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20 posts from July 2010

July 31, 2010

Little Toe Peep

1739517803_118c22fa85_b This doesn't have the gravitas of whether Chelsea Clinton should change her last name now that she's gotten herself hitched, or whether Bristol should have taken back Levi after he badmouthed the Palins, but it's a hot subject in the circles I travel in.

What's the topic du jour? The peep-toe shoe. More precisely, whether women professionals risk losing credibility and respect by exposing their toes in the office.

It might not seem worthy of debate, but I can assure you that passions run strong on this one. 

Waiting in line in the ladies room at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel recently, I heard this discussion: "In my day, I always wore pumps to court," said in a woman in her fifties. "Can you believe this associate went to court with open-toe shoes?" Her companion shook her head, then asked: "How did she do?" The first woman replied, "Her work was good, but her shoes weren't right."

On one side are lawyers who say it's always bad form to show your toes. "Toes and feet are either unattractive, or, in the rarer case, maybe sexy," says a lawyer who's worked at several high-powered firms. "I don't want to look at someone's toes in meetings or at work, and I also don't think it's appropriate to flash the sexy red-toe pedicure at work either." 

Another friend, who just picked up six pairs of Manolos at the summer sale last week, says that kind of conservative attitude is nonsense. "If it's fashionable and tasteful, why not?" she asks, as she looks down at her new strappy tan sandals.

New York might be an epicenter of style, but don't count on the the city's lawyers to be trend leaders. Former Cahill Gordon associate Kat Griffin, the founder of Corporette, says corporate culture "frowns" on peep toe shoes: "Peep toes are marginally better than flat-out open-toe shoes, but even then a closed- toe shoe is the preference." Her advice: "Don't wear open-toe shoes unless you've seen a much more senior lawyer do it."

But to lawyers in California, the peep toe is totally acceptable. "Here in L.A., everyone seems to wear open- toe shoes all the time. Of course, with a perfect pedicure," says a senior lawyer. "The closed-toe look is more of a nice flat shoe--think Tory Burch. I, myself, wear open-toe shoes year round."  

So what's a girl to do? Wear peek toes if your feet are hidden under a conference table, but not in court? Never on the East Coast, but go wild and get out those gladiator sandals in L.A.?

Perhaps the best advice comes from my law school bud, Jennifer, who says it's the "overall presentation" that counts. "If the whole outfit is too casual or provocative, then that translates to 'unprofessional,'" she says. "If the clothing is tasteful and the shoes match, then I think it's acceptable." Her caution: "Keep those feet well-groomed!"  And remember: "No one wears sandal-foot panty hose anymore--the horror!"

Think peep toes are a hot topic? Just wait until we get to the subject of toe cleavage.

Do you have topics you'd like to discuss or tips to share? Email The Careerist's chief blogger Vivia Chen at VChen@alm.com.

Related posts: Tell Her She Looks Ridiculous, (Over)Dressed for Success, Pretty Enough for this Job Market?

Photo:Thomas R. Koll.

July 29, 2010

The Brits are Still Snootier

Think those big American law firms are credentials-obsessed? They are paragons of open opportunity in comparison to the hiring practices of the Magic Circle firms.

U.K.'s Legal Week reports that 38 percent of recent law school grads training at the Magic Circle firms (Allen & Overy, Clifford Chance, Slaughter and May, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, and Linklaters) hailed from Oxford or Cambridge in the last two years. And at Slaughter and May, arguably the most elite of the elite in the U.K., "the figure rose to almost half (48%), with Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer not far off at 44%."

Moreover, Legal Week finds that 65 percent of the Magic Circle recruits "attended an institution classified by The Times as a top 10 university." And that only 11.7 of the recruits attended schools below the 20th rank in the UK, and only about ten percent from overseas institutions.

Obviously, all of this is in stark contrast to true-blue American firms. I can't think of a top firm without a sizable pool of graduates from second tier schools, and even a sprinkling from schools further down the food chain. In fact, every big firm seems to have a favorite lower-tier school that's well-represented.

