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Seeking civility during your job search

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Your potential employers take your professionalism in the interview as a sign of your civility in the practice of law.

You open the glass doors and enter the law firm for your interview. A quick glance around and you notice the office-facing walls act more as windows. Staff smile as they walk around, giving you bright grins and promising looks. You think you’ve hit the utopia of law firms: successful, zealous advocates working in harmony with one another.

Or you notice employees are miserable. People keep their heads down, and attorneys’ office doors are shut.

You hear people arguing behind closed doors down the hall. The feeling of dread comes into the pit of your stomach. The culture at this firm is disheartening. The people are unhappy. The professionalism in the workplace seems to be lacking.

You’ll analyze the culture of a firm as an outsider before meeting with any of the people running the firm. Your gut will tell you whether it’ll be the right fit for you.

Your potential employer will do the same analysis of you. Your resume will get you through those doors. But are your soft skills—your people skills—sharp enough to land the position?

“Although I don’t think hiring professionals are thinking specifically of civility at the hiring stage, they are thinking, ‘Is this a person who will conduct themselves in a professional manner in the office? Is this a person with whom I can have a good rapport and work with for long hours, or is this person a jerk?’” said Daniel Klau, a former litigator and a family court judge in Connecticut.

Whatever practice you enter, you’ll deal with people. At its core, civility, from the Latin word civilis, relates (depending on which dictionary you consult) to being a citizen, public life, and being popular, affable, and courteous. Your employer wants you to be relatable and personable and is watching for these skills before you ever step foot into the office on day one of the job.

Civility in communication

This starts with the first letter or note you send and extends through every step of the hiring process and to every form of communication you use. “That includes responding to phone calls and emails promptly; being up front and candid about, perhaps, conflicting commitments you might have; certainly being on time for meetings or phone calls; and being responsive in any way you can be,” noted Jennifer Mailly, a professor at UConn School of Law and a former litigation associate at several BigLaw firms.

Employers in the hiring process take the way you communicate with them as a sign of how you’ll communicate with opposing counsel, clients, and support staff in the firm.

“The communication piece with clients, also with team members, is critical because that’s what makes the firm alive,” explains Liz Goss, an immigration attorney in Boston. “It’s what makes the firm operational.”

When hiring associates, Goss said she doesn’t just look at a resume for professional experience, but she wants to see experience related to customer service. “It could be, ‘I worked in the cafeteria during undergrad’ or ‘I did catering,’” she stated.

“How have you dealt with external customers or clients and their angst? How do you deal with their stress when you’re trying to get your piece communicated and across?”

In any job, you deal with different personalities in different settings and situations.

Employers and potential colleagues watch how you communicate in different scenarios as they judge whether you’re the right fit. “It’s always important to keep our focus on the issues and not on the personalities and to conduct ourselves in a professional manner,” said Klau. “That means always being polite and not getting into loud, verbal fights, obviously, but it’s really synonymous with professionalism.”

People note your actions

When you’re not being verbal, you’re still communicating—and others notice what you’re “saying” with your actions.

“I remember being in a cab once with an attorney from the firm with which I was working, and the way this particular partner treated the cab driver appalled me,” recalled Mailly. “Just the tone, the attitude, the arrogance, the belittling behavior.”

The partner never treated Mailly this way at work, she added. But the experience gave her a new perspective on how that partner treated others. It made her realize the potential for “very uncivil, inappropriate behavior” she said.

Firms have to work to create a civil culture, and one aspect of that is how it handles people who are uncivil to co-workers. “Jerks who are full of themselves, egotistical, and abrupt in their manner are quickly weeded out,” said Klau.

As a partner involved in the hiring process at McElroy, Deutsch, Mulvaney & Carpenter, Klau said there were many occasions where candidates’ academic credentials may not have been the best among the pool of applicants, but the way they treated people as colleagues got them the job offer.

Klau’s partner, Louis Pepe, who was also the chair of the Connecticut Board Association’s Task Force on Professionalism (Civility), said there are also instances where your attitude could make or break your chances of getting an offer. “I’ve recommended rejecting an applicant because of his or her attitude in the interview,” he stated. “But it’s really difficult in the interview itself to get a handle on how that person is going to treat others. Obviously, the applicant is on his or her best behavior.”

