A 1991 study by the National Law Journal suggested that 25 percent of all jurors are influenced by the lawyer they like the most. That's why Robert Hirschorn, noted jury consultant, says that attorneys should never dress so as to call attention to themselves.
"Women," he says, "should avoid wearing low-cut blouses or short skirts, and men should avoid wearing gold Rolex watches and diamond pinky rings." Marcia Clark, prosecutor in the O.J. Simpson mega-trial, was criticized for everything from her hairstyle to her skirt length.Although Hirschorn's advice is conventional legal wisdom, it has come under challenge from three highly popular TV law shows -- "Ally McBeal," "The Practice" and "Law and Order."
Not only does Ally, the glamorous but wispy 34-year-old woman who practices law for the quirky Boston firm of Cage and Fish, wear micro-mini skirts in the courtroom, she is a neurotic, lovesick whiner with a rich fantasy life who inevitably says and does the inappropriate.
In one episode, she was charged with contempt and jailed by a judge who was furious that she persisted in wearing short skirts in his courtroom. But she also demonstrated the expertise to win the case before she was locked up.
Ally is surrounded by other quirky lawyers, several of whom meet for gossip sessions in their ultra modern unisex bathroom.
As wacky as it is, "Ally McBeal" has become unusually popular among both the public and critics, who rewarded it last year with a Golden Globe award.
"The Practice," another brainchild of "McBeal" creator David Kelley, is more serious most of the time, but Ally's occasional cross-over appearances sometimes bring "The Practice" to a more whimsical level.
"Law and Order" is unquestionably serious, and it's the most interesting to critics because cases on the show often go bad, as in real life, with the prosecutors losing when it seems they should win.
Even with the high ratings these TV shows are getting, not all women lawyers are impressed. Most Utah women lawyers interviewed for this story have low regard for "Ally McBeal," although some like "The Practice." "Law and Order" easily ranks as their favorite (though "Law and Order's" lead female attorney, the breathy Angie Harmon, was formerly in the cast of "Baywatch").
Women in law have a hard time imagining a woman, even a single one like Ally, working on cases from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m., having time to drop by a bar for a beer and still get enough sleep to bill 12 hours the next day.
Other attorneys are concerned that trials and appellate oral arguments mysteriously pop out of the air at Cage and Fish and the other TV firms.
Most women attorneys interviewed believe there is no Ally McBeal-type character practicing law anywhere in Utah -- certainly not in those teeny skirts.
It just may be that they protest too much.
Lisa Peterson, from Van Cott, Bagley, Cornwall and McCarthy, likes "Law and Order" but still sometimes questions its realism. "Ally McBeal is a fun show but almost nothing like the actual practice of law." Peterson hates the unrealistic portrayal of courtroom scenes, where "attorneys and judges are always saying things they would not really say."
In addition, says Peterson, there is more research and writing in the practice of law than anything else, and a lawyer can go weeks without entering a courtroom. She says most of the women lawyers she knows are married with families -- "and I don't know ANYONE who wears skirts as short as Ally's."
Tacy Hardman, also of Van Cott, Bagley, Cornwall and McCarthy, thinks "Law and Order" is superior to "Ally McBeal," especially in its depiction of plea bargaining, although the producers "freely extend the principle for the sake of the plot. Ally McBeal is just nutty."
Susan Peterson, an attorney at Jones, Waldo, Holbrook and McDonough, says she spends so much time trying to get her little kids to bed in the evenings that very little time is left for TV. In the rare instances that she catches a TV law show, she finds it quite entertaining, precisely "because it's so different from what I do."
Barbara Townshend of McKay, Burton and Thurman, is fond of "The Practice," but she thinks the plethora of emotion on the part of attorneys and judges is unverifiable. "Throwing a brief at a judge, for instance, which they did on one episode of 'The Practice' -- I've never seen that happen."
Susan Black Dunn of Dunn and Dunn says, "Ally McBeal is an extremist. Most lawyers here in Utah are fairly conservative. In some of the Women's Lawyer meetings, we talk about dress, but the issue of short skirts doesn't even come up."
Dunn says, "Many women attorneys used to think they should wear a female version of a suit, but that is changing. When I started practicing law in 1982, I even wore a stupid tie sometimes."
Dunn says real sidebar discussions are much more formal than depicted on TV, with a court reporter keeping a record. "Some of the things attorneys on TV say to the judge we'd be thrown in jail for."
Ruth Lybbert of Dewsnup, King and Olsen says, "The quirky people are all in one place on TV. The exceptional cases happen every week! My gosh, if I came to court dressed like Ally McBeal, the attention would be on ME, rather than the client or the cause I represent."
Lisa Michelle Church, attorney for Sinclair Oil, says the TV law shows "are a lot juicier and more entertaining than the daily life of a lawyer." She says, "If you combined what happens in one law firm in one year, you could probably get enough interesting material for a single one-hour show."
Church considers McBeal "an entertaining character, very stylized, very impressionistic. As far as saying, 'she reminds me of my friend, so and so' -- I don't think so."
On the other hand, Church does not consider a woman attorney wearing a short skirt to be an abominable sin. "At first, women used to try to dress like men in the courtroom. It's good they feel the freedom to be more individual now."
Church likes the way TV depicts ethical dilemmas, such as admissibility-of-evidence questions and whether someone should be legally charged with a crime.
Susan Hunt, a young prosecutor in the Salt Lake District Attorney's office, says she is offended by "the speed with which TV cases go through the system." She is bothered by the depiction of plea bargaining on "Law and Order," in which the attorneys, the judge and the defendants gather in a conference room to resolve their problems. "It doesn't happen," she says.
Rebecca Hyde, a young, stylish attorney at Watkiss, Dunning and Skordas, freely admits she does watch TV law shows, and thinks the most realistic is "The Practice."
"I think they've done a good job explaining the role of a criminal defense attorney and the difficulties it presents. 'The Practice' is fairly good in that it demonstrates some of the flaws of the criminal justice system and the times cases are prosecuted for political reasons."
Hyde sees Ally McBeal as conflicted. "She's vulnerable, somewhat naive, has that doe-eyed look and yet at the same time, she's a good attorney. I don't know anyone who successfully pulls that off."
At Ray, Quinney and Nebeker, Elaina Maragakis likes the writing on "Law and Order" and thinks it is the most realistic legal show, one backed by sound research that is convincing to real attorneys.
Maragakis, who does civil litigation, says that emotional disputes are not common in civil cases. "It is never as traumatic as it is depicted on TV, and the interaction between attorneys is exaggerated. I never see those explosive arguments."
Maragakis admits to having watched "Ally McBeal" only once, and it was because someone forced her to do so. "It drove me crazy. I kept saying, 'That would never happen,' and by the end of the show the man I was with was saying, 'I'm never watching Ally McBeal with you again!' "