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Law and Order: The Evolution of Professional Etiquette

Law and Order: The Evolution of Professional Etiquette on

Times they are a-changin’ – but do manners remain the same?

There is no doubt that professional etiquette is important; a certain level of decorum is expected, particularly in the legal profession. After all, if you want to be respected, it’s important to be respectable, and manners help make and sustain a favorable impression.

However, society seems increasingly casual. Does that mean it’s acceptable to lower the standards of etiquette? In a world of smartphones, internet slang, dress down days, and digital everything, it may sometimes seem that formality and tradition make you an outsider.

Mind your manners

Generally, rules are like vegetables – good for you regardless of if you enjoy them. Etiquette is usually established to encourage a polite society; for making people feel as if they are a collaborative part of the community, and like their presence is important.

Whether you’re talking to your assistant, a prospective client, or a judge or jury, professional etiquette gives you the polish that commands attention and lays down subtle ground rules that indicate how you would like to be treated in return. Here are some etiquette rules that are non-negotiable:

  • Make an appearance: Your clothing is your first line of defense when it comes to presenting yourself as a respectable professional – dressing like a professional is also easy enough to manage. In the legal profession, overdressing is better than underdressing when you’re on the job. Establish the idea that you take your work seriously by dressing the part.
  • Solid introduction: Be bold about introducing yourself; be the first to offer up your name and a firm handshake in new social situations. Casually repeat the person’s name back to them in the ensuing conversation – not only will it put them at ease, it will help you remember it in the future. Offer a business card and pay attention when you accept theirs; hold it in both hands, and read it (polite, and again, a good mental cue for future recall) before putting it into your purse or wallet. Many may think business cards are becoming outdated in a world of digital data, but their continued use helps establish a professional impression, particularly as they become rare.
  • Respect your staff: Don’t forget that your employees make your everyday life easier through their work, which is reason enough to treat them well, but they also have inside information on the type of person you really are and can become your ally or enemy when it comes to word-of-mouth marketing. Say “please” and “thank you,” practice patience, put your earbuds and phone away in the presence of others, and be generous when expressing appreciation.
  • Phone etiquette: Not only should you handle calls professionally, but you should also manage your smartphone. Don’t check the internet, silence your ringer to avoid interruptions via notification, and give the person in front of you your full and undivided attention. One slightly evolving trend in business is the use of text messaging – for appropriate purposes (scheduling and follow-up, for instance), and with the use of professional language and grammar, text messages are no longer taboo.
  • Value time: Time is money, and as someone who likely bills by the hour, you know the full weight of that statement. Arrive early, RSVP promptly, communicate needs and expectations quickly, and understand that there is no such thing as “fashionably late.” Respect the time and attention of others, and they will be more likely to do the same.
  • Watch your words: Act with integrity both on and off the clock. Don’t gossip to ingratiate yourself to others, and proceed with great caution when it comes to getting involved in hot-button topics like religion or politics. If you participate on social media, be careful about what you post – attorneys have been fined for publicly insulting judges. Make sure what you share is informative, factual, polite, and professional; your career could depend on it. Also, be sure to carefully proofread your emails for appropriate tone, timing, and grammar. Although online communication can feel casual, email etiquette is still important.

Professional etiquette doesn’t differ drastically from the basic rules of respect you learned in elementary school: be kind, follow the rules, keep yourself tidy, say “please” and “thank you,” and respect the time, space, and attention of others.

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