By: Matthew Chung (The Lawyers Weekly)
Did you hear the one about the summer student who licked her fingers before shaking hands with a lawyer? Or the articling student who, when asked to choose a wine over lunch with a client, went with a $300 bottle? Or the lawyer — â€‹and everyone knows this person — â€‹who kept checking their Blackberry during a meeting?
During her 12 years as an etiquette consultant, Lisa Wright has heard them all — â€‹stories of lawyers making etiquette mistakes in and out of the office.
“Often I was called in as a result of an unpleasant incident,” says Wright.
More than most companies, law firms are concerned with how their employees project the company’s image, Wright says. That’s why so many invited her in to present one of her etiquette workshops. But even in firms that aren’t formally coaching on etiquette, lawyers can ill afford to commit protocol errors.
At the very least, bad etiquette will reflect poorly on you in the eyes of your colleagues, says John Ohnjec, division director with legal staffing firm Robert Half Legal in Ottawa.
Bad etiquette in the office “could definitely have consequences,” Ohnjec said. “Professionalism within a company and a firm can definitely affect your opportunities for advancement.
“You may be a great worker but if you’re seen as somebody who doesn’t have the common sense to work in an office, it may hold you back.”
Robert Half Legal’s parent company, Robert Half, has even produced a series of over-the-top YouTube videos on office etiquette called “Don’t let this happen to you.”
The videos cover everything from a guy who clips his toe nails at his desk, the co-worker who constantly steals someone’s cupcakes and an associate who starts poking fun at a client they think has hung up the phone. Those videos are sure to garner a few chuckles, but they are riffing on reality. Most of us have had experience with a co-worker who displayed “inappropriate behaviour,” Ohnjec said.
Aside from the traditional etiquette disasters, the ubiquitous smartphone, use of social media and instant communication provide an array of new opportunities for blundering, whether it be hitting “reply all” on that snarky email you intended for just one person, or being the one with The Final Countdown ringtone that goes off during team meetings.
Some firms try to address etiquette issues through policies. For example, at Mississauga, Ont.-based firm Pallet Valo LLP , a code of conduct policy acts as a guide about “how to stay professional while working within a friendly, collegial, warm environment,” said Frances Wales, the firm’s chief operating officer. “People need boundaries. That’s what I see our policies as. If you don’t put boundaries, how will people know when they cross the line?”
There are policies for the use of social media associated with the firm, policies to help ensure clients waiting for a meeting don’t end up hearing about one of the partner’s weekend plans, policies that aim to deter gossiping — â€‹even a policy on when it’s OK to interrupt someone who is in their office (hint: If the door’s just ajar, only interrupt if it’s urgent).
“Good etiquette is about…saying please and thank you and about trying to be helpful and working together,” Wales said.
Sometimes, though, no policy can prevent someone from blundering, particularly in social situations, Wright says. The Etiquette Advantage’s most popular workshops focused on first impressions and small talk.
“Lawyers tend to be introverts,” she says. “When they do studies, they are kind of academics. It’s not always the easiest thing to meet people.”
For social events, Wright coaches falling back on rituals to help calm yourself down, such as smiling, making eye contact, shaking hands and asking the person questions about themselves — â€‹“What’s it like being a criminal lawyer today?”
If you forget a person’s name, which Wright says often happens “right off the bat,” try asking for it again rather than letting any awkwardness linger. Drop your name into the conversation a little later on too — â€‹“And my husband said, ‘You’re an amazing navigator, Stacy.’”
“People will love you if you spare them from embarrassment,” Wright says.
To people who wonder, with all these rituals, “What about my individuality?” Wright says save your eccentricities for later.
“They have to like you and they have to trust you,” she says. “For a new job, you go to the interview and you become a good representative for the company but once you have been working at a place a little while you know the people you can goof around with and even the clients. You just can’t do it right away.”
But Wright urges forgiveness when people do get nervous and make mistakes.
She notes that walking up to a stranger and starting a conversation is second on the list of social fears, after public speaking. That might help explain why that summer student with her fingers, still sticky from handling an appetizer, panicked when the lawyer who hired her approached.
“I said, well maybe next time, just say ‘Sorry for not shaking your hand’ and explain the situation,” Wright says. “A wet handshake is always a bad idea.”