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July 24, 2023 YourABA | Your Career

Professionalism: It goes beyond lawyers’ Model Rules

From TV shows and movies that depict questionable legal practices to social media posts featuring lawyers behaving badly, it’s little wonder the public’s opinion of lawyers is low, according to speakers at the webinar “Professionalism: Making This Cornerstone of Our Profession Work for You.”

A recent Gallup poll showed 30% of the public rated lawyers’ honesty and ethics as low or very low compared with 19% who rated honesty and ethics high or very high.

The panel’s advice for improving on those numbers is a return to professionalism norms.

The mandate of professionalism — the foundation of the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct — separates attorneys from other professionals and executives, they said.

“Lawyers are certainly considered different on the scale of what’s important and what they do,” said Carol Schiro Greenwald, a business development, networking and management strategist, trainer and coach. “So, professionalism is the concept that you strive for all the time.”

Jayne R. Reardon, a mediator and former trial lawyer, agreed, citing language from the preamble of the Model Rules.

“Lawyers have three distinct roles: A lawyer as a member of the legal profession is, first, a representative of clients; second, an officer of the legal system; and third, a public citizen having a special responsibility for the quality of justice,” she said.

Professionalism is “part rules, part conscience and part aspiration,” Reardon said. “Lawyers should strive to attain the highest level of skill, improve the law and the legal profession and exemplify the legal profession’s ideals of professional service.”

Reardon added that most people went to law school “to make a difference and to feel like what you’re doing is of great value to society.”

Behaving in a professional way “tends to align you with the highly regarded values associated with law and lawyers, which can lead to stronger colleague and client relationships,” she said. “It’s rewarding and supportive, and it can lead to business. People hire those who they trust, who they feel a kinship for. You’re also more effective,” Reardon said. “Judges hate it when lawyers are bickering and arguing and threatening for motions to compel.”

Tips for staying professional:

  • Be respectful.
  • Remember that your professional (or unprofessional) brand is portrayed in every interaction.
  • Do not make ad hominem attacks.
  • Consider the client’s goals.

“Professionalism is an important part of your brand,” Greenwald said. Your brand is the public’s perception of you based on your values, strengths, passions, experience and achievements.

“It’s authentic. It’s about you. But you’re also going to curate it to show yourself at your best,” she said. “You’re going to hone it so that it’s a narrative that will establish who you are for the public and for the public that you want to work with.”

Understanding body language is also an important aspect of professionalism, Greenwald said — and being able to read body language is a key factor in how well you perform at work.

“Ninety-three percent of communication is not words — 55% is visual and 38% is tone, leaving only 7% for words, which is scary,” Greenwald said.

Body language, which includes facial expressions, posture, gestures and proximity to others, is “partially innate and partially learned or conditioned. So, learn the body language you want to use by teaching yourself,” she said. “Body language is the basis for the three-second judgment that tells you what you think of a person and that three-second judgment is going to color everything you ever know about them.”

Lastly, Greenwald warned that social media is not always your friend. “Anything you ever post on the internet or social media is there forever. It takes years to create a brand that you want. It takes seconds to kill it.”

The program, “Professionalism: Making This Cornerstone of Our Profession Work for You,” was sponsored by the ABA Law Practice Division. Membership in the Law Practice Division is free to ABA members.

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