Legal Meetings and Divorce: What (Not) to Wear
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What is appropriate, and how much is too much?
Whether you choose to have a collaborative divorce, mediate, or litigate—which often includes depositions, a custody evaluation, and court hearings—one of the questions women often ask is “What should I wear?” We’ve spoken with divorce attorneys, personal stylists, and divorced women to answer that question for you.
“First, you should understand that it only takes 30 seconds to make a first impression,” explains personal branding and fashion stylist Sandy Hapoienu. “Whether going on a job interview or first date, it’s all the same. Everyone basically judges you within that time frame; it’s not something we want to do, but our brains are built that way. What you wear demonstrates your values and your style. When you show up somewhere, you need to show that you care enough to make an effort.”
In a nutshell, if you don’t take charge of what people think about you, then you are leaving it for everyone else to decide. Don’t make that mistake. When fighting for custody of your children, you want to send a very strong message: you are tidy, organized, caring, and responsible. How? Always arrive early to any legal meeting, and make sure your clothing is neat and properly put together. Visit the ladies’ room to check your makeup, brush your hair, and evaluate your overall appearance. Freshen your breath, if necessary, and stand up straight. Although each type of legal meeting is different, presenting a polished, confident look is important.
If you and your spouse have chosen to participate in a collaborative divorce, a business-casual look is appropriate. “When you come to a collaborative meeting, you are coming in to meet with lawyers and other professionals, so it makes sense to dress business-casual,” advises Katherine Miller, a former Solo Mom who is a divorce mediator and collaborative lawyer. “I’ve been to many meetings where the mom shows up in yoga clothes or shorts. But when you come to a professional meeting, you should dress in a way that makes you feel that you belong at the table and your thinking and problem solving should be valued. Dress in a way that supports your participation.”
Mediation is another out-of-court method to handle your divorce. Here, the way to dress can be quite different, as it is more relaxed. During mediation, the only people in the room are you, your spouse, and the mediating attorney. This meeting style allows for more casual dress, as it is designed to facilitate a working relationship between you and your future ex. However, remain conscious of what you choose to wear. Arriving in a provocative outfit, flashing an engagement ring from your new fiancé, or wearing designer clothing may trigger your former spouse and create some hostility during the meeting. Be respectful of the situation, and come prepared to engage in a relaxed, cooperative manner.
“Recently, I was working with a couple on a mediation, and the wife, who is an executive, came to the meeting in running clothes,” recalls Melissa Goodstein, a divorce mediator and collaborative attorney. “She said she went for a run right before because it relaxes her. It’s OK to be in comfortable clothes during a mediation, but don’t wear a shirt that says ‘I’m with stupid.’ If what you are wearing makes your spouse uncomfortable, then we will bring it to the table. There’s a relaxation that’s different from a court proceeding, but you still need to be appropriate.”
However, legal proceedings, such as depositions, custody evaluations, and trials, require more professional attire. “I believe wholeheartedly that modesty is key,” advises Jessica Harwood, a former Solo Mom and personal stylist. “Your clothes should be tight enough to show you are a woman, but loose enough to show you are a lady. You don’t have to dress like a female attorney, but keep that image in mind. Never wear anything that you would wear on a date; that’s never appropriate. If you put on a skirt or pants and they feel tight, take them off and start over. You are asking someone else to determine your ability to parent, and your clothes should demonstrate a level of respect for the court and the job that person holds. Your clothing should show that you have a mature understanding of the gravity of the situation.”
Audra Tuttle, a Solo Mom whose court case went to trial, remembers worrying about what to wear to each court appearance. While her lawyer gave the advice “Don’t let the girls hang out,” she knew there was much more to dressing for a trial than appropriate coverage. She debated whether or not to dress like a lawyer, a business executive, or a teacher, which is her profession. In the end, she chose to wear the same clothing she wears to work each day, which helped her relax and remain strong on the stand.
“I knew I needed to feel confident, so I wore what I was comfortable in—my teaching clothing,” Tuttle recalls. “I wore cotton pants that were tapered at the ankle and a little button-up shirt or pullover up to my neckline. I did not wear a lot of fancy jewelry or put on a lot of makeup, and I pulled my hair back. I only ever wear heels if I’m going out and want to look sexy, so I chose to wear flats instead. I wanted to give my judge a glimpse of who I was. I was hoping she would see that I’m a nice person and a good mom.”
If a custody evaluation is part of your divorce process, Harwood advises to stick with muted tones and patterns. Bold colors, such as red, should be avoided when meeting with an evaluator. “Colors play a role subconsciously for a lot of people,” Harwood explains. “You don’t want to appear as though you are trying too hard. You should have a modest, motherly effect. I like to say if Kate Middleton wouldn’t wear it in front of the queen, then it’s not going to work.”
During any legal meeting, Hapoienu, Miller, Goodstein, and Harwood all emphasize the importance of remaining neutral in appearance. “Do not wear loud colors like neon pink,” Goodstein recommends. “You don’t want to receive a negative reaction. Look well kept and put together. This goes for every piece of clothing and accessory. Do not arrive with really long, offbeat-colored fingernails. It’s a distraction. You can assert your individuality in other ways. This is not the time to do it.”
Most important, before stepping into any legal meeting, regardless of your dress, don’t forget: you’re never fully dressed without a smile.
ESME’s Gia Miller is a Solo Mom to a nine-year-old girl and a six-year-old boy. She writes about health and wellness, medical news, parenting, divorce, and general lifestyle. Her work has been featured in online publications including Paste, Headspace, Folks, HealthDay, and more.
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