In New York, at least, you'd be hard pressed not to find a sizable representation from a place like Fordham Law School, which is ranked 34th in the nation. At Cravath, Swaine & Moore, for instance, I counted about 25 lawyers who are Fordham grads, including five partners.

Could that happen in the Magic Circle? Is there a Liverpool Law contingency out there? Oh, lord, no!

But what's really amusing to me is that Slaughter and May's executive partner Graham White insists that the firm is not exclusionary. Here's what he tells Legal Week: "We aim to recruit the best graduates on merit regardless of educational background and are committed to eliminating irrelevant barriers. As part of this we are working to make sure that no students feel they are excluded because of their schooling or university."

Legal Week rightfully questions how this continuing dominance by these two exclusive academic institutions will serve the goals of diversity:

It's an issue that tends to divide people into two opposing camps, both somewhat disconnected from reality. One school of thought says that university and school grades are a near-perfect barometer of merit, while the other camp fume it is all about privilege, usually before churning out a story about an Oxbridge lawyer they have met who is thick as a post.

Both positions taken to extremes are, of course, utter nonsense. University education is a strong indicator of intellectual ability, especially in careers like law that are based on structured learning. But privilege bestows huge educational advantages over the great unwashed, so social factors clearly have a considerable impact on ultimate academic achievement. Unfortunately that doesn't fit into a neat box or provide an easy solution (or villain for that matter).

So how top-drawer are those Magic Circle firms? And how do the unwashed Yanks measure up against those Oxbridge fellows?

Do you have topics you'd like to discuss or tips to share? Email The Careerist's chief blogger Vivia Chen at VChen@alm.com.

Photo: The Oxford University rugby union team, 1891.

July 28, 2010

Is Northwestern Law School Clever or What?

NLaw_photo1 My goodness, it doesn't seem to take much to get the legal community all excited, does it?

The latest brouhaha is that Jones Day is opting out of early interview week this year at Northwestern Law School. Instead, as my cohorts at The Am Law Daily reported a few days ago, Jones Day will be conducting interviews at Northwestern in mid September--a stark departure from standard practice, in which early interviews are usually held in mid-August.

Hardly earth-shattering news, but both Jones Day and Northwestern are crowing about it--and getting lots of attention.

In a unusually lengthy joint press release, both Jones Day and Northwestern criticized the traditional, compressed August interview schedule. The release also says that pushing back the firm's interview schedule will create "a more balanced, less frenzied approach to on-campus recruiting" that is "desirable for all concerned--students, law schools and law firms."

The press release is so cozy that it almost suggests a pact between Northwestern and Jones Day. Did the firm pledge to hire the school's graduates in return for getting the school's endorsement of its hiring strategy? Maybe. Indeed, Jones Day promises in that press release "to hire at least as many Northwestern students as it has in recent years and has committed to ensuring that Northwestern students will receive the same consideration as candidates from other peer schools for open positions."

DavidVanZandt But Jones Day hiring partner Greg Shumaker (see "Jones Day Hiring Partner Tells All") says it all came about because Northwestern dean David Van Zandt (picture left) shares his view that the law school interview process has become madness--particularly the way virtually all on-campus interviews are squeezed into the two or three weeks before Labor Day.

"David [Van Zandt] is very progressive and thinks outside of the box," says Shumaker. "And students are helped because the school cooperates with the legal community." Like Jones Day, says Shumaker, Northwestern "doesn't follow the herd mentality."

Another view might be that Northwestern is just more market-savvy than most, because it's willing to give firms what they want--not a small consideration in this tight job market. It's probably no accident that this eleventh-ranked school gets the top prize for big firm job placements, according to The National Law Journal.

Any way you look at it, it's great PR for both Jones Day and Northwestern. Jones Day gets to casts itself as the iconoclast, while Northwestern gets points for being attuned to market demands.

Maybe it's time for other law schools to find ways to butter up employers--especially if it doesn't cost them anything.

