The single most frequently asked question of my witness consulting work, “What should I wear when I take the stand?” is also the last thing I advise on during witness preparation. This seemingly simple question requires a careful understanding of both the witness and the trial narrative in order to present the right picture to the jury.
There are some obvious answers to this question, which don’t take an expert trial consultant to offer: what you wear should first and foremost show respect to the court and all who work there. It must be true to the witness’s station in life and work. It shouldn’t unintentionally set the witness apart from the jury in terms of class or economic status. Conventional grooming and meticulous hygiene is essential. Hair styles and facial hair should be styled and trimmed to reveal rather than minimize the visage. The clothing must fit to the witness’s current weight and body type. These are basic and they go a long way to getting it right.
How appearance enhances credibility, bolsters your trial themes, and reveals character takes a level of sophistication to address. Credibility is the appearance of congruity in what we do and say and how we appear. When all of those elements are in concert, then the person will appear to be integrated, sincere and perhaps speaking from their core. Within this frame, appearance must support the story and the biography of the speaker – a successful, older businessman will dress in a traditional suit, tie and wing tips. A young tech executive may modify this uniform to match contemporary standards. Both types stay true to stereotype and expectations. Unless your trial themes are about defying expectations, you don’t want the jury to be wondering why a wealthy businessman is wearing khakis, a short-sleeved shirt and loafers. Deviations from the norm create questions, and we don’t want the jury wondering about anything that we are not purposefully and intentionally directing them towards.
What your witness wears should support your trial themes and refute the plaintiff’s. If a doctor is accused of sloppy surgical technique, her wardrobe should reveal how meticulous she is: crisp colors, highly tailored suit or dress, well-polished shoes, traditional jewelry. Everything should read “careful, clean, neat, and intentional.” If, on the other hand, a doctor is being accused of neglect because he didn’t care enough, then one might consider softening his look via the silhouette or the color palette, e.g. a jacket and trousers in warm, muted colors or softer fabrics, or a friendly tie, for instance.
The last aspect of “dressing the witness” has to do with revealing a part of their character which might not otherwise come out in the testimony, but is essential that the jury observe or experience. For instance, we once worked with a victim of an airplane accident who had sustained a significant head injury and lost a lot of her executive functioning. She was a proud, beautiful woman who refused to let her guard down or publicly admit how depressed the after-effects of the accident had made her feel, and how difficult her life had become with this new disability. Her status, intellect and work ethic were important, but they were evident from her testimony. Her dyed black hair, bright red lipstick and highly preppy, tailored look did not reveal what a confused, broken woman she was- — she hadn’t been able to hold a job down since the accident. We advised her to let her hair go natural, wear what she wears now to her home office, go without make-up, and let the jury see who she really had become as a result of the accident. This was a critical aspect of her courtroom appearance and told a truth that was otherwise hidden.
On one hand, one must stick to the obvious — dress to the stereotype and enhance the most positive aspects of your witness’s character and “story.” On the other hand, one looks to reveal what might not be obvious from the outside or from the testimony.
The balance of these two aspects of “costuming” can only be achieved from a careful understanding of the trial narrative, the witness’s testimony and personality, and the important trial themes from defense and plaintiff perspectives, as well as the jurisdiction and jury pool.
With all of these elements in harmony with their appearance, your witness is already on the road to testifying success.
By Gillian Drake OTA, Inc.