The Rules of Engagement

Revised from  Mary Crane (, who conducts our 1L Etiquette Dinners.

As a new lawyer or law student, you must know how to navigate a variety of business-social events. To the extent that you understand the rules, you can stop worrying about what you’re supposed to do and instead focus on the important conversations that you will have with hiring partners, new colleagues, and clients. Below are five things that you should know before you attend a reception or networking event and five more things that you should know before you attend a business meal.

Receptions and Networking Events

  • Prepare an introduction. Start with your name and a descriptor. The descriptor should be one or two sentences that help you become memorable. A student might introduce him or herself by saying, “I’m the only student in my class who spent a gap year as a mountain climbing guide,” while a new associate might say, “I’m the newest addition to the M&A group.” Be prepared to offer a firm handshake, make eye contact, and smile.
  • Obtain a beverage and hold it in your left hand. This will cause you to hold your left hand at waist level, which will make you appear comfortable and approachable. Avoid holding beverages in your right hand, especially if the beverage could make a future handshake cold or wet. Be careful of hors d’oeuvres – too many of these finger foods may turn a future handshake into a sticky or greasy mess, so be sure to always have clean hands. Never obtain both a beverage and plate of nibbles at the same.
  • Circulate. Everyone who attends a reception or networking event does so with the understanding that they should not monopolize any one guest’s time. Participate in brief conversations. When there’s a pause, tell the other person how much you enjoyed meeting him or her and move on. You might say, “It was a pleasure to meet you, and I hope that we can reconnect in the future. I think I’m going to freshen my drink.”
  • Prepare five questions that you can ask anyone. Some data suggests that introversion runs rampant within the legal profession, which is likely the reason lawyers and law students hate the idea of pitching themselves and their services. Don’t even think about using business-social events as an opportunity to sell yourself. Instead, focus on demonstrating that you are interested in others by asking a few nonintrusive questions that encourage others to talk.
  • Follow up. The people who excel at networking make attending an event the first step in the long process of building a relationship. At the end of each event, review all of the business cards that you collected and make notes on the back, for example, “Daughter interested in attending UT Law.” Then, use these notes when you follow up via email. For example, you might write, “It was a pleasure meeting you last night. You mentioned that your daughter is interested in UT Law. If she would like to speak to a recent grad, please feel free to share my name. I would be delighted to connect with her.”

Business Meals

  • Seating. The most important person, i.e., the guest, should be seated first. When a firm partner asks an interviewing student to lunch, the student is the firm’s guest and should be seated first. However, if you’re a new associate, and you ask a senior associate to lunch, with the intent of soliciting career advice, the senior associate is the guest and should be seated first. Of course, when a lawyer asks a client to lunch, the client is always the most important person.
  • Electronic devices. Unless you expect an emergency phone call, email or text, during any business meal, stash your electronic devices and focus on building relationships with fellow diners.
  • Bread & butter. I don’t know why this stymies legal professionals, but it does. Here’s the correct way to eat a roll or bread: break off a chunk that’s equivalent to about one or two bites, add butter, and eat. Do not use a bread-and-butter knife to cut a roll in half, and please do not slather butter all over a roll before consuming.
  • American vs. Continental style of dining. At the table, Americans typically employ a zig-zag style: holding your fork in your left hand and your knife in your right hand, cut a few bites of food. Then, place the knife across the top of the plate, move your fork into your right hand, and start eating. Repeat. Throughout most of the rest of the world, diners use a style in which the fork remains in the left hand at all times. Learn one of these two styles—whichever ensures that most of the food is safely transported to your mouth—and use it. Please do not develop your own hybrid style.
  • Treat wait staff with respect. This rule applies to everyone, and it is especially important for interviewing students. The #1 reason employers invite students to interview meals is to observe how they interact with wait staff. I have lost count of the number of employers who have told me, “When a student treats a member of the wait staff disrespectfully, I immediately cross them off my list of potential candidates.” These employers worry that a potential new hire could bring this same disrespectful attitude into their organization, which few will risk no matter how impressive the student’s grades, writing, or connections might be.