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Etiquette 101 for Summer Associates (and Partners)

Vivia Chen

June 13, 2011

Fotolia_10870212_XS 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 [email protected].

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Photo: Sandor Jackal / fotolia.com


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Someone once told me about an interview lunch during which the partners would purposely ask the candidate a question right after he'd put a bite of food into his mouth to see if he would speak with his mouth full.

Ordering pasta in a setting where manners matter is best left to the pros, and the pros know the value of bringing the full weight of their utensil arsenal to bear in order to avoid slurping spagetti.

Thanks for the table etiquette tips. I Iave to agree with the other poster, Lisa, though: twirling pasta against a spoon is a time-honored Italian family tradition. Foregoing the pasta twirl would be equivalent to misrepresentation, and I firmly believe that these 'ole warhorse-blue-bloods should know exactly what kind of bohemian dago-wop they're about to hire. BTW, is it OK to say that?

Let's call a spade a spade: if minor table mannerisms preclude a candidate from being given the formal offer... it wasn't the behavior at the lunch-table that did it.

Let's also be honest, summer-associate positions yield offers, unless something horrible happens.

And, if cutting pasta into manageable bits, or twirling it against a spoon is viewed as "something horrible" by the partners deciding whether to have the candidate join the firm; then, maybe the problem isn't with the candidate.

Also, and this is just adding my commentary...

Can we get some more useful advice regarding summer associates and securing that offer that is so coveted?

Seriously, advice on table manners?!?

Gladly, I am not a summer associate, and am not currently worried about an offer; but, if I were, and I considered these suggestions a paramount concern (like a possible deal-breaker), I would have been done a serious disservice by being lured into putting my trust in same and/or lending credence to the foreboding notion that, if I don't display upper-echelon aristocratic table-manners, I won't be hired.

All good reminders. But I grew up twirling pasta against a spoon. It's not a Godfather thing, but an Italian thing (or, at least a from-whatever-part-of-Italy-my-grandmother-is-from thing). In any event, it's real, some people do eat like that, and I'm not convinced (especially because of the Godfather reference) that it is bad manners on par with clutching one's utensils or neglecting to put the napkin on one's lap.

A propos of tagliatelle Bolognese, I recommend against ordering *anything* with a messy sauce -- particularly a messy red sauce! Best to stick with something less likely to leave stains -- or poor impressions.

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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: [email protected]

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