Do you have topics you'd like to discuss or tips to share? Email The Careerist's chief blogger Vivia Chen at VChen@alm.com.

Photos: Courtesy of Northwestern University

July 27, 2010

Moms Who Won't Quit

Career Mom

 "I go to the office to get away from my children."

Over a lunch of gazpacho and ceviche at a Manhattan eatery, a senior lawyer at a Fortune 500 company blithely makes that confession. A mother of two who's married to a fund manager, she says she never seriously considered giving up her full-time job. "Are you kidding?" she says. "It would drive me crazy."

For all the talk about women facing work/life balance dilemmas, there's a sector of mom-lawyers who are giddy (maybe just relieved) that they have demanding jobs--and who don't feel guilty about it. They are not necessarily in love with their jobs or superambitious; they just prefer working to schlepping their kids to dance lessons, lacrosse camps, and doctor visits on a regular basis. Though they might not voice it in public, they question the sanity of former colleagues who are now full-time moms. 

Call them the silent minority--the moms who'd rather work. Lately, though, they are starting to come out in the open--and they are getting ammunition.

Raising children has become a bit of a drag, if not a modern form of slavery, according to some recent articles. In "All Joy and No Fun" in New York magazine, writer Jennifer Senior cites numerous studies that show how parenting can make people miserable: "Most studies show that mothers are less happy than fathers, that single parents are less happy still, that babies and toddlers are the hardest, and that each successive child produces diminishing returns."

Raising kids has always been hard work, but those moms with professional credentials might be making the job even harder. Says Senior about the raised expectations of former high-achievers:

When people wait to have children, they're also bringing different sensibilities to the enterprise. They've spent their adult lives as professionals, believing there's a right way and a wrong way of doing things; now they're applying the same logic to the family-expansion business, and they're surrounded by a marketplace that only affirms and reinforces this idea.

So how does all this play out in real life? Middlebury College sociology professor Margaret Nelson argues in The Washington Post that professional women are putting the squeeze on themselves; they see their life choices in stark terms: "They can overwork themselves, or they can leave the workforce." Writes Nelson about the rationale of those who opt out:
The workplace is still not particularly flexible or family-friendly, they say, and parenting has become more intensive and more demanding than ever. But these women may find themselves trying to justify their decision – and approaching child-rearing as a full-time, totally consuming job provides such a justification. At this point, the cycle becomes self-perpetuating: Professional women bring considerable skills to raising children, and because they do it so conscientiously, they may set trends for other parents.

The ante for being a mother these days has been raised so high, suggests Nelson, that some women feel they have little choice but to quit their jobs. If the choice is between "being a good lawyer" or "being a good mom," the right thing to do is to kill the career, right?

Those might be false choices to begin, but some people--especially the perfectionists among us--might not agree.

Maybe that's why a third of the women from Harvard Law School's class of '93 (see Harvard Law Women Opt Out) have dropped out of the workforce entirely to raise families. Have they become, or are they aspiring to be, uber-moms? You know, the ones who seem to keep a cot in the school gym--the ones who run the annual auction, the PTA, the community service programs with the kind of intensity that they used to put into managing a complex case or deal. I see these moms every day, and I know I'm out of their league, which is why I stay clear of the parents' lounge.

"If you've given up your Harvard Law degree, you better make it worth it and not fail at [parenting]," Nelson told me on the phone. "There's a lot of peer pressure about parenting. . . it's gotten out of control."

Ironically, studies show that parents--especially moms--are actually spending more time with their kids, though the popular perception is that they're not. "Since 1965, the amount of time mothers spend on all child-care activities has risen, even though the majority of mothers are now in the labor force; the increase has been particularly sharp among highly educated mothers," writes Nelson.

So maybe my friend who says she'd rather put in a full day at work than funnel all her energies to her kids is the one with the more sensible, balanced approach. Maybe her attitude is a lot healthier--for both her kids and herself.

