Why I Don’t Wear a Tie in Court

Scott Holmes, a Quaker lawyer from Durham North Carolina, felt led to stop wearing a tie in the courtroom. This is his story of exploring that leading and its implications.

Jon Watts

Jon Watts launched and directed the QuakerSpeak project for its first 6 seasons. Keep up to date with Jon’s work at his website.

28 thoughts on “Why I Don’t Wear a Tie in Court

  1. As a teacher facing a new school year in a Delaware public high school, I have been debating whether to continue wearing a tie. There is no requirement for us to wear one here; about half of male teachers do. The primary function of ties is to model the look of professionalism to students, and perhaps to signal some authority. Is that akin to “oppression” in some subtle way?

    Several of my colleagues eschew the cravat in order to be friendly and relate-able, to establish a good casual rapport with these image-conscious teens. Does this establish more equality, I wonder? I try to respect each student, to connect with “that of God” in each. In invite children at my meeting to call me “Paul”, but I quickly dismissed the notion here at work.

  2. When he spoke about “something so arbitrary as wearing a tie,” I felt a bolt of lightning pass through me. For something so arbitrary as being a man wearing a dress. For something so arbitrary as being yellow or black skinned. For something so arbitrary as being an unmarried father. The list goes on.

  3. Thank you so much, Elliott Robertson. The wearing of a tie, color of skin, and/or length of hair is arbitrary. Unfortunately, in this 21st Century many US citizens cannot help but live by arbitrary rules and beliefs. What is happening in Ferguson, Missouri is an example.
    I didn’t realize what white skin meant until asked if I could work with an African-American, in an interview for a Virginia Cooperative Extension position, a few decades ago. My immediate response was to mention two Kenyans worked with in graduate school. Yet, what they actually questioned was ability to accept the head of my graduate committee at Penn State, Dr. William L. Henson. Work with him, in Agricultural Economics, had nothing to do with family heritage or skin color.
    Plus, being a teacher growing hair for others, made it difficult to be accepted in rural public schools. Some students even thought they were downgrading me by renaming me, Moses or Jesus. To others it was simply Mr. K, not even realizing the arbitrary gender bias of Mr., Mrs., Miss, and Ms., in American English.

  4. Sorry I don’t but this one. Interesting but somehow he using spiritual reasons to accommodate not wearing a tie.

    The best video was Quaker vs Amish. The professor was clear and distinct. I left with a sense of “i need to explore”

  5. Hi Scott….I was moved by your video, interested that it was so clearly a “leading” as opposed to a “statement” or a “message” such as those we read about in the papers every day. As it happens I’ve been talking to my granddaughter (age 14) of late about clothes, and this is very helpful.

    I’m wondering…are you a relative? My grandfather was Jesse Herman Holmes of Swarthmore Friends (a Quaker active in AFSC and Westtown School) and the family roots go back to Nebraska. Just curious….

    Thanks Again,

  6. Honestly, sometimes I despair about what some Quakers consider to be proper behavior. Here is a Quaker lawyer who runs the risk of antagonizing a presiding judge, therefore possibly jeopardizing his client’s case, over the bizarre issue of wearing a tie. This Friend should have had his client’s best interest as his primary concern. If he decides to bear the consequences of a judge’s wrath alone that is his business, but it appalls me that he drags his client along with him on his ego trip. I have been involved with Friends for many, many decades and I have never heard of refusing to wear a tie as one of the Quaker attributes. I do believe, however, that treating other people decently and acting unselfishly should be one of the highest Quaker virtues. If not wearing a tie is of paramount importance to this Friend, he should seriously consider a different kind of law practice —one in which he does not represent another person’s interest in a court of law.

    1. Here! Here! My first thought was not about Scott’s duty to not wear a tie, but rather respect for the court, and second about his obligation to his client. Really Scott, consider priorities and what is moral and ethic. Finding spirituality in a tie (or other forms of uniforms) just seems off. While he may be a terrific and competent lawyer, I would probably make another choice.

  7. While Scott’s concerns about wearing a tie are sincere, it stuck me how we lay stories on ideas and practices that are not necessarily the only way, in this case a practice, can be experienced. As I listened to Scott realized that I saw “the dress code” as a practice of respect. Respect for the justice system as an ideal and respect for the people working in, or impacted by, the system. In my case I have begun dressing more formally when I attend meeting for worship. For me, the extreme casualness of dress by many and the number of people showing up late have come to symbolize how lightly we treat worship. Like Scott’s story, a story that would not be true for everyone, but one that leads me to change my behavior.

