The first recorded etiquette rules are traced to 2400 B.C., and many are still important today in the practice of law. So it goes without question that law students should learn, hone, and abide by basic etiquette guidelines. To narrow down the long list of rules, here are four main categories to prioritize: Greetings, being Ahead of Schedule, Meetings, and Emails. In other words, be on your GAME!
First impressions are lasting. Before coming to law school, you may not have had to attend classes or events in business casual or dress attire. Consider who may be in the halls and classrooms of your institution: adjunct faculty, many who are prominent lawyers and judges in the community, and job recruiters. Think about how you want to be perceived.
It is prudent to consider the language you use when greeting others. From an early age, most children are taught not to use inappropriate words. Take time to consider the inflection and tone in the delivery of your thoughts and comments, too.
Body language is linked to the way humans think, process, and communicate. For example, eye contact is important during a conversation because it is a way of showing interest. However, watch for other mannerisms that could be off-putting—stay away from inadvertently placing your hands in inappropriate areas of your body, avoid repetitive gestures, and keep items out of your hands that could result in fidgeting.
Finally, always introduce yourself when meeting someone new, and follow up by asking the person their name. Also, make sure to shake hands professionally. Stay away from awkward long handshakes, those that include excessive shaking, ones that are too tight a grip, or handshakes that are sweaty. Make sure to stand up, grip firmly, and shake from the elbow 2-3 times for approximately 3-4 seconds.
Ahead of Schedule
Punctuality is a vital skill for lawyers; if deadlines are missed, it can end in dire consequences such as suspension or disbarment. Start by making sure to show up to classes early. There are sometimes unforeseeable events that could slow you down. Accidents, heavy traffic, and public transit delays can cause tardiness. Don’t acquire the reputation of being unreliable because you are a person who is always running behind.
Similarly, there are times when you may need to ask a faculty or staff member for something. For example, if you need a letter of recommendation, make sure to give timely notice before a deadline. It is not professional to give a day’s notice and expect to receive it before the due date—remember that law students are busy, but law faculty and staff are, too.
Always come prepared to meetings. A frustration for law personnel is when students schedule meetings and forget what they wanted to discuss. This could happen because a student may have scheduled the meeting days, or even weeks, before the set time, or because the student had no idea what they wanted to obtain from the meeting originally. Make sure to write down talking points so your professor knows you have thought through concepts and materials beforehand. This ensures a robust conversation and will result in a meaningful meeting.
Give timely notice if you need to cancel an appointment. Regardless of whether you call or email, make sure to explain why you can’t make the meeting and offer an apology. You can suggest rescheduling at their convenience to show that you value their time and see the importance of meeting with them.
Don’t forget to show up. Not only does this waste the time of the faculty or staff member, but the time was blocked meaning that it may have precluded another student from meeting with that person. Make sure to keep an electronic or paper calendar. If using the former, set up reminders that will automatically alert you an hour or day before. If you miss a scheduled meeting, never pretend that it did not happen. Take accountability and tell the person that it won’t happen again.
Email is a primary mode of communication in the practice of law, so it is essential to build your email etiquette skills. Always make sure to include what the email is about in the subject line. Law faculty and staff are busy and may prioritize messages based on a quick glance at the subject line. Also, pay attention to the salutation. The profession of law is one of respect, so make sure to recognize titles (e.g., Dear Professor [last name], Dear Director [last name]). To determine the proper title, consider finding it on your institution’s website.
Make sure to think before reply all or copying additional people who weren’t on the original email. Replying all could cause confusion, and you might send a response not intended for everyone. Likewise, consider using read receipts sparingly. It is considered poor taste to place a read receipt on every email if there is no critical information or business reason for doing so.
End the email with “Sincerely,” “Best,” or something similar. After the sign-off, include a signature. Consider setting up a signature block—include your first and last name, email, and phone number. Adding in pronouns helps the recipient know how you would like to be addressed (e.g., she/her, he/him, they/them, or others).
Before sending the email, make sure to proofread for grammar, spelling, and punctuation. Remember that there is no inflection or tone in emails, so be careful how the wording could be interpreted (e.g., don’t use all caps, because that is akin to yelling, and don’t use emojis in professional emails). Then think before you send the email. If you are emailing regarding a stressful topic, it is likely that you could be in an emotional state. This could result in sending an unprofessional, angry email, so let it sit in your drafts folder; after a good night’s sleep decide if you should send it.
Finally, have realistic expectations about receiving responses. There is an expectation that answers should arrive immediately. Remember that law school personnel receive many emails, some of which cannot be answered without more research or without contacting others first.
These are just some of the broad categories when etiquette is important in law school. Remember that learning is a continuous process—there are multiple books and resources that expand on these concepts and give great additional etiquette advice. Continue to hone these skills so you are on your GAME and on the path to becoming a master of etiquette. Hopefully, these fundamentals will assist in helping you become a professional law student and ultimately a professional lawyer.