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Watch Your Table Manners

Vivia Chen

July 19, 2012

Moser_Spaghetti_essender_JungeI know some of you think I'm too hung about this. I know this is irrelevant to your worth as a lawyer and a human being. But to me, bad table manners are inexcusable. In this competitive market, you can't afford to make mistakes—even if it's as superficial as how you should twirl your pasta.

So here's my encore post from last year on how to handle an interview meal.

While dining at New York's Casa Lever recently, I spied a summer associate at the next table. He was with two older lawyers--who appeared to be partners. They were chatting away about the personalties at work and the summer arrivals. Nothing earth-shattering, but I thought this guy more than held his own. He talked about everything from his Midwest childhood to the political situation in the former Soviet Union--all with remarkable poise and ease. He seemed smart in a nonshowy way.

He got my vote for an offer. Until the waiter brought the food to the table.

He had ordered pasta (tagliatelle Bolognese, I think)--a fine selection, since Casa Lever is now an Italian restaurant. But once everyone was served, he picked up his fork and knife and quickly slashed the pasta into a series of bite-size servings.

I don't know how his companions felt about this display of efficiency, but I was horrified.

Yes, it's that time of the year again--our seasonal refresher on table manners. Though I wrote about business meal etiquette last year, it bears repeating--especially with you summer associates running loose. So here's my latest list of table etiquette:

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

2. Start with utensils farthest away from plate (usually the salad fork).

3. Do not clutch utensils as if you're about to chant, "We want food!" Instead, hold spoon and fork as you would a pencil. (See Corporette for in-depth discussion on this.)

4. Keep your napkin on your lap. But if you need to excuse yourself during the meal, always place your napkin neatly on your chair. When you leave the restaurant, put it on the table.

4. Don't precut your food. Of course, you should cut that giant piece of lettuce or that juicy T-bone steak--but do it one bite at a time. As for pasta, just twirl it onto your fork and eat it. (It is also not necessary or cool to twirl spaghetti against a spoon like they do in The Godfather.)

5. Don't talk with food in your mouth. I don't care if someone is defaming your mother, wait until you've swallowed your food to defend her honor.

6. If you drop a fork or knife on the floor, leave it and ask the waiter for a replacement. If you drop your BlackBerry or cell phone, only pick it up if it's easily reachable--otherwise, ask for assistance. Under no circumstances should you scurry under the table like a busy rat.

As for the social aspects of an interview lunch or dinner, Sally Abrahms, who's written on etiquette, offers this suggestion: "Ask the partner questions about his/ her practice and show extreme interest. Allow him/her to tell war stories about cases or deals they've worked on."

So what shouldn't you talk about? There are the usual taboos--like religion and politics--unless you know you share the partner's allegiances, in which case those subjects could give you a big boost. Abrahms also warns about asking about money or hours : "That will be construed as the candidate is concerned about how much she will make or how hard he will have to work." And we certainly wouldn't want the firm to know we care about those things.

What's your pet-peeve about the way people behave at a business meal?

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

Follow The Careerist on Twitter: twitter.com/lawcareerist


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this is so typically american - most who firmly believe that being savvy about dining should be thrown out - too wasp - too 'white'??
My friends gave me a heads up on what to expect and all those things for a chinese dinner - in fact we did practice runs - and than i showed them how table manners for moroccan style of table manners as well as french. All cultures have something but i see in usofa that anything 'wasp' or white should be demeaned.
Should any of you go over seas believe me you will be watched and later commented upon. In fact one may be sure that dinner won't be in any future - losing perhaps an edge over someone else, Maybe they will keep you in office but have someone represent the firm.

Let's celebrate the dumbing down of manners so everyone can become common denominator

@ Ben: The point is that these are highly competitive positions and poor manners can unfavorably distinguish a candidate. If you've got a 3.7+ GPA and done three years of grueling hard work, why fall down in the home stretch because you can't be bothered with simple good manners that make others around you feel comfortable?

I'm reminded of the scene from the movie, Gigi, where Gigi visits her aunt for etiquette lessons and she's learning how to eat a small bird, bones and all, while carrying on a conversation.

Agreed, Vivia. Table manners, like so many other social graces, are important. It's not just a test of breeding; fundamentally, they're about being considerate and making others comfortable. And, I don't
want to be grossed out at lunch. I realize that not everyone learns this stuff growing up, but by the time you're interviewing for a law job, you've been a grown-up long enough to know these rules exist and to take the time to figure this stuff out.

Dear Ben,

Table manners are not just a concern with big law firms. Try going out on your own, having to network and prove yourself credible. How you handle yourself in social situations is more important than your GPA. People do business with people. Everything in this world is about relationships and how you handle yourself - including your table manners.

Good one, Vivia! If a candidate has bad table manners, they're also probably lacking other important social graces, which come in real handy when meeting with and entertaining clients. In other words, bad table manners could ruin client relationships. I'd pass on that candidate.

Really? Ms. Chen, reading your blogs are the reason I don't want to apply biglaw. Out of all the reasons to refuse to hire someone...

How do you even put that on a form? "Should not hire because he precuts his food at the table." He didn't burp, didn't talk with his mouth open, and he didn't fart at the table or anything! Never mind his 3.7+ GPA, his law review, his three years of grueling hard work, in addition to his undergraduate, not to mention the LSAT work, the personal statement, his internship, his publishing he probably did to get an interview in the first place! No, his table manners aren't acceptable.

That is the worst reason I have heard to not hire someone in my entire life. What is your problem? How would you feel if someone didn't hire you because you wore a blue shirt to the interview and they didn't like blue? I will not be applying to any firm that operates like that: I have better things to do than waste my time with people who I know will treat my hard work like garbage, and are too short-sighted to think outside their little box.

If he did not receive his offer because of your comment that day, than I truly think you did your firm a disservice. Shame on you.

Pet peeve is people coming to a brown bag event and bringing smelly or crunchy food. Have some common sense for the people sitting near you.

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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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