But dare we tell the former lawyers turned stay-at-home moms that they don't have to devote their life to their kids to raise them properly? Not me.

If you have topics you'd like to discuss, or information to share for The Careerist, e-mail chief blogger Vivia Chen at VChen@alm.com.

Photo: Fotolia.com

July 25, 2010

News You Don't Want to Hear

NYC Junk Market Grea#B6DB59
I don't want to go there, but as your faithful career sherpa, I have no choice but to give you the unvarnished truth about the state of the legal marketplace. You probably know bits and pieces of the news already, but I'll lay out the whole mess on one table:

• Firms slashed summer classes by an average of 44 percent, reports Am Law Daily's Summer Hiring Survey: "The 114 firms that responded to the survey hired an average of 31 summer associates this year, down from last year's average of 55 associates."

Hard-hit were megafirms like Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, which went from 223 summer associates in 2009 to 79 this year, and Cravath, Swaine & Moore, where "the summer class shrank by 81 percent to just 23 summer associates." Worst was Ballard Spahr, which totally eliminated its summer program.

• For those dead-set on working in New York: Summer legal jobs dropped to lows not seen since 1991, according to the New York State Department of Labor, reports New York Law Journal. The article says: "The city's legal services sector, largely [composed of] law firms, added 1,600 jobs in June, up 2.1 percent from May. But the numbers are below the 2,600 jobs added in June 2009 and below the decade average of 2,800."

How does that translate in real jobs? Skadden, Arps's New York office, for instance, only has 34 summer associates now (it had 102 in 2009), while Weil, Gotshal & Manges has 20 versus 96 last year.

• Finally, some relief: ambiguous news. NALP announced that legal jobs for new law graduates fell last year, but the pay (for those who got jobs) was steady, reports The National Law Journal: "The national median starting salary for full-time law jobs in 2009 was $72,000 and the average was $93,454--virtually identical to 2008 salary figures."

But the problem with those numbers is that it's pretty much a guess, because "they don't account for the fact that salary information for larger law firms is much more widely available than for smaller firms. Fewer than half of small firms report salary."

To compensate for the big/small firm difference, NALP came out with $85,198 as the adjusted average starting salary for 2009 law graduates, as opposed to the unadjusted $93,454 figure.

But James Liepold, NALP's executive director, tells the NLJ: "Just as an average starting salary cannot describe the likelihood of a particular starting salary for any one law school graduate, there is no single set of statistics that can predict employment opportunities for a single graduate."

In other words, take all those figures with a big grain of salt. A lot of novice lawyers are probably making less than that $85,000 figure--possibly a lot less.

Did I miss any other recent gloomy statistics about the legal market?

If you have topics you'd like to discuss, or information to share for The Careerist, e-mail chief blogger Vivia Chen at VChen@alm.com.

Photo: NYC Junk Market in the Great Depression / Samuel Gottscho 1933

July 22, 2010

Depressed People Make Better Lawyers

IStock_000013080855XSmall There seems to be a whole slew of books and articles on lawyers and happiness. I can't quite understand the phenomenon, and I don't know any practicing lawyer who's actually read one.

But we can't seem to stay away from the topic. Just a few weeks ago, I queried: Are lawyers just too damn smart to be happy? At that time, I was discussing The Happiness Project, a best seller by former Supreme Court clerk Gretchen Rubin.

This time, Dan Bowling, a labor lawyer and happiness scholar, is chatting with us about this topic. This fall, he'll be teaching a course on lawyers' well-being at Duke Law School. A former law firm partner and head of Coca-Cola's human resources, Bowling has been studying the mystery of lawyer happiness with famed psychologist Martin Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania.

Why should we care whether lawyers are happy or not? What so special about them?
As a population, lawyers suffer from depression, anxiety, alcoholism, and suicide more than any other profession. Lots of people say, "So what?" But I think we have to care; we shouldn't have such a large number of our membership be miserable.

Is there more misery these days because of the economy? 
Most of the the evidence on lawyer unhappiness predates the economic crisis. The evidence dates back 20 to 25 years.