The professionalism you display as a potential employee may help you get the job, but the real test comes when you’re placed in an adversarial situation. “You may have a Jekyll and Hyde situation where Dr. Jekyll is a very lovely person who’s very warm and collegial, but in the courtroom or on the phone with opposing counsel, they become your Mr. Hyde,” said Mailly.

Civility can be taught

When you get on the job, employers can work to teach you the basics of civility, and professionalism can be the baseline.

“The characteristics of civility and professionalism are pretty basic and almost self-defined,” said Klau. “The particular way in which you display professionalism in court and in depositions—even just in telephone conversations between counsel—is something that really comes from working with experienced colleagues who repeatedly stress to the new attorney the importance of behaving professionally with adversaries.”

Mailly said certain aspects of the job demonstrate civility. Judges notice the behavior of attorneys that gives rise to discovery motions and sanctions motions.

If opposing counsel files for a reasonable extension, how will you react? Much of the civility shown in practice stems from how senior lawyers train associates and the base personality of each associate.

In transactional law, you’re dealing with many different personalities and working within different corporate structures. Your ability to adapt will lend yourself to approaching those situations with civility.

“Being able to deal with that external customer satisfaction—the client communication piece—not everybody has it,” said Goss. “Not everybody has that skill, and not everybody’s thinking that’s a necessary skill, especially when you’re thinking about transactional law or administrative law.”

Make your own assessments You should be judging your prospective employer as they judge you.

“That’s an issue for students looking for jobs,” said Mailly. “You need to get the skinny, so to speak, on the legal departments or law offices you’re looking into.”

Some practitioners model highly adversarial and borderline inappropriate behavior as a means to achieve their legal objectives, she said. “There are certainly law firms that are known to encourage civility among their associates and partners,” she noted. “And then there are other law firms that have a reputation for being less civil, perhaps, even less collegial among their own employees.”

Just as potential employers will look for qualities of professionalism and civility in you, you should be doing the same. How do partners interact with associates and clients? Do they email you back in a timely fashion? Have you noticed how they deal with stress?

Look at how senior lawyers demonstrate civility or their lack of it in court and in dealing with other lawyers, and don’t assume that to “win,” you have to be uncivil. “Being civil isn’t inconsistent with being a zealous advocate,” according to Klau. “We all have an ethical obligation to be zealous advocates. But you can be a zealous advocate and remain civil.”

And consider the size of the bar in which you choose to practice. In a smaller bar, lawyers have a higher probability of interacting with one another in a future case. If you don’t practice civility, it could come back to bite you. In larger bars, it’s more likely that you won’t deal with many other lawyers, which could leave no incentive to be civil. Some lawyers may make the calculation that there’s no need to have a good relationship with a lawyer they won’t see over and over again.

“I think some of that reflects the fact that some lawyers see a lack of civility as a litigation strategy, as a strategy to gain advantage for their client,” said Mailly. “They don’t necessarily see that as a lack of professionalism. Rather, they see that as the exercise of professionalism in zealously representing their client.”

Before you meet a potential employer, you’ll be critiqued on your communication skills. You’ll be judged for the way you interact with potential employers as you sit around their conference tables and in their offices. They’ll notice how you treat staff, and they’ll analyze your personality for fitness within the firm.

But as they evaluate your credentials, you should be evaluating theirs. A firm’s hiring process doesn’t necessarily reveal what they consider civility as a matter of practice. “You may not have seen this when you interviewed at these firms because everyone is generally on their best behavior when they’re hosting potential hires,” said Mailly. “But there are places that certainly have a reputation for their lawyers and staff being less collegial and less civil to one another.”

Two things to watch

So how do you know when a law firm values civility? Pepe suggests first researching the firm’s reputation. “If you know the firm is full of what some call junkyard dogs, that may be something the firm cops to as a marketing tool,” he said. “Perhaps you don’t want to be there.”

Also research your potential colleagues and what they’re known for, Pepe advised.

The other, admittedly more difficult, way to judge a firm would be during the interview process. However, you can do things like ask if the firm offers training and mentoring on the rules of professionalism beyond mandatory continuing legal education for substantive doctrinal areas of the law.

“I think it’s entirely appropriate for applicants to ask partners you interview with, ‘What’s the firm’s position on the rules of professionalism?’” said Pepe. “Does it consider those rules of professionalism important?”

Pepe contended that, in the end, you don’t want to work at a firm that doesn’t value highly the requirements for civility and professionalism. “I promise you, in the long run, you don’t want to be there,” he said.