C. Cowling is a freelance litigator, researcher & writer at Cowling Legal Freelance and President and Founder of Flex Legal Network Inc., a network of freelance lawyers.