At any given point in law school, you have probably heard someone tell you this or have read it somewhere already. But what does it mean? Why do you need to “act professional” if you are not working in a law firm yet? Well, professionalism is about much more than job interviews and office etiquette- it is a philosophy that applies to you at every stage of your legal career. If approached from this angle, between interacting with your peers and faculty, you will be well trained in how to be professional as an attorney.
Even before you are in law school, if you aren’t acting professionally when you interact with admissions staff, you are not helping your chances. In this scenario, professionalism entails using proper email formats (formal openings, sentence structure, word usage, etc.), being prompt in returning phone calls and emails, and practicing appropriate interview etiquette (handshakes, eye contact, follow-ups etc.).
Your Reputation in Law School
The impressions you leave on people are critical once you are in law school as well. Your classmates are your future colleagues; thus you begin to create your professional reputation on day one. Yes, law school is school, but it is definitely not just three more years of college. Look at law school as three years to learn what you need to know to be an attorney while learning and practicing how to be one as well.
On a basic level, professionalism in the legal field is all about how you present yourself and how you treat others. Politeness and respect are keywords. Your classmates will remember you if you are rude and obnoxious and this will affect your career when your classmates encounter you later on. If you are rude to one person and they tell almost everyone in your class about it, chances are that later in your career you will work with at least one person from your graduating class who remembers you as “that rude person.” That’s not the reputation you want!
Interacting with Attorneys
Transitioning into the professional world after law school, some of the basics of professionalism come back around, including interview etiquette, business dress, and interactions with professionals. You should have no excuse for not having interacted with attorneys at a professional level before. Why not? You have three years of law school professors! Like your future employers, professors often demand certain standards of behavior including meeting deadlines, communicating effectively, asking questions for clarification, following through, and showing initiative, just to name a few.
Other than a time to cement a positive reputation, law school also gives you a chance to practice constructive discourse with others. As an attorney you will have to think through problems and potential solutions, try to understand the big picture, maintain calm and confidence in a crisis, and reassure teammates and clients when they fear failure.
When professors say they are trying to get you to think like a lawyer, take that to heart! When you are in your study groups for an exam, talking over a case, picture yourself doing so in an office meeting room with a group of fellow lawyers, not students. If you were in this situation, how might your behavior change? You might adjust your posture, control your presentation, and be very courteous when disagreements are raised, for example. Do this in the study group scenario as well! Organize your presentations, make effective fact-based arguments, and treat others with civility. Being a student doesn’t mean you should use slang, yell at your classmates who disagree with you, and haphazardly present cases. Practice is everything, and if you want to be a successful professional, practice while you are in law school.
How You Can Start Being Professional Today
If you feel that you are behind in establishing yourself as a professional, don’t worry- there is still time. If you have made enemies, go make peace and try to start new. If you have been too casual, make the conscious decision to begin approaching your interactions with professors and classmates in a professional manner (when appropriate, of course, we are not saying you can’t have fun with friends outside of class!!). Look at law school as an invaluable three years in an environment where you can learn and practice the skills you need to be a successful attorney. These skills do mainly involve academic knowledge, however, being an attorney is very much a social profession too! Professionalism is something you have demonstrated in the past to get to law school, something you can practice during law school, and something you will always need after law school too.
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Other helpful interview tips:
- What to Wear to Professional Legal Events
- How to Ace Your Law Firm Interview
- Job Hunting 101 What Makes You Unique
- Behave Like a Professional in the Legal Workplace (podcast)
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