Several years ago, students at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism published a story about the decline of professionalism in the legal field, focusing on lawyers who were shockingly rude to people in general.
While most of the charges pertained to lawyers' poor choices of words and phrases, special attention was given to the amount of yelling, badgering and belittling that occurred inside firm walls.
Not all attorneys are guilty, which is why some firms have developed internal etiquette programs to help eliminate negative perceptions. Law schools are dedicating significant time to curbing bad manners before it becomes problematic, emphasizing the role personal ethics play in the practice of law. The ultimate goal is to put an end to arrogance.
Impression management is a flourishing business for etiquette experts such as Gloria Starr. As a corporate and personal image advisor, Starr ranks in the top 5% of consultants worldwide. Members of Saudi Arabian royal family have attended Starr's finishing schools, which span 30 countries and nearly every state in the nation. Companies such as 3M and Hewlett-Packard listen intently to Starr, and now law firms refer to her as a partner in success.
Starr's Executive Finishing School is designed to build confidence and self-esteem through visual presence, corporate etiquette and effective communication. Learning how to showcase talent politely and properly is the key to setting one's self apart from the competition.
The Charlotte, N.C.-based protocol specialist stresses that lawyers need to present themselves with personal marketing techniques in mind: Persona, packaging, positioning, promotion and passion. At the heart of these skills is respect for others, particularly those people in lesser positions in life as well as in the office.
"A lawyer should always act, speak and dress as though he or she is at the top of his or her profession," Starr began. "Look and act like you belong and are proud to be associated with the firm you represent, because you are always representing yourself and the firm," she said.
Starr advises her clients to consider themselves ambassadors for everything they stand for – values, beliefs, principles, authenticity – and to make that system something people know, like and trust. Other advisors to the legal profession argue that empathy is one of the most important actions of understanding a person can master.
The intense spirit of competition between lawyers and firms may be the cause of the etiquette breakdown. As more emphasis is placed on billable hours, client development, recruitment and expansion, an "eat-what-you-kill" attitude is severely crippling to a firm's culture. Similarly, it has been reported that associate turnover is linked to supervisors' lack of compassion and patience. A proper display of gratitude and thoughtful consideration may be judged as much as table manners and appropriate office attire.
"When a lawyer is into tasks rather than people, business will be challenged," Starr continued. "Yes, all tasks need to be taken care of, but your rapport with people and the way you position yourself within the community builds your reputation and your business," she said.
The way in which an attorney displays power is a hot topic of debate, with one side of the philosophical aisle believing intimidation commands respect, while the opposing view stresses that gracious behavior (even during debate) wins every time. While a lawyer's position in a firm must be earned, it may be that the same effort holds true for the status of lady and gentleman.
For more information regarding Gloria Starr and her etiquette programs, visit the agency's Web site at www.thefinishingschool.com.
Brown is a legal marketing executive and the owner of The Write Word, LLC.