Business Etiquette Answers for Today’s Legal Professionals

By Mary Crane

For someone who has facilitated business etiquette programs in law schools and law firms across the country, I hesitate to share this simple but very true fact: I hate the term “business etiquette.” Too often,  when new or established lawyers hear this term, small hairs on the backs of their neck begin to rise. Cringes often follow. “Business etiquette” conjures up the image of a little old lady, wearing safe and comfortable shoes, who criticizes the way others sit, eat and communicate.

It’s not how I like to think of myself—or of this very important topic.

I often tell my clients that I couldn’t care less whether they know all the rules of what I call “fish fork etiquette.” The truth is, you can know those rules and still be the rudest person around. I do care that professionals acquire the best manners possible, because good manners can help them land a client, build a team, and even close the really big deal.

Following are 10 things every lawyer needs to know to ensure they bring their best manners to work.

  1. Working with external clients.

Successful lawyers never forget that external clients are the lifeblood of the profession.  Without them, no lawyer has a job. Clients must always feel treasured like the valued people they are. Whenever a client is present, give that person 100 percent of your attention. End all personal conversations, phone calls, emailing, texting, and the like. Yes, put away your smartphone and any other electronic devices.

  1. Working with internal clients.

Most lawyers rely upon a series of internal clients (junior lawyers, paralegals, administrative and support staff) to help facilitate their work.  Look for opportunities to demonstrate that you respect the contributions they make to the workplace. When you enter the office, stash away your ear buds and acknowledge others who you encounter. Avoid interrupting when they speak. Because every email represents an interruption, avoid unnecessary emails or texts.

  1. Communicate.

Share all critically important information relevant to a matter with external and internal clients in a timely manner. When in doubt, more sharing beats less. When exchanging information, use the recipient’s preferred method of communication.  Don’t even think about texting a client unless he or she has texted you first. And please never create an automatic voice-mail reply message that says, “I don’t respond to voice-mails. Please email me instead.” (Yes, I know of at least one young professional who had created such a response.)

  1. Be on time.

Always demonstrate your respect for others and their time by arriving for meetings and other events promptly. True professional are never “fashionably late,” defined by one urban dictionary as “the refined art of being just late enough (5 minutes or so) to give the impression that they are a busy, popular person who was held up with other business.” Professionals with good manners do not focus on creating the impression that they are “busy” or “popular.”

  1. RSVP to invitations.

As soon as you receive an invitation to an event—a quick business lunch, a firm-wide retreat, an industry conference—check your calendar and confirm your availability. Then, quickly decide and communicate whether or not you will attend. Please do not wait for a better offer. If the invitation requests an RSVP, contact the host or hostess immediately. Once you have indicated that you will attend, only an absolute emergency excuses your absence.

  1. Dress appropriately.

The attire you wear to the office creates an impression that extends to the entirety of the organization. Always dress in a manner that reflects well upon you and the other legal professionals with whom you will work. Your attire should also demonstrate your respect for any clients with whom you will interact. At a minimum, every professional should: avoid dirty, stained, torn or frayed clothing; avoid clothing bearing words or images that others might find offensive; and avoid clothing that reveals cleavage, excessive chest hair, whale tails and plumbers cracks.

  1. Manage business meals with grace.

Although business meals are more social in nature, they remain business events. Just as you should arrive on time for every meeting to which you are invited, you should arrive on time for every business meal you attend. No matter what your hunger level may be, plan on ordering two courses. Then, match other diners. If they opt to skip an appetizer, you should do the same. Avoid the most and least expensive item on the menu. Avoid any item you don’t know how to eat as well as any item that might be messy to eat.

  1. Practice active listening.

The most successful lawyers I know ask thoughtful questions and then engage in active listening, and they do so whether they are discussing a merger with the CEO of a corporate client or interacting with staff in the mailroom or copy center. Whenever possible, put aside your smartphone and ask open-ended questions that allow others to express their thoughts and feelings. Listen to their responses. Ask appropriate follow-up questions. A simple, “How are you doing today,” can help build loyalty and respect.

  1. Mom was right:  “please” and “thank you” remain magical words.

Long ago, many of us were taught that “please” and “thank you” are magical words that can open doors. They remain so. You will never err by using these terms, and using them in the normal course of your interaction with others helps position you as a classy person who possesses genuine manners. Please do make the time to say, type or text these important words in their entirety. Millennials tell me they hate messages that read “thnx.” As one young person noted, “If they can’t bother to type out ‘thanks,’ why write it at all?”

  1. Become familiar with cultural nuances.

We have fully moved into a global economy. Consequently, today’s legal professional faces the prospect of working with many people raised in cultures far different from their own. When you work for an international firm, make an effort to learn from your colleagues who are based abroad. They can help you identify the level of formality you should bring to business discussion, appropriate attire for a specific location, and potential verbal and nonverbal communication issues.

About the Author

Mary Crane is the owner of Mary Crane & Associates, a law firm consultancy, and the author of “100 Things You Need To Know: Business Etiquette.” 

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