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How waiting tables could make you a better lawyer

How waiting tables could make you a better lawyer

Hayley Kwan


Waiting tables is not a glamorous job, but one can learn much from it, including essential skills for a lawyer. For two evenings each week during the GDL, I waitressed in a busy Chinese restaurant frequented by locals and tourists in Kensington in London. While the job did not pay for my tuition or rent, I have served and observed customers from various professions and backgrounds, gaining practical skills and experience along the way that few jobs can provide in one month.

“Full hands in, full hands out”

With only five people simultaneously serving fifty diners and taking takeaway orders from incoming calls and online food delivery providers, everyone is busy and every trip through the restaurant is precious. To save time, I learnt to enter the dining area with full hands – taking as much food and utensil as possible – and exit with full hands – taking orders and clearing other tables. Depending on how busy the restaurant was, I paced myself so that I could check on as many tables as possible and food would be ready once I reached the kitchen. This, in essence, is an optimisation problem which requires constant planning and estimation. Will that customer finish their plate by the time I finished serving the hot food in my hands? How long before the appetizer is finished should I instruct the chefs to cook the main course?

The same principle is applicable in everyday life, but also in the legal profession where deadlines are stricter and stakes are higher. A typical corporate lawyer juggling half a dozen cases and blog posts must cram various tasks into a day, many of which are dependent on human interactions. Will my client send me the required documents so that I will be prepared for the court hearing? How can I promote my firm and get insider knowledge from a potential client in a 25-minute conference call? Following the “full hands in, full hands out” principle physically and mentally would not only make routine tasks more efficient by eliminating aimless walks, but would also make each interaction meaningful, as you go into a meeting preparing to get the most out of it. In an age where efficiency is prized more than anything, being able to save clients time and money is a good skill to have indeed.

Customers first

How many times have you stood at the door waiting to be seated, or sat at the table waiting for the bill, while the waiter is chatting at the bar or cleaning up other empty tables? If there is only one thing I learnt from waitressing, that is always be available for customers’ needs. Even if you are busy, a simple “I’ll come back” message, hand signal or nod acknowledges a customer’s need for attention. The same applies to all areas of the service industry - dirty tables, gadgets and emails do not require the same attention in the way colleagues, guests, clients and a human being standing in front of you do. Leaving customers hanging is a misstep when needing to establish a customer relationship.

However, client delivery is equally as important as responsiveness. As a waitress, it means anticipating clients’ needs. For example, tourists should be given cutlery before they request; children should be given small spoons instead of chopsticks. Alternatively, it could be maintaining a warm and friendly atmosphere even if the restaurant is packed and busy. A few weeks into the job, I had a chance to meet a group of tourists who came into the restaurant to dine near closing time just as my colleagues were cleaning up for the next day. Unfortunately, the group found the service to be too hurried and began to complain in their own language. By using body language in an attempt to make a friendly conversation, I successfully persuaded them to discuss their frustration with me in English, allowing me to apologise for the rush, and subsequently got the correct bill.

Often waiting tables is an overlooked work experience when students apply for legal positions. After all it is not a highly-esteemed occupation, and does not involve legal research skills and commercial knowledge. However, it taught me to juggle sets of instructions, prioritise demands, initiate conversations and deal with difficult customers under pressure – all essential skills for a lawyer. More importantly, being the receiving end of being impolitely summoned taught me to be humble. Given the stereotype law students have in society, every lawyer-to-be should wait tables once. We would all be more thoughtful and kinder.