Okay, so lawyers have always been a miserable lot. You also say that studies show that optimistic people outperform all others in every measure of job success except lawyers. So why do pessimistic people make better lawyers?
That's the popular interpretation of Seligman's study. There's some validity to that, because lawyers look for the worst-case outcome and plan around it. Pessimism is useful in many types of law practice.

If being miserable makes you a better lawyer, why mess with that formula for success?
I'm not sure I totally buy that. There are lawyers who are happy and successful. There's a study that says trial lawyers tend to be more happy than most people.

What about lawyers who never set foot in the courtroom? Are they doomed to be unhappy? 
There are people who are delighted about working with documents and making a lot of money. I'm not here to bash big law.

You don't think big law firms are to blame for the lawyer malaise?
Institutions like law schools and big firms create some of the damage. There are those who want to change the profession, and those who look at the psychological roots and advocate techniques like resilience training, and finding work that's more aligned with people's personality.

So you're not out to change law firms?
I am a realist, not a reformer, and don't think major changes in the way we practice law in big firms and the way we teach it in big schools are on the way.  However, I do think we can better inform law students about different career paths in law, and provide more resources to help them develop the resilience and optimism they need to thrive in a legal career. This is the focus of my work and research.

You keep mentioning resilience training. That sounds like you're parachuting into enemy territory.
At Penn, we taught resilience training and positive thinking training to the U.S. Army. There is an analogy between those in the military and those in law. Both are demanding jobs that entail making sacrifices, long hours, time away from family, and where failure is not an option. The positive training techniques we brought to the U.S. military can be applied to lawyers.

Can you give me an example?
Catastrophic thinking is part of both being a soldier and lawyer. You teach people not to always assume the worst. If a fellow soldier is late, you shouldn't assume that he's lost, had an accident, or has defected. For lawyers, if a client doesn't call you back, you shouldn't assume they hated the opinion letter you drafted.

The U.S. military has bought into this idea of improving morale--but will Am Law 100 firms? 
Big law firms pose the greatest challenge; they hold the keys to the kingdom.

If you have topics you'd like to discuss, or information to share for The Careerist, e-mail chief blogger Vivia Chen at VChen@alm.com.

Photo: Fotolia.com

July 20, 2010

Sometimes a Girl Can't Win

18 Here's a hot tip for law firms that want to quash possible discrimination lawsuits by disgruntled women partners: Take those gals out of the income partner and of-counsel rank and give them equity--or something that kinda looks like equity.

In a big victory for Pittsburgh firm Dickie McCamey & Chilcote, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled that Alyson Kirleis is barred from suing her firm for sex discrimination. The Legal Intelligencer says that the court based its ruling on her status as a shareholder and director, which "gives her the ability to participate in firm governance and a percentage of firm profits."

Reports the Legal Intelligencer:

The appellate judges issued a tersely worded, four-page, nonprecedential opinion that adopted the lower court's reasons for dismissing the case on summary judgment.

"We cannot agree that Kirleis is a mere employee of DMC, and our review of the record supports the district court's conclusion in this regard," Senior U.S. circuit judge Jane R. Roth wrote.

Because Kirleis was a Class A shareholder at her firm, the court said she had "the right not to be terminated without a vote by a supermajority of the firm's board." Hence, she couldn't "qualify as an employee under the multifactor test created by the U.S. Supreme Court." Only employees, reminded the court, have the right to sue for sex discrimination. (Kirleis argued that she should be "treated as an employee because her work is subject to the control of the firm's 13-member executive committee.)

I'm no expert on sex bias, but the ruling seems to bar claims of discrimination if you fall within the definition of equity, even though you might have suffered gender bias. Got that?

