The Bar: Still Skirting the Past

The Houston Bar Association takes a page from the past

Three decades ago, a woman wearing a pantsuit in a Houston courtroom might have been considered mildly controversial. But as feminism found its way into the good ol' boy legal system, dress codes relaxed. A new generation of Houston women lawyers, including legendary divorce attorney Burta Raborn, argued their cases in such attire and, more often than not, won.

Which may explain the amazement of a female attorney about the Houston Bar Association's current employee dress code, which requires women to wear skirts to work. This source also notes that 27 percent of the HBA membership is female.

"It looks like the guys still have it their way," wrote our tipster. "And the women in the legal profession are asked to pull up their panty hose and show some leg."

Association president Amy Taylor, a trial attorney herself, confirms the skirts-only policy -- and even endorses it.

"There are people in our bar who would be very offended by seeing women in slacks," explains Taylor. "Frankly, we try to err on the side of being more conservative and hopefully not offending too many people."

Taylor argues cases in court and says she would "never, never" wear a pantsuit.

"You may offend a judge by showing up in pants. You'll never offend a judge if you're a woman and you show up with a skirt on."

Likewise, the bar's women staffers must follow the same strictures.

"It's basically better safe than sorry," says Taylor. She notes that the HBA executive director set the policy but she and the organization's board back it.

"The business of the bar is a business of substance, and it's dealing with people in the community and our members," says Taylor. "I don't want anything our staff wears to distract from that."

Several local female lawyers had trouble believing that an organization they belong to could maintain such antiquated policies.

Sue Schechter, chair of the Harris County Democratic Party, says the bar is trying to turn back time.

"I clerked in the courthouse in 1976, and women lawyers were wearing pantsuits then and trying lawsuits," recalls Schechter. "Don't tell me somebody's still fighting this battle. Give it up! It's over."

Jan Fox, a civil attorney and past president of the Texas and Houston trial lawyers associations, was equally baffled.

"It's indefensible at this point in time to require a woman to wear a skirt versus a pair of pants," says Fox. "Whether you are dressed appropriately depends not on whether your legs are showing. That has nothing to do with whether they can read and write and argue a case."

As for Taylor's distaste for wearing pants in court, Fox says it comes down to a woman's right to choose.

"I have certainly seen, day in and day out, top-notch women lawyers come into court in slacks. They are in the boardroom. They are in the courtrooms," Fox says. "I remember this was an interesting discussion in the '70s, but we are now almost 30 years hence."

Coming soon: The Houston bar debates the merits of separate drinking fountains.

 
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