On the matter of lawyers’ suits

Published: August 15, 2012
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The writer is a lawyer based in Lahore with the law firm of Bhandari, Naqvi and Riaz. He graduated with a law degree from LUMS

The writer is a lawyer based in Lahore with the law firm of Bhandari, Naqvi and Riaz. He graduated with a law degree from LUMS

The popular character of Barney Stinson in the TV show “How I met your mother” religiously wears only suits due to his personal belief (which is actually a widely prevalent belief in the modern world) that suits are symbolic of professionalism, power and class. That is why in countries such as the US, the term ‘suits’ is a commonly used metonym for lawyers or officers of the law.

In modern-day Pakistan, the black and white suit is the well-recognised uniform of the lawyer. The British Raj introduced this court dress in South Asia and this tradition has been upheld by the Pakistani legal fraternity, albeit with some minor variations (such as the doing away with the wig).

The origins of the modern-day suit can be traced to the 19th century Regency Britain, an era, characterised by inter alia distinctive trends in British fashion. One of the trends in fashion was the simplification of the elaborately embroidered and jewelled formal clothing of the nobility into a much more comfortable formal wear. This led to the conception of the modern day suit, which eventually became a strictly followed formality in the subsequent Victorian era. A lot of factors can be taken into account for this change in fashion such as the decreasing power of the nobility and the need for a new up and coming industrial elite to be accommodated in the corridors of power.

Coming back to Pakistan, we find ourselves dutifully following the British tradition left behind. Pakistan is a tropical country, which has a blazingly hot and prolonged summer and a brief and mild winter. Lawyers are forced to face the onslaught of soaring temperatures and suffocating humidity during the summer season at the courts, the conditions of which are exacerbated by the poor infrastructure and the constant loadshedding. On top of this, lawyers are forced to wear a black suit (black being the best absorber of heat). Needless to say, a person of average strength or perseverance does not last long in these courts.

This brings me to a question that has been rarely, if at all, asked amongst the legal community: why do we still wear this uniform? There are only two arguments that I have heard so far in support of this policy, which are: 1) it’s a universal symbol of the legal profession; and 2) it’s a long-standing tradition and the uniform has become recognisable in society as that of the lawyer’s. It will not be uncommon to come across aged, stalwart lawyers who will consider it absurd to even think of changing the uniform. They stringently believe that if they, along with several generations of lawyers, could make it through such conditions then why can’t the young lawyers of today make it through as well? They will be quick to point out the weak nature of today’s ‘kids’ and how spoilt they have become.

The problem with this argument is that if we extend this logic to other aspects of the legal field, then lawyers should not be making use of computers for drafting court documents, researching or storing data because our ancestors were able to practice law without such innovations. If we were to expand on this logic even further, then we should not be driving cars to court because our ancestors used to brave the sun’s heat and commute on bicycles. The argument is simple: if we can make things easier for ourselves, then why don’t we?

We need to overcome our misguided belief regarding the universality of the Western legal system (and in this particular case, the British one). Tradition, in most cases — not just with the lawyers’ uniform — is oppression masked under the grand narrative of necessity and inevitability — a facade that prevents the victim from recognising the ultimate ‘truth’ of his oppression. In simpler words: we do not NEED to follow the British or the ‘universal’ example when it comes to the dress code of the courts.

There is precedent for changing uniforms of a profession. Take the Indian police for example. The Indian home ministry is planning on overhauling the traditional khaki uniform, which dates back to pre-independence times. The rationale behind this change is that the current get-up, along with the khaki fabric, make the existing uniform uncomfortable for the police, especially during the summer. The government plans to introduce a new weather-friendly and comfortable uniform and is floating all sorts of designs to facilitate this process.

What I propose is not even that drastic a change that will shake up the country’s legal framework. The legal community needs to shed the current uniform and adopt a new weather-appropriate style of formal wear. As explained, the suit’s origins can be traced to the need for clothing to be more comfortable in a formal environment. We cannot simply wait for changes to occur in the outside world and then accept them. We need to start innovating ourselves. I am no designer and to be honest I have no sense of fashion; however, I do not believe that coming up with a new uniform will be a problem. We can come up with something that is tethered to our cultural heritage. For that, we will also need to overcome our deeply ingrained dichotomy of Western clothing representing progress and our traditional dress (such as the shalwar kameez) representing backwardness. We need to overcome this national inferiority complex that we suffer at a subconscious level, of not being capable of innovating or setting a new precedent.

In my opinion, if we are able to achieve that (at least with our lawyers’ uniform) then we can be at the threshold of reconstructing a new, more culturally connected and logically sound society. This change can lead to a domino effect that results in the recapturing of other areas of society and public discourse that are being dominated by the colonial mindset. But for now, the suit does not suit us.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 16th, 2012.

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Reader Comments (17)

  • Javed
    Aug 15, 2012 - 9:39PM

    What a waste of time reading this article. The author wants t the lawyers to get rid of the western dress and sends his photograph wearing a suit on. What hypocrisy!

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  • Mirza
    Aug 15, 2012 - 9:56PM

    Sir, are you trying to confuse things with logic? A good practical solution by the author.