Indeed, Kirleis described some disturbing inequities at her firm that the court skipped over. Besides charging that her firm paid women lawyers less, she alleged:

[S]he was told by a male partner that a woman with children should relinquish her partnership and work only part-time. Kirleis, who has worked at the firm since 1988, also claimed she was told by another male partner that the role of women lawyers was to prepare lawsuits for trials that would be handled by male lawyers. The suit also included allegations that Kirleis has suffered retaliation since her suit was filed, and that Dickie McCamey's annual Christmas party is effectively closed to women "because of the sexually explicit nature of the entertainment including skits, songs, pornographic materials, and props."

Skits, songs, pornography--what fun! Who says the Mad Men era is dead? I love the series, but would women lawyers want to suffer the indignities that befall Peggy Olson in the pursuit of her career?

Look, I don't know if all of Kirleis's allegations are true, but I wish the court probed deeper instead of relying on a formalistic definition of equity. Does it take that much imagination to realize there could be inequity in the equity ranks? As any first-year law student knows, it's best to buddy up with those on the compensation committee or the executive committee. It's also a no-brainer that those committees tend to be populated by men.

The Intelligencer reports that Kirleis's "remaining options have now dwindled to statistically unlikely ones--seeking a rehearing before all 14 judges on the Third Circuit or petitioning the U.S. Supreme Court to take up her case."  (Her lawyer, Edward Friedman, told The Intelligencer that he intends to seek a rehearing before the full court.)

I don't see much of a silver lining in this case, but Cynthia Calvert, one of the founders of PAR (Project for Attorney Retention at Hastings Law School), finds one: "Although the law firm won the appeal, it may have lost the war to the extent its reputation and its ability to recruit and retain women lawyers have been damaged by the allegations."  

Let's hope the firm cares. To me, though, the case still points to the perils of suing for discrimination--at any level.

Do you have a happier view?

If you have topics you'd like to discuss, or information to share for The Careerist, e-mail chief blogger Vivia Chen at VChen@alm.com.

Photo: Carin Baer, Courtesy of AMC

Law Schools Run Like Puppy Mills

Fotolia_614465_XS I've been feeling guilty about blaming the victims for the insane spike in law school applications. They are the suckers who still think there's a pot of gold at the end of the three-year ordeal, despite all evidence of a shrinking legal market.  Reading "Hope Drives Rise in Law School Applications" in the National Law Journal, I thought it should have been dubbed "Stupidity Drives Rise . . ."

The savvier recent college grads, as I blogged last week, aren't rushing to law schools, but exploring other options. It seems you really have to be dense to go to law school now--especially the bottom-scraping schools--unless you're absolutely sure that's what you want to do.

But let me apologize to those poor aspiring lawyers. Most are just babes in the woods.

Who are the real culprits in this disaster? The law schools, because they know how awful the job market is, and they're acting like it's still 2006. If an investment is risky, the SEC requires disclosure language, right? So shouldn't law schools tell students that their $100,000-plus investment might not pay off?

Truth is that law schools don't have to disclose employment information about their graduates. Or if they do, the information is not wholly accurate. "In an environment where there's no police force, crime will proliferate," says University of Indiana law professor William Henderson, who's been studying jobs in the legal market. "No law school will level with students when their competitor isn't; it'd be suicide." He adds, "If there's transparency, a lot of law schools would go under."

Funny thing, though: Law schools don't seem to go under. Instead, they seem to be proliferating like puppy mills. Think of all the recent schools that have opened or plan to open, despite the dismal lawyer market: University of Massachusetts Law School, University of California at Irvine Law School, Phoenix Law School, and UNT at Dallas College of Law--to name just a few.

Maybe those particular schools will serve a greater societal good, but you have to wonder if profit isn't the primary driving force at a lot of schools.

"As a business model, having a law school isn't bad," says Henderson. "They are magnets for donors, because law connotes justice, so it's attractive for a university." They also generate steady revenue, adds Henderson, because "applications keep going up." The only hitch is that "they graduate kids with a lot of debt, and the demand for lawyers isn't what it was in the heyday."

For better or worse, there seems to be a law school to accommodate anyone who wants to go these days. But even for those who go to first-tier schools, the job picture has been shaky. I've been covering the layoffs and deferrals at the big firms, and it's depressing.

