Honey, Does This Outfit Make Me Look Unethical?

We’ve talked a lot about dress codes this summer. It’s a topic that just doesn’t go away. Beats me whether the sustained interest in the dress-code issue is due to the super-casual approach of the Gen Y employees populating the workplace at a rapid pace, or to the connection between rising temperatures and rising skirt hems, or maybe to our hyper-sensitivity to attire that the legal profession just can’t seem to let go. The obsession could be a result of any combination of these factors.

And the obsession has made for interesting blogging. We’ve talked about Gen Y’s insistence on meeting the arbitrary standards of fashion as they see it, as opposed to the standard of their particular workplaces. We’ve talked about the current status of the lawyer’s dress-code pendulum. We’ve addressed the role of gender when it comes to setting dress-code policies. And we’ve even managed to tackle some specifics of what not to wear to work—including the invasion of the man-short, a personal favorite.

As hard as this might be to believe—I’ve actually happened upon an even more interesting real-life story about dress codes! And it even involves a lawyer, which definitely gets me bonus points in the “tie-it-all-together” category. Judge for yourself. (Via the Legal Profession Blog).

The Arizona attorney at the center of the story was charged by the State’s Bar Counsel with unethical conduct. The lawyer had to answer to a disciplinary committee and defend the misconduct charges filed by the Bar Counsel. The atrocious conduct at issue? The disciplinary charge alleged that the attorney had employed tactics that had no substantial purpose other than delay and embarrassment. He was also alleged to have failed to abstain from “all offensive personality.”

And here’s the conduct that led to these charges. The lawyer, who was admitted to the Arizona State bar in 1999, and who practices criminal defense, went to a police station to informally interview two police officers involved in a vehicular-manslaughter case. When he arrived at the station, he was wearing a t-shirt that had “Let the f***ing” printed across the front. [Asterisks not included].  He wore the t-shirt to communicate his opinion that his client was at a disadvantage in the judicial system by virtue of the police conduct.” Neither officer commented on the attorney’s fashion choice. image

A prosecutor was also present during the visit. She testified that she was not offended or embarrassed by the shirt. She believed that he’d donned the shirt in an attempt to be funny; although she did think that it was a bit inappropriate. Her supervisor, on the other hand, did not find humor in the shirt or with the attorney wearing it. He ordered security officers to take pictures of the shirt.

And, perhaps to ensure that he wouldn’t be invited to the Maricopa County P.D.’s holiday party, he told another prosecutor that her boss was an “unethical piece of trash.” He made the comment in response to a request for a transcript. He provided the requesting prosecutor the transcript without delay or inconvenience.

Then, in an exercise of the holiday, gift-giving spirit, the attorney later sent a note to the Chief Attorney in the Vehicular Crimes Bureau, enclosing a small gift. The note read, “Kristen, your waiting room magazines required a better selection.” Enclosed was a six-month gift subscription to Modern Drunkard Magazine. The Chief received monthly issues of the magazine as promised but did not put them in the waiting room. She felt it may be inappropriate, given she was the head of the office that prosecuted drunk-driving cases. She did appreciate the humor, though, and was not embarrassed or otherwise imposed upon as a result of the “gift.”

If you are confused as to how these three incidents could rise to the level of sanctionable conduct, you are in good company. The hearing officer recommended that the charges be dismissed in their entirety—the first time in his 25-year tenure that he had made such a recommendation. Maybe the conduct was inappropriate or in poor taste. But maybe not—given the evidence that the intended recipients of his less-than-subtle messages were not offended or embarrassed. Either way, the hearing officer wrote, “on the continuum of inappropriate to unprofessional to unethical,” the attorney’s conduct could be described, at the worst, as inappropriate.

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