The art of professionalism – Four simple steps to help you transition from student to practitioner

Desiree Moore is the president and founder of Greenhorn Legal LLC. Greenhorn Legal offers intensive practical skills training programs for law students and new lawyers as they transition from law school into their legal practices. Moore is also an adjunct professor at Loyola University Chicago School of Law and was an associate at the law firm of K&L Gates. She can be found on Twitter at @greenhornlegal.

Law school is, by definition, a professional school.  Still, if you are like me, you spent much of law school lounging around in sweatpants and socializing with law school classmates (and studying, obviously!).  As you transition from law school into your legal practice, you will be expected to have mastered professionalism and to project professionalism in all instances.  More importantly, your ability to act in a professional manner early in your career will define you – and will define the impressions you leave on the people around you.

Whether you are interviewing for a legal position or you have begun your legal practice, here are four easy things you can do to ensure that you are perceived as a true professional:

1. Dress like a professional.  As simple as it may seem, your attire is an exceedingly important aspect of your professionalism.  This is the very first impression you make, before anything else.  For interviews, without exception, you must wear a suit.  Several days in advance of your interview, be sure your suit is clean and pressed (and that it fits you!).  Likewise, if your workplace observes a “business” dress code, or for any formal business occasions (for example, client meetings, court hearings, depositions, etc.), wear a suit.

If your office observes a “business casual” dress code, this calls for something slightly less formal than a suit.  Still, your attire should be traditional and conservative.  Flashy, quirky or otherwise inappropriate attire is never well received in a professional environment.  Also, wear your clothes well.  Avoid wrinkles and tuck in your shirt.

If you dress the part of a lawyer and a professional, you will make meaningful first impressions and build your credibility from day one.

2. Be mindful of your demeanor. Much like attire, mastering the proper demeanor in a professional environment will be central to your success.  In interviews and in your practice, take care to act in a formal, professional manner.  With this said, you also want to approach your office interactions in a relaxed, natural way.  Your demeanor should reflect that you are serious about your work but that you are also an open, friendly person.  If you can demonstrate by your demeanor that you are both of these things, your colleagues in the legal profession will respect you and want to get to know you.  Finally, as a new lawyer, you will be well served by expressing enthusiasm at the prospect of working on any case, deal or project that comes across your desk.  Enthusiastic lawyers are more pleasant to work with, and in turn get more work!

3. Hone your interpersonal skills. Finding success in a professional environment depends in large part on capitalizing on our own personal strengths and minimizing our weak areas.  In a legal environment, in particular, where you are expected to work closely with colleagues and clients, honing your interpersonal skills is a must.  While not everyone has the same interpersonal qualities, there are a few rules to live by.  In all instances, be reasonable and even.  Do not display extreme emotions and do not take frustrations out on anyone (this includes your administrative assistant – the best way to get in trouble as a new lawyer is to treat staff in a disrespectful manner).  Ask your colleagues about their work and their interests.  Steer clear of office gossip or any office dynamics that you are not comfortable with.  Keep your personal drama out of the workplace, too.

4. Master your practice. Finally, in an effort to demonstrate professionalism in a legal environment, it is important to master your legal practice.  Now, this is not something you can do right away, or all at once, but you should be working toward this every day.  As a recent law school graduate (and after having studied for the bar), your knowledge of the black letter law will never be better.  Capitalize on this and build on it.  Make yourself marketable (if interviewing) or indispensable (if you have already secured a job) in the early years of your practice by staying on top of the technical aspects of your job and showing growth from month to month and year to year.

Follow these guidelines and – even if you have to work at it at first – you will project professionalism to your peers and superiors.  Over time, it will become second nature.  (And don’t worry – those sweatpants can get plenty of use on the weekends.)

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