Guilty of bad fashion: Lawyer’s book highlights what not to wear in court

Published February 14 2018
Updated February 14 2018

LARGO — Want to make a good first impression in front of a judge?

Don’t wear a red shirt that says in bold, black letters: I’M NOT LAZY, I JUST REALLY ENJOY DOING NOTHING. The same goes for that matching hat dotted with cannabis leaves.

And even if you’re a proud American, it’s probably best not to wear that T-shirt with the bald eagle that says, "Sorry, I can’t hear you over the sound of my freedom!"

Ditto on any hobbies. Keep the "Fetish Con Dungeon" shirt at home.

St. Petersburg lawyer Bruce Denson has seen it all at the Pinellas Justice Center and other courthouses, and he has documented the questionable fashions with photos on social media under the hashtag #whatnottoweartocourt.

They’re now also featured in his recently self-published book, "Lawyer Up! Work Smarter, Dress Sharper and Bring Your A-Game to Court."

"While I know the photos attract attention, the point of the photos is not to make fun of anybody," he said. "It’s to make people think about the decision of what they wear to court."

He started noticing what people wore about five years ago, when he was standing in line at the courthouse entrance in Largo.

The man in front of him was wearing a black shirt with an orange pattern, emblazoned on the back with a curvy, old English font that read: DEATH DEALERS.

"I just took a picture standing there," Denson said. "I posted it on Instagram or Facebook and immediately got a lot of likes."

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Days later, he saw another man wearing a shirt that read, KEEP ONE ROLLED.

"The guy was back in court a month later,’’ Denson said. "Same shirt."

Denson, a criminal defense lawyer who also teaches professionalism seminars, said the book is geared toward new lawyers but also experienced ones who need a refresher on how to thrive in the legal field, from knowing a judge’s pet peeves to achieving a work-life balance.

Among his advice: Appearances matter, whether you’re the lawyer or the client.

"If I’m speaking to a jury, they’re going to size me up before I start talking," Denson wrote. "If I arrive late to the courthouse, unshaven and wearing a wrinkled dress shirt, one of my goals is defeated before I even take my seat at counsel table."

For lawyers, that means wearing socks, a point that is emphasized in the book with various photos of exposed ankles in the courtroom.

And then there’s the public. Before snapping a photo, Denson said, he asks permission. He has gathered from conversations with some of these courthouse visitors that they’re trying to make a statement.

"This is their interaction with government and their chance to say something," he said. "I think most people think when you have something important at stake, like your liberty or your driver’s license, you’d be wanting to make a different impression."

Contact Laura C. Morel at [email protected] Follow @lauracmorel.