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They Eat Horses, Don't They?

Vivia Chen

September 30, 2016

Alan-Young-Mister-Ed

Lawyers are hungry for business these days. So hungry they'll do almost anything to bag a client. They'll climb ice glaciers, sweat through bike rides in the desert and endure Wagner operas for the sake of business development.

Sports and culture have become typical devices for lawyers to endear themselves to clients with fat wallets. But what about the globe-trotting lawyer whose social interactions with client center mainly around food?

Eating your way to your client's heart is hardly a hardship, particularly in cities like Milan, Dubai or Hong Kong. But what if your client hails from a more remote part of the world or insists that you go "native"? Can you politely decline food that's strange (to you) without upsetting the relationship?

 "Ah, the Temple of Doom Dinner! I've certainly had them," says Wilson Chu, a partner at McDermott Will & Emery. At the home of an oil company executive in Vietnam, Chu's host plopped barbecued snake on his plate. So what did he do? "l ate it."

Even in swanky restaurants, some foods are literally hard to swallow. "In Tokyo, business associates and clients would order shrimp that was still alive and wiggled in your mouth," says a lawyer who worked at American Express. She soldiered on but later found out that she was being tested. "They would say, 'we wanted to see if you would eat it'."

Several lawyers say that they bonded with clients by eating unusual local items—then laughing about it. "I always tried everything and sometimes had to run around with fire coming out of my mouth," says former immigration lawyer Sonya Som, a recruiter at Major Lindsey & Africa. "Everyone laughed at me, including me! And thus, we bonded."

Michael Jacobs, a partner at Morrison Forester, recalls bragging to Japanese clients that he could eat anything. But when offered natto, a fermented beans dish, he couldn't do it: "I just could not countenance the strong odor. I pushed the bowl away and admitted defeat. They laughed. We became good friends."

What's appreciated is an open spirit. "If you’re presented with a food option that makes your toes curl, try one bite, then focus on the conversation," advises Mary Crane, a business etiquette expert. "Even if it's something repulsive, hold your nose and eat the food!" says former Vinson & Elkins associate Deena Shanker, who now covers food trends at Bloomberg.

But sometimes the repulsive borders on what some find morally offensive. Dog meat is one such item. One lawyer who travels frequently to Central Asia and considers himself a very adventurous eater (he's ingested horse meat, grass hoppers and camel's milk), says: "I just can't eat man's best friend."

Increasingly, clients are sensitive about what Westerners find offensive. Take shark fin soup, a Chinese delicacy that's come under attack from animal rights advocates. Chu says he won't eat it, and that his business counterparts are cool about that. "Even locals refrain from it now," he adds.

Of course, to avoid hurt feelings, it might be easier to declare that you're a vegetarian. But you better be consistent about it and not slobber over the soup dumplings. Michael George DeSombre, a partner at Sullivan & Cromwell in Hong Kong, offers another way out: "Just say you're allergic."

The one basic rule is not to come off as provincial and prissy. "Whatever you do, avoid becoming an Ugly American—someone who turns up his or her nose at another culture’s culinary delicacy," warns Crane. "What's exotic is in the eyes of the beholder," says Chu. "So chicken feet and chicken blood sprinkles to a corn-fed Iowan lawyer are more challenging than for people like you and me." Frédéric Ruppert, a lawyer in Paris, says he's befuddled why Americans are so fussy, noting "horse meat is actually very good, like horse steak tartare."

Besides, not everyone considers American food all that palatable either.

"Asians can't understand how Americans can eat those enormous pieces of meat with all that blood dripping," says the lawyer who worked at Amex in Tokyo. An American lawyer who grew up in Italy adds, "Americans put cheese on everything—gobs of it too—even on seafood. Disgusting."

 vchen@alm.com

 Photo: Mr. Ed and Wilbur

 

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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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