  8. Regardless of whether a decision to choose one’s courtroom attire is Spirit-led, the fact remains that it is the client who is put in jeopardy by the attorney’s choice. As a criminal defense lawyer and capital defender for 35 years, and a Quaker for far longer, I represent clients who are already marginalized and vilified by the criminal justice system and many jurors. My expressions of individuality must take a back seat to the imperative that I do everything within my power to maximize my persuasive force in advocating the client’s cause. Criminal defense lawyers are often in a credibility hole with prosecutors, judges and jurors. If you want to represent society’s darlings, by all means, forego a tie, or wear a cheap suit or an inappropriate dress. But if your loyalty is first and foremost to a poor client’s cause, package yourself in such a way that your message stands the greatest chance of being heard by the factfinder. We don’t have the luxury of doing otherwise.

  9. I have always been uncomfortable with those that use belief in Quaker theology as a cover for un-conventional behavior.

    When people show up at our Meeting in shorts, tees or ragged clothes I feel that they have dis-respected those that have not. I am not referring to financial means. These are people that will wear denim or chinos and a sport shirt to work and come to meeting in rags.

    I feel the same way about this tie. What is the big deal! I have met many men that would not wear a tie to their own funeral. I had a Son-in-Law that refused to wear a tie at his wedding and my daughter was in a traditional wedding dress.
    So it seems to me that Scott did not like wearing a tie and used the excuse of religion to get out of it.
    Some of the original Quaker practices that were germane in the 1600’s are not now. Swearing, in court to tell the truth, nothing but the truth, so help you Hannah is an example.

    But, this is just me. I will be a tolerant Quaker and say if he doesn’t want to wear a tie, don’t. Just don’t use something this minor to take a religious or moral stance. I also happen to feel that a man with a beard is just to lazy to shave but that is another item.

    BTW, I wear a tie often. Sometimes when my wife and I are out and I want to look especially nice because she does the same for me.

    1. Very thoughtful. It really is disrespectful of others. Sometimes you need to be uncomfortable to see what is respectful and not use convient excuses

  10. I strongly endorse Jodie’s statements. Before asking any client to assume the risk of being at a disadvantage because their attorney has chosen to dress in a manner that is not consistent with the “dress code” of that court the attorney should, at a minimum, warn the client of his practice at the time he is retained so that the client can decide whether he or she wants to hire an attorney who has this baggage. People whose clients are not able to pick and choose their attorney (such as persons represented by a public defender) should be particularly cautious about imposing the costs of their philosophies on their clients.

    I understand that here the motive was not simplicity but an attempted message of equality. In general, though, the “plain dress” idea generally leaves me confused about why the emphasis is upon how one looks rather than the economic/ecological/etc. impact of the clothes one acquires. For instance, I am far more worried about whether the clothing I purchase was manufactured under conditions that are fair to the workers than I am about whether I look like an old timey Quaker. I am also concerned about things like how long they will last and whether they will need to be dry cleaned. I am concerned about whether they contain some corporate logo for a company whose practices I deplore.

    As an attorney who frequently appears in court there are some practices I have modified due to my Quakerism. For instance, instead of “swearing” to tell the truth I ask to be given an oath of affirmance (one that just affirms that my statements are truthful and that I understand that if any are false I will be subject to the penalties of perjury). This accommodation is routinely done for lots of people. Instead of following the 1700s practice of addressing the Judge and other “high ranking” people with familiarity I try to address everyone formally (e.g., Mr. Smith, Ms. Jones, Detective Holmes, Judge Brown) — an effort to treat people of all ranks in the same manner by elevating all.

  11. I think the most powerful element of this video is the leading. While lobbying in DC last year I donned the ‘political garb’. As an educator and teacher it was awkward giving up my jeans, dress shirt and tie for a suit. I started to evaluate the history of the political and ‘business’ garb. What was the norm at what historical time period and why? The choices Friends made in garb erased many of these concerns and simplified life. By recently transitioning to a simple consistent wardrobe for work I have found an ease in my attire and appearance.

    The principle of simplicity can be very mysterious, but leads us to question the norm as those Friends before us did. Have no doubt that they came under similar scrutiny for their ‘unusual’ habits. I felt Scott was very sincere, and was even amused by the hat choice since I am in a similar place.