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  • Imran Con
    Aug 15, 2012 - 10:30PM

    Did I seriously just read an article of a man complaining about having to wear a suite to a job he knew he’d probably have to wear one for the whole time he was after the degree? I don’t think I’ve ever been one of the people to ask why something is made an article at all but I have to join the club. Why is this a front page article and how did someone manage to actually make it this long and drawn out? I’m sure every reader of this site asks themselves every day “why do those poor lawyers have to suffer in a suite and tie?” then from waking up until going to bed just keeps having the same thing going through their head “someone needs to do something about the lawyer dress code. their misery is unjust. God, where are you? That poor man is sweating while he’s working!”

    The only interesting article about legal dress code is the enigma of how the big white wig on judges ever even came to be something someone considered a good idea. I know they don’t wear them here, though. Now that is a dress code change to be proud of.Recommend

  • khaldun
    Aug 15, 2012 - 11:00PM

    Oh Tribune editors, I plead with you to please spare us with these inane lectures from legal eagles. Please solicit articles from other professionals.

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  • Mirza
    Aug 15, 2012 - 11:21PM

    I thought in the hot climate of Pakistan wearing a black coat even in the worst days of summer is not normal and against common sense. In copying the British masters we have forgotten it is always cold in their country, while it is mostly hot in Pakistan. Like doctors, or lab workers they can have a light color coat and not necessarily black. May be it is because of this black coat, many lawyers are always angry and do despicable things and act like hooligans.Recommend

  • sabi
    Aug 16, 2012 - 12:10AM

    Author
    I accept your idea for dress- code change only to a section of lawyers voilating code of ethics.this gentel dress does’nt suit them haha.
    To me, pakistani aethlets wearing shalwar-kameez in olypics,didn’t impress at all.
    Regards.

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  • Waiting
    Aug 16, 2012 - 12:44AM

    I actually quite like this piece, but I do have to say lawyers must have a lot of time on their hands since they write so many articles!

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  • Arsalan
    Aug 16, 2012 - 7:20AM

    Terrible idea. Replacing the suit with a sleeping suit aka shalwaar kameez will not solve the problem. Changing clothes and trying to be different just for the sake of it will make no difference. One can wear a suit and achieve great things for Pakistan, and one can wear a traditional shalwar kameez and do great damage to our culture and our country.Recommend

  • gul bahadur
    Aug 16, 2012 - 10:03AM

    They would remain the LIER with or without the black dress.

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  • Bhagwal
    Aug 16, 2012 - 12:46PM

    The writer has pointed out a very important issue where lawyers are required to wear black suit with tie in hot and humid conditions. We have been following British traditions blindly but fortunately Army, Navy and PAF uniform has been improved and amended many a time.

    Apart from discomfit it is indecent to wear suit and tie in public places like courts where people with meager resources wearing basic clothing are required to interact with the lawyers.

    In summer times Japanese are encouraged to avoid wearing tie to save on cooling requirements and in Israel Doctors don’t wear tie as being a germ carrier. In fact tie is the most useless item of attire which has no function except self projection (one cant even wipe his face/nose with it).

    I will request lawyers community to please think over it. Moreover, I am grateful to the writer for writing such an important issue.

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  • Bhagwal
    Aug 16, 2012 - 1:03PM

    @Javed:
    sorry it is very rude comment

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  • OS
    Aug 16, 2012 - 1:13PM

    Our lawyers should wear what befits their behavior. In this case that would be haute couture ala Taliban.

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  • nida
    Aug 16, 2012 - 1:18PM

    agreeed with the weather issue. absolutely valid. but the main weather problem arises only for three months. during the rest of the year… it is pretty much bearable. and to be very honest, the argument about it being the identity of lawyers is absolutely valid. takes ALOT TO change the image. and as for shalwar kameez, i am just going to assume a huge backlash from within the lawyer community.

    however, i do believe that they can make the fabric lighter. u have a variation of fabric. yes the suits may become a little pricey, but that is the best reconciliation point, that i can realistically think of.

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  • Madiha
    Aug 16, 2012 - 2:25PM

    The author raises a valid point. Given this country’s weather conditions, wearing black suits day in and day out is brutal. This article is brilliant because the foreign-copied uniform is indicative of a bigger problem – how our legal system is a faded version of the British legal system. Over the years we have tried to mix it with the Shariah only to produce even more drastic and confusing results. As long as we try to copy the west or anyone else for that matter we would mess up the philosophy behind our institutional structures.

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  • Aug 16, 2012 - 2:35PM

    Good article! Yes, high time lawyers discarded this archaic tradition.

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  • Abid Mehmood
    Aug 16, 2012 - 3:28PM

    This problem is specifically concerned with legal fraternity so this article should be published in available legal journals. However being a lawyer I agree with the idea but the only concern with the dress code is climate friendly as current dress is socially accepted & a smart dress as well. Shalwar qameez is out of question because of being a relaxed (loose) dress so does not suites to any professional person.

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  • Aug 17, 2012 - 7:50PM

    Indeed, Black and white suit culture is to large extend illogical. However, you did not give alternative dress code. we need solutions rather than only being critical. WHAT ELSE WE AS LAWYERS SHOULD WEAR THEN? A normal shirt with dress pant. This sounds even more misappropriate.

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