The Landmines of Practice: Formalities and Professionalism

Posted on Categories Legal Practice, Public, Student Contributor

This semester in Professor Lisa Mazzie’s Advanced Legal Writing: Writing for Law Practice seminar, students are required to write one blog post on a law- or law school-related topic of their choice. Writing blog posts as a lawyer is a great way to practice writing skills, and to do so in a way that allows the writer a little more freedom to showcase his or her own voice, and—eventually for these students—a great way to maintain visibility as a legal professional. Here is one of those blog posts, this one written by 2L Jad Itani.

The legal profession is profoundly focused on formalities and professionalism to the point that the ABA has dedicated a section of its website for professionalism. There are even unspoken protocols regarding who is addressed first in an email.

Accordingly, the legal profession is sure to be a very precise and particular field with very formal structures, right? My curiosity today arises from considering  the professionalism and formalities of practice as a first-year associate. My experiences working with practicing attorneys and even interviewing with them have provided me with conflicting responses.

Growing up, I am sure most of us were raised with the lesson that we show respect by addressing people by their appropriate title: Ms., Mr., Attorney, Dr., Professor, etc. However, on a number of occasions, when addressing future employers by their appropriate title, I have received conflicting responses.

cartoon alligator the litigator
Another example of an improper salutation. He’s a litigator, not an alligator. Address him properly. 

On a few occasions, when I have addressed some attorneys by saying “Attorney [last name],” they seemed uncomfortable with the formalities and requested I address them by their first name. Is that the threshold that provides a person with the opportunities to drop the formalities? When this occurred, the questions of formalities and professionalism started rapidly running through my mind.

There are a number of concerns a first-year associate should have that should outweigh how to properly address a colleague or superior. But it is still nerve-wracking to cross a line that you cannot “uncross.”

How does a person know when they can start addressing colleagues or superiors by their first name? Is it when they request you use their first name instead? That seems logical, although you will, at one point, be referring to half the firm by their first name and the rest by their attorney title. That just seems extremely odd. Maybe it’s when you have been practicing for a few years, so you have experience.

Attorney Dean Strang came and spoke to our Advanced Legal Writing: Writing for Law Practice class, and one of the students asked what he looks for in their cover letters. Although Strang may have misinterpreted the question and believed it was regarding a cover letter that you would send an opposing counsel, his response still caught me by surprise. Strang claimed that he prefers it when the parties use their first names instead of titles. Does that mean that when we are experienced attorneys, we can call everyone by their first name? What about what my parents taught me and showing respect?

Looking past the salutations and how you address future colleagues and employers, the next issue is how you communicate with them. Or, what is an appropriate form of communication. Starting off at a new office can be intimidating because of your lack of experience with the culture and the fact that you might not know anyone.

The appropriate form of communication would immediately seem to be email. However, when does that change? Is it when something is urgent and requires a phone call? Or when someone contacts you by phone first?

This problem occurred to me last summer during my internship. As I grew closer with some of the attorneys, we exchanged phone numbers. However, I was nervous to reach out via text or to call without them doing so first. Fortunately, they saw me as a friend and would text me first, therefore letting me know that this is okay. The question arises when attempting to figure out when it is appropriate and professional to communicate beyond emails.

I am still left with many unanswered questions and would love any guidance as to how I should proceed. My mentality is to always err on the side of caution and show the utmost respect until advised otherwise. Thank you, in advance, for any answers.

One thought on “The Landmines of Practice: Formalities and Professionalism”

  1. I think, in your concern about “doing the right thing,” you’re overthinking the situation a little too much. I think you just address the attorney as “Attorney ___” until they say “Call me ___”, and then you can do that without concern. I’m sure there are lawyers out there who will demand the utmost formality at all times. But, really, most of the lawyers I interact with in the court system subscribe to the same theory I do, which is that we all have too much work and not enough time in the day to waste energy on getting annoyed at someone calling us by our first name instead of our title. Candidly, I’m not sure I even notice what people call me half the time in emails, and if you were working for me as a subordinate I’d probably be more concerned with the quality of your work on assignments than I would whether you sent your email to “Attorney Golden” versus “Andrew” or “Andy.”

    As for the phone/text/email debate you pose, I can’t speak for every lawyer, but I know personally my preference largely depends on (1) where I am when you want to get a hold of me, (2) how urgently you need an answer, and (3) how complex the question is. You want a 4th Amendment analysis of your case? Send me an email. Want to know if I can cover a hearing next door last minute for you? Call or text me. But even then, the only time I might get annoyed is if someone is repeatedly calling me when they know I’m in court. I’ve used Facebook Messenger to ask fellow attorneys questions, particularly as I can send it and then know they’ll respond whenever they get a free moment.

    Bottom line: I generally have a pretty good idea when I talk to someone whether they respect me or not, and it has very little to do with what they call me and how they reach me and far more to do with how they treat me as a person. If you treat me the way you would want to be treated if you were in my shoes, genuflection isn’t necessary. If you work with me, you’re a part of the team, and as long as you’re in my corner you’re welcome to call me whatever and whenever you need.

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