Respect is a powerful word. We all want to be respected. It’s the swaggering demand of cinema stereotype gang members. It’s the name of the UK membership association for domestic violence prevention programmes and integrated support services. It’s the name of a political party.
Lawyers’ professional codes of conduct insist on respect for the rule of law. The SRA code of conduct requires solicitors to ‘uphold the rule of law and the proper administration of justice’ and to comply with ‘legal and regulatory obligations’. These are written rules that lawyers must follow but at law school and in law firms the rules of showing and earning respect are not always so obvious.
Like trust, respect is something that has to be earned and one thoughtless act can destroy what has been carefully built up. For you as a law student or a trainee, earning respect is something you should be working on if you want a smooth career path. One of the best ways to earn it is to show it.
Showing respect will get you assistance with your work, your job applications and your future career
First, recognise that for the next few years most of the people who can help you are older than you and many of them have struggled as hard as, or even harder, than you to gain their qualifications and their present positions. It’s not pompous to expect a little acknowledgement of their position.
Second, remember that seniority does not bring only power and pelf, but also pressure and time shortage.
Third, ask yourself why they should put themselves out to help you? What’s in it for them, except perhaps the feeling that they and any effort they make on your behalf are appreciated?
Fourth, remember that your demeanour and actions will colour the way that they think about students and your generation generally.
(Unwritten) Respect Rules OK
1. Don’t address senior members of staff by their first names, even if someone else has suggested that they are very friendly and speaks of them in a familiar way. Wait until it is suggested to you. Take the time to find out who they are and address them properly, especially if you are sending an email asking for help. “Dear Professor X” will get you far more attention than “Dear Mary” or worse still “Mary”. Addressing the senior partner of a law firm as “Dear Charles” is plain rude if it should be “Dear Sir Charles”. If the reply comes back “Dear George …. please call me Charles”, then you know it’s acceptable to address your next email “Dear Charles”. Until then it is disrespectful to do so.
2. Don’t send emails where you don’t address someone at all.
3. Don’t send emails asking for something without using the words “please” and “thank you”. Sending a curt note that says “Could you tell me/direct me/help me…” invites the visceral response “Yes, I could, but why would I?”
4. Don’t be vague. Formulate your request as precisely as you can, so that they can assess whether they really are in a position to help you. A vague “I would like to ask you some questions about your area of expertise” might suggest that you haven’t bothered to prepare. To a busy person this is a warning sign that their time may be about to be wasted. “I am particularly interested in how section 29 might apply in civil proceedings” is far better because it shows that you have done your homework and that you know that the person you are writing to is something of a section 29 expert.
5. Don’t ask a member of the academic staff for information which can be easily found through an internet search or by consulting the Library staff.
Whose time is it anyway?
If you want someone senior to give up their time to help you, ask when they will be free. You may think that it is helpful to suggest when you have free time, but the implication is that your time as a student is more precious that than of a professor or senior lecturer. This is never likely to get you off on the right foot with anyone.
In the work place show respect for your colleagues’ personal lives: sharing an office with a successful partner is a privilege and you can learn a lot by hanging on to their every word – almost. It is inevitable that from time to time they will need to take or make a personal call. “I can’t talk now” followed by a series of monosyllabic responses is a clear indication that it is high time for you to leave the room quietly and to go to the water cooler/ washroom/ library for a few minutes.
If you do happen to overhear sensitive snippets regarding their kids/ health/ marriage etc, never ever repeat them. Show some respect and forget that you ever heard them. On the other hand, while you are trainee or a junior lawyer, never assume that you can take or make personal calls – it’s distracting for others. One day you will know you have earned enough respect to do this, but until then — don’t.
Applying for jobs and interviews
The same things apply when you are applying for a job. You show respect by:
1. Sending in applications without spelling and grammatical mistakes, where you have taken the time to find out the correct mode of address for any covering letters. And this also applies if you send a letter accepting an interview date or asking for it to be changed.
2. Making sure that emails to your prospective employer are equally accurate and lucid. Remember that these things are kept on file, so you don’t want to appear sloppy.
3. Looking neat, tidy and clean at interview.
4. Ensuring that you are not late for interview and that if you are unavoidably held up, phoning ahead to apprise your interviewing firm of the problem.
Two final thoughts…
The first is bang up to date.
The Football Association says that “Respect is the collective responsibility of everyone involved in football to create a fair, safe and enjoyable environment in which the game can take place.”
Note the emphasis on “safe, fair and enjoyable environment”. In an office environment you will find that there are many people who are nominally not senior to you, such as messengers, typists and cleaners, but who have a covert and surprising ability to aid or defeat you. Afford them equal respect for their expertise. In this way you will begin to earn it.
And the second comes from a long time ago.
“Without feelings of respect, what is there to distinguish men from beasts?” Confucius
Professor Penny Cooper of The City Law School and Elizabeth Cruickshank are the authors of ‘All you need to know about being a Trainee Solicitor’ (Longtail, 2008) and together with Boma Ozobia of “The Survival Manual for New Wigs” (Odade 2010).