Common Courtesy and Your Good Reputation.

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I was first prompted to write a blog article about “common courtesy” after I had been building my business development coaching practice for only a few months. I was working out the kinks in the associate training program I conceived and implemented the year before at my law firm. In my many years as a partner and deal lawyer I had virtually never experienced discourtesy on the part of my associates or my colleagues among the legal professionals at the firm. Similarly, my partners, clients (with some tiresome but manageable exceptions) and fellow members of the bar (well, most of them) rarely crossed the line.

But once I became a “vendor” I experienced the discourteous side of the lawyers and other professionals in my world. To be clear, it wasn’t the rudeness itself that troubled me — this was irritating but not hurtful. I knew perfectly well that my most recent career jump would require interpersonal adjustments to preserve the power balance in professional settings, as had the conscious transition from generating independent revenues to assisting clients owned on paper by other partners. As one of them remarked companionably–the broadening change in status and throw weight was a simple question of “street cred”. (Actually, it was a question of new matter and client origination credits, not skills or swagger. Not news, and not cause for offense. Just BigLaw realpolitik.)

So, the thing I found most disturbing, mainly on the part of the younger lawyers I was training at this time, was the inexplicable lapse in common sense. Emails and phone messages went unanswered. I had to nag them just to get the job done and secure the one on one time I needed to help them develop their business plans. Who else did they treat this way? Was I really someone it made sense to disappoint in so childish a way? Might there be a mean and unforgiving person beneath the warm, generous and patient exterior of this very well-connected, very experienced person? Well no, fortunately. But, the laziness and rudeness wasn’t smart. It wasn’t good business. And it spoke volumes.

Business development is about relationships, first and foremost. What goes around comes around. (I’m not talking about the quid pro quo approach favored by some. Relationships rooted in mutual back-scratching strategies are shallow and shortlived.) Treat people right or pay the consequences in missed opportunities, broken relationships, burned bridges and bad word of mouth.

Reputation is complicated –it reflects people’s perceptions (sometimes inaccurate) of your expertise, integrity, influence, judgment, reliability, work ethic, breeding and character, among other things. A good one, once earned, is priceless; a bad one is very very difficult to live down.

Courtesy: A Few Simple Rules, Easily Observed, Easily Broken

Authentic courtesy is impressive. It is remembered. It shows more than the quality of your upbringing. It suggests self-confidence, integrity, humility, maturity and good sense. And it is one of the things that makes people enjoy your company.

Keep in mind that courtesy is part and parcel of being what Adam Grantrefers to as a “giver” (not just a “matcher”, and certainly not a “taker”) — the person whom science tells us is most likely to succeed.

Discourtesy, whether intentional or unintentional, will eventually be interpreted (and, only if you’re lucky, excused) by colleagues, staff, adversaries, friends and other members of your existing or hoped for network as thoughtless, lazy, cocky, scatter-brained, mediocre, immature or just plain stupid. Did I mention lazy?

Once you make your mark and build a large and highly profitable client base–i.e., once you have influence and power in your firm and community– you might have the luxury of reverting to childishly rude and thoughtless behavior, if that grabs you. And yes, you will find it in abundance in the proverbial corridors of power. But now is not the time to be careless with your career.

A few specifics….

If these don’t come naturally to you now, take a moment to pull yourself together. Then start over–you probably have some work to do on your reputation.

  • Return phone calls and respond to emails before the end of each day if at all possible. I cannot emphasize this enough. Ignore emails–no matter the source (short of spam), at your peril.
  • If you are drowning in emails, just remember that the person whose email you missed or ignored may well have the same problem. This used to be a great excuse—but there’s an app for that now.
  • RSVP promptly to invitations and respond to reasonable (and sometimes unreasonable) requests. Do not be the slacker. (Millennials: Don’t live up to the generational stereotypes.) Do not make people chase you down.
  • If you are putting off a response to a request, or a question, because you “hate saying no”, don’t. Silence is far worse, and exceptionally unprofessional. Don’t make others nag you.
  • Respect deadlines. If you think you’re going to miss one, provide ample warning and a revised commitment.
  • Show up as promised, and pay attention in meetings. Checking your emails and texts (we all know there is a high likelihood they aren’t even work related) while someone is presenting is stunningly rude, albeit not at all uncommon. Just don’t be that person.
  • If you must triage calls and emails, do so with caution. Clients (including the partners you work for) obviously come first. But everyone should be treated with courtesy–and that very much includes both secretarial and other administrative staff, at all levels of experience, and whether or not you perceive them as contributing to your success: The recruiting director, by the way, is not simply “a non-lawyer” — but rather a critical figure in your firm and essential to its future. And never, ever assume you’ve got the bigger brain or sharpest skills.
  • Be courteous to the many people you may perceive of as “vendors”–those you think have more to gain from you than you do from them, and those you used to think were “useful” but are no longer….. Making that sort of calculation in daily life is (kind of) normal…but can be both unwise and shortsighted, not to mention…we’re back to thoughtless, cocky and so on. Be the person who is better than that.
  • If you’re participating in a social media business community, observe the rules of etiquette, and treat people with respect, and warmth–if this fits with your online presence. On LinkedIn (the single must-have channel for grown-up lawyers), for example, keep self promotion to 15-20% of engagement. Recognize the efforts and accomplishments of others by way of likes and, better yet, by comments. Share their articles and posts, where appropriate–ideally in a way that demonstrates that you have both read and understood them. Always attribute and acknowledge and thank.Treat Connection requests with courtesy. (And, if you train others in the use of social media, set a good example!)
  • If you are in the business of teaching others how to build relationships, develop clients and lead people, then do so wisely, generously and throughtfully yourself. Promote others, not just yourself, and not only when they promote you. Listen. Help. Strive for authenticity and generosity. It’s good business, and it’s a wonderful way to live.

And remember: Most people, however well behaved and well brought up, talk about other people.  Even the lowly vendor, who may have played ball in college with the partner who reviews you every year. Even the assistant to the partner down the hall, who you figure is unaware that you are not her favorite new lawyer at the firm. Don’t give them something to talk about, other than your finer qualities and achievements.

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