Working Hard on Reputation Now Can Decrease Your Workload Later

During my week long orientation to law school, there was no dress code. My future colleagues and I dressed casually while professors and current law students tried to prepare us for what was ahead by sharing law school horror stories. This was true for every day of orientation except one. On Thursday, our itineraries told us we were to dress professionally for a networking event with local attorneys. At some point during the first two days of orientation, the networking event was moved to Wednesday, instead of Thursday. For one reason or another, I missed the memo. I showed up on Wednesday in cargo shorts, flip flops, and a bright pink polo (as if being the only person not in a suit didn’t make me conspicuous enough), looking like I was ready to network with sorority girls rather than attorneys. Needless to say, there weren’t many lawyers eager to get to know me. It wasn’t that I didn’t know how to dress or act professionally, I had worked at the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill prior to coming to law school; I was not getting approached simply due to the fact that I looked unprepared and uninterested. I quickly pulled the eject handle, went home, put on my best suit, and returned to try to salvage what was left of the day; but the damage had been done. Most of the attorneys I talked to were politely brief and dismissive. It was twice as hard for me to network as it was for my colleagues, all because they took a few extra minutes to put on a suit that morning. The lesson I learned that day was clear: by working hard to give a good first impression and maintain a professional reputation, you actually save yourself from having to exert extra effort in the future. That supposition proved true throughout my 2.5 years in law school, and has paid dividends for me as a practicing attorney.

I made a commitment that day to never be underdressed again, and I could not have anticipated the benefits. I dressed to make a good impression and professors’ schedules seemed to open up for me, while other students complained that they were only available during limited office hours. I rarely experienced the “cold call” in class; instead, I was allowed to volunteer for discussions. This meant that I typically contributed to the topics that I felt most comfortable discussing, rather than having my input solicited on days I may have been less than fully prepared – thanks to the Socratic Method of teaching. The result was when I spoke up, I sounded like I knew what I was talking about; since I sounded like I knew what I was talking about, my classmates assumed I was smart; since my classmates, now colleagues, perceived me as smart, they assume I am a good attorney and they don’t hesitate to send me referrals…see the pattern? Some of my former professors are now District Court Judges. Because of the reputation I established in law school, I feel a lot more comfortable in their courtroom than do many of my contemporaries.

If the prospect of lightening your professional workload isn’t enough to encourage you to expend effort now on your external appearance, consider the alternative: A colleague of mine who started at the Public Defender’s office around the same time that I began practicing came to District Court one morning unsure of his client’s statutory sentencing level, which is based on prior convictions. He had simply missed one detail in his preparation – it happens. When the Assistant District Attorney inquired as to the client’s sentencing level, the new Public Defender took a risk and guessed that the client had no priors. As it turned out, he did. Do I think the Public Defender was intentionally trying to deceive the A.D.A.? Absolutely not. He made a split-second decision to avoid looking unprepared and inexperienced. It didn’t matter. As soon as the A.D.A. discovered the discrepancy he made a scene, yelling “that’s it, you’re done!” in front of a seated judge and courtroom full of attorneys. The A.D.A.’s assessment may have been a little exaggerated (that Public Defender is still practicing and is a good, competent attorney) but his credibility was fatally damaged. Now whenever he negotiates with the State, he has to bring proof of almost every fact he contends. Your client completed XYZ class? Where’s the certificate? Your client wants credit for time served? Where’s the printout from the Sheriff’s Inmate Intake website? I can’t imagine how much extra time he’s had to spend preparing and how many extra trips back and forth to the office he’s had to make. One professional misstep and his workload was un-quantifiably increased.

Judgments made on looks and first impressions are certainly superficial, but they are a reality in our profession – like it or not. Of course, maintaining a positive professional reputation isn’t all about appearances. No lawyer should be all suit no brief case. Putting in the hard work necessary to understand the complex fields of law we work in is equally as important as looking the part. But it’s a lot easier to convince someone you’re prepared when you look it first.