But what about those who go to a third- or fourth-tier school? I suspect many feel they've been taken for the ride of their lives.

Alexander Call, a 2005 graduate of third-tier Michigan State College of Law, says, "Law schools play into the belief system that lawyers make money." When he graduated from law school, he says, "I was under the impression that all my career uncertainties would suddenly come to an abrupt halt. False! Instead, I am now saddled with an insane amount of debt without the salary to afford reasonable repayment terms."

Though Call landed on his feet (he's now working for a company that sells litigation support services in Florida), he gives this advice to prospective law students: "Think of the worst-case scenario--not the best one. Ask yourself if you have a backup plan."

The best backup plan might be not to go to law school at all, unless being a lawyer is your life's dream. Maybe that's why a die-hard lawyer wanna-be like Albie Manzo, the son in  Real Housewives of New Jersey, is so despondent about flunking out of Seton Hall Law School.

But, really, don't you think Manzo ought to get a grip and apply instead for the management training program at Wal-Mart or KFC?

If you have topics you'd like to discuss, or information to share for The Careerist, e-mail chief blogger Vivia Chen at VChen@alm.com.

Photo: Steven Pepple - Fotolia.com

July 19, 2010

Tips for Lads Who Lunch

Fotolia_11988596_XS Over the last few weeks, I've covered some of the do's and don'ts of the initial interview. Now it's time for the next course: the interview lunch.

I found a terrific little tip sheet on the topic--but before I get into it, let me tell you one of my big pet peeves on the subject: people whose mastery of eating utensils seems to have come to an abrupt stop at the age of 3. Too often, I've sat across the table from a lawyer--not infrequently a partner--who seems perfectly oblivious to the primitive state of his table manners. And I say "his," because it's almost always men.

What am I talking about? People who clench their fork or spoon like a kid greedily clutching a giant Milky Way bar. And like toddlers, they dive for the food on their plate, scoop it up, and shovel it into their mouths.

It's just embarrassing. And jarring. They might be otherwise well-groomed, polite, articulate, and even charming, but their eating style sabotages the package.

If you're absolutely brilliant or have buckets of business--and male--you might get away with all sorts of uncouth behavior. But if you're a law student or lateral on the job hunt, I'd corner the most fastidious friend you have and make her give you an honest appraisal of your eating style.

Be sure you know basic table etiquette too. CBS Money Watch's "10 Rules for Business Meals: What Not to Do" is a pretty good primer. Some of the rules might seem obvious, like "Don't get drunk," "Don't order the T-bone when your boss is having the Cobb salad," and "Don't order foods that stain, are hard to eat, or get stuck in teeth."

But there are tips that are worth noting, like studying the menu online beforehand "so you don't get thrown by the choices or appear indecisive." (This piece of advice assumes you'll know where you'll be taken.) Personally, I can be notoriously indecisive about food orders, which I now realize projects wishy-washiness--a tell-tale sign of corporate unworthiness.

I also liked the reminders of basic table manners in the article:

• Don't put your napkin on the table when excusing yourself during the meal. Place it on your chair. It goes on the table when you are leaving the restaurant.

• Memorize the BMW rule: Bread plate to the left, meat in the middle, and water to the right.

Then there's the reminder not to slice meat into "bite-size pieces before you start eating"--lest you inspire a prospective employer "to offer you a juice box instead of a job." As for buttering your roll: “Slicing a big roll, slapping on a slab of butter, and cramming it shut like a hoagie is the biggest sign that you just walked off the turnip truck.” The correct way is to break up the bread with your hand and butter the part you intend to eat.

But my favorite advice is not about table etiquette, but about how you should treat the server:

Don’t ever explode or take out frustration on the waitstaff, even if someone dumps a glass of wine on your new suit. How job candidates treat people and handle stress in eating situations indicates how they might perform under pressure at work. Your best bet is to keep your cool and laugh off any mishaps. And never send back your wine or food when you’re the guest. Not only does it create a potentially uncomfortable situation, but if your boss or interviewer chose the restaurant, they could feel insulted.

