My first job practicing law was at North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services. My clients had legal issues that ranged from incorrect sentencing calculations to horrid jail conditions to injuries sustained from falling off of a bunk. I liked the variety.
I also liked that my work took me to a variety of prisons and jails. You learn a lot about a society by visiting their institutions of incarceration — and you learn a lot about yourself. One day, I drove to a prison in the Sandhills of North Carolina, I parked in the unpaved lot, got out of my white jeep, and headed towards the front gate. I looked for a visitor center or at least a guard station but didn’t see one. “What’s your business?” a man yelled at me from the guard tower above. I yelled back “I’m here for a lawyer visit.” A bucket was lowered by a rope down to me. I put my driver’s license and N.C. bar card in the bucket and up it went. In a few minutes, the bucket came back down with my cards in it, and the gate opened. I thought “what is this, Cool Hand Luke?” as I walked through the gates in my cowboy boots.
When you are a new lawyer, you think about what persona you want to project. For some, particularly men, a dark tailored suit is the epitome of success. Men who want to project the image of a small town southern lawyer wear a seersucker suit. In the 1990s, women lawyers were just coming into their own. We took the traditional lawyer suit and “feminized” it as a way to project power in our own way. Some wore blouses with bows tied at the neck. Some accentuated their sensuality with short skirts.
To the classic skirt suit, I added cowboy boots. Perhaps the relationship between power, confidence and cowboy boots was imprinted upon me as a child. Many of my male relatives wore cowboy boots. Or perhaps the brother of one of my death row clients had it right when he said to me when leaving court in 2005, “I now know why you wear boots in court: you have a lot of crap to wade through.”