  12. Hi Friends,
    This is my 40th year teaching Industrial Arts to special education students. Special education students I have taught have been Deaf, Deaf-Blind, physically challenged, mentally challenged, psychologically challenged, behaviorally challenged, socially disadvantaged, multi-handicapped, severely and profoundly physically and mentally challenged between the ages of 5 to 21.
    When I started teaching was the first year of the Guaranteed Education Act of 1975 (92142) of the United States.
    Teaching Industrial Arts for 40 years ( wood shop) is a challenging subject with many safety concerns for all. Now add into the mix ALL my students are special education students. Each year we produce 2000 educational toys, two 14′ canoes that are real sailing canoes, mass production projects such as, eye glass holders, beach chairs, clocks, folding tables, stools, racks, baskets, horizontal and vertical shelves etc. that the students take home. More advanced students create and make individual projects such as, chairs, rocking chairs, clocks of all sorts,including grandfather clocks, coffee tables, end tables, kitchen tables, futons, cabinets, dressers, dog houses, table games etc. If they can dream it we will build it.
    Now to the ties. In 1999 students some of our regular high school and middle school students were coming to school as if they were going to the beach. So in the place of education, distractions and safety needed to be addressed. Our school district, Manchester Township Public Schools, Whiting NJ (Ocean County) needed to act on this trend. A fair dress code was introduced to the students. The students accepted the dress code and through their Student Council a dress code for the faculty of our district was asked for. Now both have a dress code, male teachers are strongly encouraged to wear a tie.
    In the shop loose clothing can be dangerous, long ties included. I have known many Industrial Arts teachers who wear bow ties. Palmer Sharpless of George School, Industrial Arts teacher is one. I have taken this a little further in the bow tie world.
    I make and wear carved wood bow ties that are made of all different species of trees. This speaks to the diversity of wood, much like the diversity of students. Students ask me many times what kind of tree or wood are you wearing today. So I have included a dress code into an educational topic of interest.
    About every 4 years students ask if they can make one and we do. So a learning experience of diversity , natural beauty, craftsmanship, pride in doing and knowing WOOD is WONDERFUL.
    As a side note I was given the honor of being named the 2015 Teacher of the Year for the Regional Day School at Jackson.

    1. still don’t buy not wearing a tie in court. Its a matter of respect. While others may think otherwise, a judicial court is not an industrial workplace where a tie might get caught up in machinery.

      1. If you want I a wood bow tie, I would like to send to one. You can state it follows the querie of Stewardship of the enviroment and the diversity of all God’s creations.

          1. Yes! Very crafty. Sorry I’ve been very busy which really is. Not a valid excuse. A donation in your name is being made to a no-kill pet shelter.

  13. I have to commend Jeff Bishop. I did receive not one but two wooden bow-ties, handcrafted and “smart” looking. I did make a donation to a non-kill animal shelter in Jeff’s name.

    The bigger issue, not relating to Jeff (such an honorable man), still goes back to Steve and his dilemma of waring a tie to court. This may seem on the surface like a silly issue, but clearing it has deeper issues of respect for the institution, respect for the client, versus respect and dignity for self. Steve seems to have resolved his person issue, but still has missed many larger issues. I guess with age and maturity he will find a clearer solution. BTW, Jeff Bishop I think has solved the problem is a very homespun and practical way, showing how God has many avenues to express respect and dignity of the individual.
    Anyone who wants a niffty and well make wooden bow tie (two styles) should contact Jeff. You won’t be disappointed! Wear it with pride…not too much..and realize its the thought not the material being.

  14. I appreciate Georgia Lord’s comment the most of all.
    I’m a medical malpractice lawyer in a quite power-conscious town where the powerful people dress expensively. But, unlike Scott Holmes’ experience in the video, I find that Federal court judges are often the ones more interested in actual respect than in the traditional symbols of respect – less interested in being called Your Honor rather than Judge, more willing to be humorous or speak plainly … so long as you don’t go too far in return and address them like drinking buddies. The state judges are the ones who play politics or campaign for election to get their job, and they seem to feel it defines the respect they’re due. The least talented and fair judges often seem to demand the most signs of respect.
    I’ve never dared go to court with a blazer instead of a suit, let alone tieless. And I never felt the need to, though I do affirm rather than swear in affidavits and when “taking oaths.” But my Quaker colleague has a suit of clothes as plain as Scott’s shirt in the video, complete with gray Quaker hat that he does not want to remove. More like the Quaker Oats guy than George Fox, but plain and sincere anyway. The chief judge of the district, after hearing the story of his style of dress, wrote him a note opining that he ought to be permitted to appear thus. My friend calls it his “hat license.”
    So I agree that the test is in the leading one feels from the transcendent level. I myself am led to show respect when that showing is sincerely appreciated and in the manner it’s appreciated. To respect my clients, I put on my suit coat to meet them. To respect a jury, I wear a suit when presenting to them. If and when rapport, understanding, and respect are established, I’d feel more free to dress more plainly … but I still don’t feel the leading to do so for its own sake.
    To respect my own Meeting, I do dress plainly. My clothes are “everyday”: clean though maybe old, harmonious though maybe colorful. To respect a wedding, depending on the couple and their families I may even wear a tie in the meetinghouse! If it feels sincere, I’ll do it.

  15. The history of ties is that they were originally scarves worn when going into battle.

    This alone makes a tie a symbol of war and and something one can simply disagree with on those grounds. I’m surprised the history didn’t come up in this conversation.

    1. As an aside, I received a hand made set of wooden bow ties from the original poster. As an aside, the same concept was featured on Shark Tank. No relation, just interesting

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