Solicitors and barristers are professional workers. They are paid to provide a service (usually!) and are regulated by a professional body.
Yet, acting professionally is a broader, more ambiguous role requirement for junior lawyers – one that is essential when interacting with colleagues and clients. After all, it is one’s professionalism that helps to create the trusted adviser persona to which most junior lawyers aspire.
When we say that somebody is professional, we usually mean that they demonstrate a set of expected workplace behaviours. For example, they deliver work to an exceptional standard or really focus on their client throughout a project.
Thinking about professionalism is important because trainees who embody professional characteristics create an aura of competence around them. This aura means that they are more likely to receive future opportunities with higher levels of responsibility.
Below are some traits that typify individuals who I consider to be model professionals.
It is important to remember that as a lawyer, your services are sought to solve a problem – possibly for your employer (eg, you can provide a missing skill set) or maybe for a client who needs specialist advice.
Consequently, being a ‘pro’ means that you are there to provide a solution. Thus, if you start to cause more unnecessary headaches, rather than eliminate them, your approach will need to change.
For example, missing meetings, providing documents at the last minute, forgetting deadlines or being late will not be tolerated. In addition, producing work that lacks attention to detail will be noted. Therefore, do your utmost to make people feel that they can leave you with a problem and rely on you to solve it.
Model professionals consistently get the basics right and use their initiative to provide solutions when required. Further, when problems are inevitably encountered, they deliver informed suggestions and help to implement the resolutions.
Being a reliable problem solver does not mean saying ‘yes’ to everything. It is important to understand your limitations. Ask yourself whether you can deliver the task to a high standard and to the deadline. If you cannot meet your deadline because you have taken on too much – you may actually be causing rather than solving problems.
An individual’s style and competency are not necessarily related; NASA rocket scientists rarely appear on the cover of Vogue. However, the reality is that looks do convey an impression.
An untucked shirt or unpolished shoes are little details that get noticed by clients – to many, they suggest a lack of care and attention. Alternatively, a person who piles on the accessories can convey a ridiculous impression. After a certain number of items, they may appear less like a professional and more like a Christmas tree.
In contrast, professionals are confident in their attire. They dress smartly in a way that meets the needs of their environment and provides an unconscious assurance that they know what they are doing. Their work and knowledge are then able to do the talking, as their appearance is not a distraction.
On the whole, professionals meet their commitments. When they cannot, they inform others in good time and with a justified reason.
This character trait is especially important in the legal sector. After all, missing court or regulation deadlines can mean the collapse of a trial or a failure to meet the firm’s contractual obligations.
Further, with legal processes often relying on several people for approval – missing an internal deadline can cause unwelcome pressure and stress for others involved.
Therefore, a good technique is to under promise and over deliver. You do not want to be the person always having to come up with innovative excuses. Further, ‘my apologies’ and ‘sorry’ are not the words that people want to read at the start of an email.
I believe that an understated aspect of professionalism is respect – both for others and for yourself.
This means acting honestly, with integrity and not spinning the truth. Therefore, avoid taking credit to enhance your personal reputation; instead, offer gratitude when someone has helped you.
Further, welcome challenging constructive feedback which, if implemented, can enhance your performance. In addition, model professionals interact with colleagues and clients in a way that makes them a joy to work alongside. In a people-centred business like law, the importance of this cannot be understated.
Effective communication is a mysterious concept. Nearly all roles require it and whether someone has it is often taken for granted. Perhaps, like good plumbing, it is something we notice the importance of only when it is lacking.
Professional communication means regular expectation management and setting clear instructions. Some individuals have an innate ability to keep others informed of developments and exactly what is required.
High priority and urgent labelling are used only when required and not by default. Professionals are prompt and accountable for what they say, their response is considered and they justify their reasoning. This makes working with them productive and far easier.
Also, model professionals use communication beyond mere information transfer to establish networks and relationships. For instance, their body language is receptive and they employ the appropriate level of jargon for their audience. Further, they may provide courtesy calls to ensure that an email is read with the correct tone.
In addition, they correspond in the method that works best for the nature of the task – taking extra time to discuss in person if required.
Attitude is perhaps the most distinguishing feature of someone who embodies professionalism. Although the context may be stressful, professionals maintain a positive and respectful approach when performing a task. They can take the personal out of the relationship and focus on the assignment at hand.
Adopting an enthusiastic and considerate attitude will reflect well on your employer, particularly in the eyes of the client. Therefore, to be trusted with more demanding tasks, make sure that you can maintain a professional attitude under pressure.
A model professional’s work is consistently of an exceptional standard, above and beyond what others deliver. They pay attention to the subtle details and provide the best solution for clients based on their extensive knowledge of their business and industry.
Being professional means dedication to continuous training. In law, this could mean keeping informed of the latest technology to boost efficiency for clients or keeping up to date with ongoing case law. Finally, many lawyers spend years learning the nuances of their clients’ needs. This dedication to client service is a key aspect of professionalism that we should all try to mirror.
In law, you will frequently be working in a stressful, pressured environment and your clients will expect you deliver to a high standard. Therefore, knowing what is expected of a professional can help you to understand your firm’s expectations, impress colleagues and competently meet the demands of the role.