Like everything else in the interview process, lunch is an audition. So stay hungry. 

What type of faux pas have you witnessed at the interview lunch? Let's share those stories.

If you have topics you'd like to discuss, or information to share for The Careerist, e-mail chief blogger Vivia Chen at VChen@alm.com.

Photo: Michael William - Fotolia.com

July 16, 2010

Tell Her She Looks Ridiculous

Forever-21-twist-08 "What's with the three layers of tank tops and the frilly skirt? Somebody, cut up her Forever 21 credit card!"

"She looks so dumpy. Really, doesn't she know there are other stores besides Talbots?"

Maybe it's the heat. Or the sticky air. But for whatever reason, lawyers (can we be honest and say women lawyers?) are getting steamed up about summer clothes in the workplace. Mainly, they are commenting about what other women are wearing, and it's usually about how inappropriate or dated the clothes are.

Here's the battle line: Senior women are shaking their heads at how casual or tawdry junior associates look, while the juniors are thinking that the "old" ladies (that now means Baby Boomers) are way too formal and uptight. "Oh my God," says a first-year associate at a big New York law firm, "they even wear support hose on a 95-degree day!" 

Well, girls, law is kind of an uptight profession. So the old ladies win the style war here.

Corporette, the fashion site for corporate women, asks a timely question: "How do you tell someone that outfit isn't working--or, worse, that their entire style needs to be rethought?"

Despite the aspiring Lady Gagas running around firms, many young women actually want to be told if their clothes are out of line. Typical of the reader comments in Corporette: "If I made a big fashion mistake--whether something just looked terrible on me, or was completely inappropriate for the work dress code--I would want someone to let me know."

But ask senior women lawyers how they handle this issue, and most will say they are reluctant about saying anything at all. A New York-based partner tells me it's "unlikely" that she would make a direct comment, though she adds, "I might say, 'Wow, that's quite something,' and then let her figure it out herself."

Another senior lawyer at a media company in California says, "I have held my tongue on many occasions." She adds that she once supervised a "pudgy female lawyer who wore clothing at least two sizes too small--she was literally busting out all over the place." And at another time, the style offender was a young male lawyer who wore flip-flops. So was he just L.A.-cool? No, she snaps: "He wasn't fashionable, just schlumpy."

Why aren't these senior lawyers telling the offenders that they look offensive? Mostly it's because it's very hard to make a comment about someone's appearance. No matter how hard you try, the comment is bound to sound personal and critical. That's especially true if you're criticizing a woman.

Interestingly, the one lawyer I spoke with who had no qualms about laying the issue on the line is a man: Michael Maslanka, an employment partner at Ford & Harrison's Dallas office. He says he once worked on a case with a female associate who wore "very high heels--nightclub high." So he requested that the woman "get more modest shoes."

Too often, senior lawyers forget that young lawyers don't realize how they are being perceived or that the rules are different in a professional setting. Says Maslanka: "When you've never been to a trial, you often don't realize these things. How you look is often as important as what you say. A jury, witness or prospective client should focus on what you say and not what you wear."

So, girlfriends, maybe it's just time we tell it like it is (assuming you are confident what looks right). Yes, I know, it's a lot easier said than done. I'd have a hard time telling even a close friend that her orange dress makes her look like a giant fruit salad. But, I'd appreciate it if someone clued me in on my own wardrobe foibles. How would I take it? Well, I might feel a bit hurt and certainly embarrassed. It's complicated, isn't it?

What's your experience? Have you ever been told that you don't look the part of a lawyer? What was your reaction? And would you tell someone that she really needs an overhaul?

If you have topics you'd like to discuss, or information to share for The Careerist, e-mail chief blogger Vivia Chen at VChen@alm.com.

Photo: Forever 21 Twist ad campaign

About The Careerist

The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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