As an assistant state attorney in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Brenda Taylor was never shy about making a fashion statement while stating the prosecution’s case. The curvaceous blond with the scarlet painted fingernails routinely came to court in body-clinging suits, jungle-print dresses and stiletto heels. After all, to look good is to feel good, reasoned Taylor, 25, who assumed that her courtroom appearance was no problem so long as she got the work done. Then, two weeks ago, after just eight months on the job, she got a pink slip that didn’t go with her wardrobe: Taylor had been summarily fired.
For the record, Assistant State Attorney John Countryman advised that Taylor be canned for shortcomings of substance—tardiness, absenteeism and mishandling cases—rather than for the shortness of her skirts. But Taylor angrily insists she is being persecuted for not looking like a frump. Countryman, she charges, had told her “that I look and talk like a bimbo” and “that I give the appearance of being a man hunter.” Digging in her finely honed heels, Taylor, who is unmarried, had filed a sex discrimination claim two weeks before she was fired in an attempt to establish her right to dress as she pleases. “I’m supposed to dog out when I come to work?” she asks. “When you take your oath to become an attorney, you don’t have to swear that you’ll wear blue or gray.”
Perhaps not, but by refusing to dress for success, Taylor attracted more than her share of attention around the Broward County courthouse. Within a few months of her arrival in the prosecutor’s office last January, the shortskirted Taylor and her alleged habit of sitting on desks and swinging her legs in the courtroom became the subject of secretaries’ and other legal staffers’ gossip. When State Attorney Administrator Rita Ennis decided to investigate the rumors, she says she found Taylor wearing a dress that was “quite tight and short” and “not at all proper.” Ennis reported her findings, and the case against Taylor gathered force. Supervisor Deborah Zimet accused the lawyer of missing courtroom appointments, keeping shoddy records and negotiating “unorthodox” reductions of charges against the drunk drivers she had been hired to prosecute. Taylor’s former boss, Assistant State Attorney Fred Lauten of Orange County, weighed in by publicly criticizing her performance and attire as an assistant prosecutor there last year.
Taylor dismisses the allegations as “trumped up or minutiae” inspired in large part by her discrimination claim. In her defense against the bimboism charge, she does boast some impressive credentials. Born and raised in Fort Lauderdale, Taylor was an exceptional student who skipped her senior year of high school to attend Virginia Wesleyan College on an academic scholarship. She was on the dean’s list at the University of Florida College of Law and graduated in 1986, fulfilling her childhood dream of becoming an attorney. Now that she is one, Taylor refuses to conform to what she considers a sexist notion: that professional women should dress like men. “I’m not trying to be seductive, but comfortable and fashionable,” she says. “If clothing is an extension of your personality, then mine says I’m bright and aggressive. That’s what a trial attorney is supposed to be.”
Indeed some of Taylor’s colleagues have rallied behind her. “I always found her work to be competent and professional,” says Broward County Court judge Susan Lebow. Defense attorney Helene Raisman sympathizes with Taylor’s attempt to overturn the assumption that high fashion equals frivolity. “As attorneys we have to use every asset we have,” says Raisman. “Body language is important. I don’t see how it should be any different for a prosecutor.”
Since her dismissal, Taylor has forged ahead with her legal crusade. While waiting for her discrimination hearing—sometime within the next two months—she says she is considering a civil suit against Countryman. Taylor has also been zipping around town in her Mustang convertible, presenting her case to local newspapers, radio and television stations. In the meantime, in the modest two-bedroom apartment she shares with court reporter Joyce Stevenson, 25, her pink telephone, which is shaped like a high-heeled shoe, has been ringing continually with requests for photo sessions and with calls from admirers wishing her well. More than anything, Taylor is anxious to find a new job and return to court as a defense attorney rather than a prosecutor. “Maybe a little adversity will hang in the air and people will say, ‘That’s the bimbo lawyer,’ ” she says. “But when they go to trial against me, they’re going to find themselves wishing that that’s what I was.”
—By Paula Chin, with Lona O’Connor in Fort Lauderdale