“Etiquette shmetiquette,” I thought to myself when I noticed one of the University of New Brunswick law career development seminar topics was essentially Manners 101. I didn’t think I needed it. I’m no Emily Post but I don’t offend people by talking politics or religion on first meeting and I hold my pinky finger out when sipping tea.
Weeks later, halfway through the session, I was surprised to be hanging on career development director Clea Ward’s every word. Cocktail parties are commonplace in the law firm recruitment scene and Ward was relaying survival techniques. She shared a tip to only touch food and a perspiring wine glass with your left hand, keeping the right hand grease-free ready for shaking hands.
“Genius,” I thought. If I retained nothing but the clean-hand trick from the session, I was grateful for that. And likely so would those who from then on would be in contact with my clean mitt.
So when an invitation to McMillan LLP’s summer business etiquette and networking seminar popped into my inbox, I RSVP’d instantly.
“This type of presentation is very well received in that it offers practical tips and advice that will be useful to you as you embark upon the upcoming recruitment season,” said Tracy Robillard, McMillan’s manager of professional growth and management, in her welcome remarks. “Not everyone is born a natural at networking and understanding business etiquette so I think that you will find the presentation engaging, useful, and practical.”
And with that, Lynne Mackay, an image consultant and etiquette trainer took the stage.
The charismatic president of the Mackay Byrne Group, Mackay has been in the business nearly 30 years and her remarks covered everything from acceptable work wardrobe choices to an appropriately firm handshake to killing at a cocktail party.
“First impressions happen and matter,” she said, justifying the lengths she suggests law students take to put their best foot forward. “We cling to our first impressions.”
When it comes to surviving the dreaded cocktail party or networking reception, Mackay said: “The benefit of knowing how to work a room with ease is that it allows you to remove the focus from your own behaviours and then focus on the opportunity in front of you: the person that you’re meeting and that you’re connecting with. Maybe a partner. Maybe a lawyer. Maybe an interviewer. It allows us to be just that much more confident.”
Here are my top five take-aways from Mackay’s dynamic seminar.
1. The handshake: make your handshake firmness a level seven, smile, and look the person in the eye (Mackay’s trick: remember to notice the person’s eye colour as a reminder to look them in the eye);
2. “Establish your own personal brand”: be positive and consistent in your conduct;
3. “If you can take care of how you dress it says you can take care of the needs at the firm”: tie and lapel widths should be similar and men above 5”10’, avoid short suit jackets otherwise Mackay warns, “you’ll look like you’re wearing your little brother’s suit!”;
4. Preparing for a networking reception: have a plan, prepare, and set objectives (“Gently promote yourself!”); and
5. When approaching a group of professionals in conversation, target groups of odd numbers (they’re easier to join).
I caught up with Robillard after the session to understand her motivation for departing from the standard recruitment “meet-and-greets” that Bay Street firms host.
“The firm has always been a stronger believer that students will perform better and be able to showcase their strengths more when they’re prepared and we want to help students prepare themselves,” she said of the session McMillan has been offering for more than 10 years.
“Many students haven’t worked in a professional environment before and so they’re nervous meeting with firms. They don’t know what to expect from a law firm interview. Some are so nervous that they cannot perform at their optimum so we try to alleviate some of that and give them the tools to prepare and learn about this process in advance.”
Working in the legal profession day in and day out, Robillard sees the need for business etiquette.
“At big firms, the clients are often larger institutions. You’re dealing with CEOs, presidents, CFOs, and upper level management and they expect a certain level of business professionalism from the lawyers they work with. Students who have some knowledge of professionalism and networking will be more successful. It’s a differentiator.”
Common faux pas Robillard discourages student applicants from making include consuming too much alcohol and bailing on a function to which they have RSVP’d without notice.
But she holds no grudges. Robillard herself appreciates ongoing etiquette training to sharpen her skills and vividly remembers her first faux pas. Years ago as a junior associate, Robillard attended a client dinner and proceeded to sit side-by-side with fellow junior associates at one end of the dinner table. The next day, senior partners who attended the dinner reprimanded the associates for not sitting among the clients.
“I felt terrible and wondered if I should send apology e-mails to the clients or ask to schedule another dinner. I was mortified,” said Robillard. “In hindsight, you can always make a mistake in etiquette, you just have to learn from it.”