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Maintaining legal decorum in the ‘new normal’

Special to the News Columns

Eugene PettisThere have been marked changes in how society functions as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and its “social distancing” practices. Out of necessity, we have adapted our behaviors both personally and professionally. Within the practice of law, as in many professions, we have flocked to using video conferencing technology to keep business moving. It is expected that some of these practices will remain in place as society returns to a new normal.

Seventeenth Circuit Chief Judge Jack Tuter was recently quoted in the News explaining the advantages of using the Zoom platform for hearings. He also anticipated its use going forward, noting, “I can tell you this, Zoom is going to be the wave of the future when this is over. Why drive all the way to Ft. Lauderdale when you can be back in your office?”

But with every paradigm shift, there are some undesired consequences. Working from home has immediately relaxed the rules around professional attire. My dry cleaner hasn’t gotten a dime of my money over the past month because I have not had to put on my lawyer uniform. However, as we begin using more videoconferencing and other technology to carry out legal activities, including hearings, depositions, and other meetings, it is important for us to maintain the appearance of professionalism.

In a recent video hearing attended by one of my partners, the presiding Florida judge mentioned this issue. This particular judge had been told by others in his circuit that lawyers were appearing for hearings “with no shirt on,” “pool side,” and that one had even attended a hearing from “under the covers of her bed.” While there is nothing in our Bar rules regarding proper attire during video hearings, some things are, or should be, obvious.

I grew up here in Ft. Lauderdale and distinctly recall making my senior trip to Disney World for Grad Night. I did not understand then why the boys had to wear a suit and tie. I came to learn that Disney had performed a study which concluded that people behave better when they’re dressed better. I think this holds true in any setting.

Many of us have had the experience of being approached by a stranger who comments, “you must be a lawyer!” Whenever I have asked how that person could tell I was a lawyer, the answer has always had something to do with how I was dressed or how I carried myself. I take that as a compliment to me and my profession. As lawyers, we should stand out to the public. It simply shows that we hold ourselves to a higher standard.

So even though we are currently in the relaxed confines of our homes, we must not forget that every case-related transaction is performed on behalf of a client, and that client deserves our best representation. While there is certainly a level of discretion that governs how we appear in video conferences with clients and other lawyers, it goes without saying that when we appear in court, we should look the part. Whether a judge admits it or not, how you present yourself — in appearance and in substance — leave an impression. Such impressions can, at some point, go beyond your personal reputation and impact that of your client.

As lawyers, we must always conform to the highest standards in pursuit of the most favorable outcome for our clients, and that includes dressing professionally whether present before the judge in the courtroom or by way of a video conference. That is part of what being a lawyer is all about, and I hope, even in our changing world, this tradition never changes.

Eugene K. Pettis, a co-founder of Haliczer Pettis & Schwamm, served as president of The Florida Bar in 2013-2014.

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