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Dressed Down: What Does Being ‘Professional’ Really Mean?

By Jared Correia

It’s something you hear when you’re starting your career (and something you’ll hear constantly, throughout your career, if you’re a nonconformist): “You have to be more professional.” Of course, that begs the question, just how does one “be professional” in the first place?

Think about what your definition for professionalism has been. It’s not something you came up with yourself. No one is coloring a particularly sweet giraffe in kindergarten thinking: “How can I do this kindergarten thing in a more professional manner?”

You don’t start thinking about this notion of professionalism until you start working — and not because you feel like it’s the right thing to do, either. Someone (your first boss, a teacher priding himself on remaining grounded in “real life”) started drilling the idea into your head. “Professionalism” — never was there a finer term to air-quote. It’s one of those useless self-referential words. The notion is entirely amorphous.

Professionalism means whatever someone else has told you it means.

How to be professional? This Is How We Do It

A lot of people have a lot of ideas about how you should be. Through the kaleidoscope of professionalism, a number of commonly held beliefs have taken hold.

It’s How You Dress.

I can’t imagine that’s true. Matching is important to standard-bearers for professionalism. But is clothing really memorable (unless it’s a super-heinous choice — see Craig Sager, at his best, and note that that’s a conscious choice)? I don’t think so.

There’s a scene near the end of “The Shawshank Redemption” where Andy Dufresne walks through the prison wearing the warden’s polished shoes because, “Seriously, how often do you really look at a man’s shoes?” Billy Joel wore suits and white tennis shoes and he slays a piano more professionally than anyone else I know. Lamar Alexander wore plaid shirts all the time during his presidential campaigns; it became his trademark. Many lawyers still love to wear bow ties. That’s the kind of profession this is. The notion of being well-dressed has become a tyranny of idiosyncrasies.

It’s What You Say.

Only to the extent that just about anything is what you say, since humans primarily communicate through speech. Truthfully, it’s more about what you don’t say. The best lawyers are usually the best listeners, though that is true of every profession’s brightest stars. Those who listen first have the most information to go on — and that is essential for formulating the best possible plans. If you’re looking for new business in a professional environment, try talking about everything other than work until it makes you nervous. The conversation will come around to the subject. Make people come to you. Never be the aggressor. Many professionals can’t get out from under their own sales pitches. Get over yours.

It’s Whether You’re Likeable.

Well, sure. But that’s overrated, too. Besides, it’s sort of the opposite of a stiff notion of professionalism anyway, right? If we were plotting a graph here, it’s probably true that the less professional I am, the more likeable I am. Would I rather discuss the new James Taylor album instead of addressing law practice management? You’re goddamn right I would.

It’s How You Carry Yourself.

That’s part of it, yeah. But that’s an even more amorphous notion than professionalism. How do I “carry” myself, exactly? On a litter? One can only hope. In a spoon? Seriously.

Professionalism means what you think it means and what others think it means. If you’ve purchased into some notion of what someone else thinks it is, then for you professionalism is entirely someone else’s definition of who you should be. Your business mentors probably mean well, but they don’t know the first thing about your essential humanity.

How to Act Professional: Genuinely Unnerving

Of course, that’s only one side of the coin. If you want to go ahead and define your own notion of professionalism — that’s good for you — you can go ahead and give the proverbial establishment the finger. Especially as a solo attorney, or as an entrepreneur managing a small law firm, you have that ability to wear moccasins and use your dog as a footstool, if you want to. But this all gets a little less tidy, and a lot scarier, when you spin out that notion of other people’s perceptions of you. As in:

Dear God, what if my potential clients don’t think I’m professional enough?

If you think that’s scary, here’s something even more frightening: You can never really know whether they will or not.

As a businessperson, you’re launching a public face without knowing whom it will turn on, or off. Market research may help distill attributes of your client base, but you can’t make a genuine determination of someone person’s views on professionalism from a chain of statistics. Maybe someone person working in a white-shoe office rolls a little Hank 3 on the weekends and really could care less if you wear a tie or not. Or maybe she listens to Hank 1, and thinks a tie is an essential item of modern manhood. You just have to guess. Someone person’s notion of professionalism is like a mathematical formula only to the extent that you’re trying to solve for n.

Naturally, this also applies to the majority of existing clients, those who’ve already bought into some notion of what you bring to the table — though you’ll never know if that notion was their idea of your professionalism. The average lawyer does not have enough depth-riddled engagement with the average client to know what said client exactly respects about said lawyer.

In the final analysis, then, it’s probably just as silly to “be the professional your client wants you to be” as it is to “be the professional your boss wants you to be,” because it’s all rudely constructed guesswork.

Trying to manage other people’s expectations is a parlor game, not a strategy. It’s far less complicated, easier, and better to just be who you are and to let things shake out as they were meant to fall apart — especially considering the fact there is only one thing you need to do to acquire and service business effectively.

Gone for Good

How about this for a viable definition of professionalism: being visibly good at what you do. If you can be good at your job in a way that people notice, that’s really all you need to consistently generate business. Now, admittedly, that is easier for, say, a professional baseball player to do, than it is for a lawyer. Although, the divide is probably not as wide as you’d like to believe, even if it does mean that the lawyer will have to put more effort into marketing than the ballplayer will.

The drag of the traditional version of professionalism is that it features an additional requirement. Not only are you supposed to be doing your job well, you’re also expected to act in a certain way, a way that may be unnatural for you, and a way that is entirely determined by other people’s ideas of who you should be. Forget that noise.

If the core of professionalism is doing your job well, then doing so leaves you free to distill more of your own personality into your working life. And that checklist of things traditionally used to tie folks down to a version of professionalism that was not their own? Well, that’s all window-dressing. In marketing terms, it’s your branding.

If you are good at what you do and people are generally aware of that (you’re professional), then you should be able to dress it up however you please (your branding). Maybe your thing is that you wear plaid. Maybe your thing is that you wear pink. Maybe your thing is that you’re funny. Maybe your thing is that you’re not. It’s all part of the package, but it’s your package.

Besides, creating your own personalized business identity is so much easier than trying to live up to anyone else’s expectations. It stakes you to a position that’s less difficult to maintain, so you’re less likely to waver or to appear to waver.

All of the aspects of your business profile, including your professionalism (if you want to call it that) and your branding, are different jimmies for opening different, locked doors. The frightening thing is that there is no guarantee anything you try will work in a particular instance. You won’t know what’s on the other side of that locked door until you get it opened. But the more you can be like a Swiss Army knife (providing multiple personal access points for those who want to work with you), the less often you’ll be eating soup with a fork. If you can relax that traditional notion of professionalism, you will be able to strip away layers between your personal and professional selves, which will make you more attractive to those seeking service providers like you.

In the Internet age, it’s acceptable to be both a business person and a real person — in fact, it’s encouraged. You have to be just likeable enough for potential business partners to confirm the decision they’ve already made to work with you — which decision is, rightly, based on their faith in your competence. All that really matters is that you’re as good as you say you are — even if your socks are unmatched.

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not represent the views of the Massachusetts Law Office Management Assistance Program.

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Jared Correia Jared Correia

Jared D. Correia is CEO of Red Cave Law Firm Consulting, which offers subscription-based law firm business management consulting services, and works with legal vendors to develop programming and content. Jared is also COO of Gideon Software, Inc., which offers intelligent messaging and predictive analytics software built exclusively for law firms. A former practicing attorney, Jared is the host of the Legal Toolkit podcast and speaks frequently at industry events. In addition to his Attorney at Work column, Managing, he writes an advice column for Lawyerist and on tech startups for Above the Law. Follow him @JaredCorreia.

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