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Ask the Hiring Attorney: What does it mean to ‘be professional’?

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Professionalism

Q: I’m a first year law student. I keep hearing people say it’s critical for me to “be professional” when interviewing or working. That I need to “look professional” and “act like a professional.” But I’m not even sure what that means!

A: Rest assured, you’re not the only law student who is confused!

Those of us who’ve been in the workforce for years sometimes forget what it’s like to be a first year law school student. We throw about terms like “professional” and “professionalism” and forget that many law students – particularly those who started law school directly after college – have never worked in an office setting. We assume you know what we’re talking about. And, of course, that’s not always fair to you.

When we talk about professionalism, we’re talking about a few things, all of which work together to demonstrate that you are trustworthy and competent. As you’ll see, they are also indicators of an overall mentality.

At its most superficial, professionalism is about appearance. This means that you’re dressed and groomed appropriately for the workplace, which in turn demonstrates you understand and respect workplace culture. For many legal offices, “professional appearance” means conservative, formal office clothes. In other words, a well-made, dark suit (for job interviews, client meetings, and other events) and perhaps office casual. (What “office casual” means is the subject of another entire column!) “Professional appearance” also includes hair styling, makeup, jewelry, shoes, and accessories.

To get a sense of what “professional appearance” looks like, you can visit law firm websites. As you start your job search and start working, err on the side of formality; you can always loosen up later.

Second, professionalism is about behavior. This means that you behave appropriately for the office place and as an employee representing your employer. We sometimes refer to professional behavior as “office etiquette” or “business etiquette.” This includes shaking hands with people when you meet them, good posture and body language, use of formal English in oral and written communications (rather than, for example, slang and emoticons), politeness, treating people with respect, and good table manners.

It also includes being a good office citizen – being respectful of your employer (e.g., not taking office time and resources for personal use), being considerate to your fellow officemates (e.g., by making a new batch of coffee when you finish the pot), and not causing a disturbance to those around you (e.g., by listening to loud music, talking loudly on the phone, or telling offensive jokes).

To understand good office etiquette, you need to understand what’s expected of you. Watch carefully when you’re in the workplace. Who is respected and liked? Why? What behaviors do people complain about? Why? As a general rule, though, remember the workplace is a shared environment – not your dorm room – and the people you share it with could have an impact on your career for years to come.

Third, professionalism is about temperament and demeanor. Are you reliable, confident, and trustworthy? Do you listen carefully? Do you ask questions when you need direction or clarification? Are you detail-oriented and careful? Do you meet your deadlines? Do you keep your supervisors informed of your progress (or difficulties) on assignments? Do you follow through and show appropriate initiative? Do you think through problems and potential solutions? Do you try to understand the big picture and how your role fits into it? Do you radiate calm and confidence in a crisis, able to handle not just the emergency itself, but also able to reassure teammates and clients?

Having a professional temperament can be one of the hardest parts of “being professional.” Professionalism doesn’t have to be – and shouldn’t be – phony. Professionalism should be part of who you are.

Professionalism is more than this laundry list, however. At its best, professionalism is an overarching philosophy focused on delivering outstanding service and helping clients achieve their goals. Professionalism isn’t just stylistic; it’s also substantive. A professional has good, sound judgment. A professional thinks through complexities and nuances, understanding the Big Picture as well as the details. A professional anticipates problems and needs and then devises solutions, thinks through alternative paths to goals, and provides clients with advice they can understand and put to use. A professional isn’t satisfied with second-rate work and half-efforts; a professional strives for more.

When you are a high-level professional, every aspect of your work conduct is governed by this overarching philosophy, including subordinating your personal desires and schedules to your clients’ goals, whether it’s meeting deadlines, fulfilling promises, or achieving objectives. Said differently, professionals internalize their clients’ needs and goals and make them their own, i.e., you succeed when and because your clients succeed. (Keep in mind that as a law clerk or entry-level lawyer, your “clients” may include both your employer and your supervisor.)

With experience, you can achieve this high level of professionalism. In the meantime, start to practice the basic elements of professionalism concerning appearance, behavior, etiquette and demeanor discussed above. They are both indicators of high-level professionalism as well as training to get you there.

A version of this article was originally published by Bloomberg Finance L.P. Reprinted with permission. The opinions expressed are those of the author.

Shauna Bryce Shauna C. Bryce is a graduate of Harvard Law School with 20 years in law and legal careers. As a nationally recognized lawyer career coach, she works one-on-one with executive-level attorneys in Global 100 law firms and multibillion-dollar businesses in the U.S., Europe, and Asia, as well as regularly presents to groups of lawyers, career coaches, law students, and others. Her advice column, Ask the Hiring Attorney®, inspired by what general counsel and partner-level clients said they wish they had known while they were in law school, was originally published by Bloomberg Law. She’s the author of the How to Get a Legal Job® series and Bryce Legal® Career Advice for Lawyers blog.