Asking for a Drink: the right way

Career services professionals generally agree that the most embarrassing stories from the worlds of recruiting and work revolve around alcohol. One way to avoid becoming the star of a Famous Career Adviser Story comes from the Always Correct Culture and Manners Institute's Etiquette Tip of the Week: 

When you are invited to a cocktail party in someone's home and you are asked what you would like to drink, your response should not be "I'd like a Bombay Sapphire martini straight up with bleu cheese stuffed olives and have the vermouth blow the martini a kiss."

The proper response is "What are you serving?"

If you are hosting the party, be able to recite a few of the beverages that you have available, along with any specialty cocktails. Be sure to offer non-alcoholic beverages as well for non-drinkers and designated drivers.

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Going to work: email communication blunder

In Philip Galanes Social Qs column in the NYTimes (September 25, 2011) he suggests that the solution to an email miscommunication is Professional Snarkiness. Bad idea.

Q:  I’m very junior at my company, but meet with higher-ups, who appear not to read my e-mails. They often miss critical information, then send frantic e-mails asking why they have not been kept informed. I’d like to reply with a bit of bite: “As I e-mailed yesterday, the proposal will go out tomorrow.” Too much?
             Anonymous, New York City
A. Not at all!! Though I might add a touch of boot-licking, if I were you: “Please let me know if that schedule is convenient for you.”

Should this junior exec follow these instructions and engage in Professional Snarkiness, he or she is doomed. Galanes should have urged the junior to have a face-to-face conversation with the individual managers and to ask how they would like to receive information. They might suggest:
  • Changing the email subject to clarify the content
  • Using "urgent" mode
  • Copying the managers' assistants
  • Sending hard copy
  • Texting
  • Leaving voicemail to let the manager know that they information in coming in an email
Junior professionals should never, ever allow themselves to be managed by telepathy, nor should they imagine that their supervisors can read their minds.

Al Coleman's Secrets to Success: a must read for first-gen professionals

Al Coleman, Jr.
Pave the Rocky Road to Success For first-generation professionals, the road to success can appear either rocky or barely visible. Without personal contacts and mentors, first-gen professionals can stumble and fail to achieve even the slightest bit of their potential.

This need not continue.

In Secrets to Success: The Definitive Career Development Guide for New and First Generation Professionals, Al Coleman Jr. has written a blue-print for first-gen professionals of all colors and backgrounds which provides critical, useful, and detailed instructions for finding and creating a path to success. In a short book whose most compelling chapters are on mentoring and branding excellent work, he also addresses self-assessment, educational and financial planning, and work-life balance.

Who is Al Coleman, Jr.? He is the son of Alfred W. Coleman III, a Liberian immigrant who lost everything in his homeland’s civil war, yet made his way into success the world of business. He died young (54), leaving his son inspired to create a document that would honor his father by helping to create a path for first-gen students who seek success.  

Why pay attention to Al Coleman, Jr?  He was a struggling “C” student in high school who made himself into an honors undergraduate who performed well in a number of Fortune 500 internships. He earned his law degree at a top 20 law school, and was promoted to a Director-level position at a billion dollar firm while earning multiple professional awards for legal and business leadership. He was teaching, presenting national speaking engagements, and mentoring  high performing emerging leaders – all by the age of 30.

He writes from the heart and, most importantly, he writes from his own experience and the wisdom of others.

Mentoring An early childhood inspiration which opened a door to a nuanced view of mentoring came from one of his Mother’s friends, who said “While it’s wise to learn from your mistakes, it’s wiser to learn from the mistakes of others.”

He notes the dearth of minority and first-gen professionals in management and professional positions, but says that “pipeline” is a symptom and not the problem. Rather, he writes, being mentored is the single most important element of success, and in “Talk to the Future You” (Chapter 3) Coleman helpfully outlines the steps that should be taken to identify and nurture mentor relationships.

Starting early He knew instinctively that marching up to a stranger or a boss and saying “Will you be my mentor?” would be both inappropriate and pointless. He started correctly, and he started early:
[beginning in high school]… I participated in a science internship at a large multinational consumer products company in the Twin Cities. During my internship I made sure that I spent at least 30 minutes a week with my boss, a Manager in the department, and asked him as many questions as I could about how he got his current position. I didn’t want his job, but I wanted his lifestyle. I wanted to be paid for my intellectual talents rather than my manual labor. I wanted to be a creator rather than a server.
Creator or server? In Chapter  2 (The Facts: What You Don’t Know Can Hurt You), he explores the career implications of the differences between creator and server, which echo issues in the current state of the economy in which professionals (creators) drive productivity and servers are supplanted by cheap labor or machines. Noting that servers have no place in key management or professional occupations, he opts for creativity and recommends it to others.

Excellent performance matters  Sub-par performance has no place in Coleman’s toolbox. He endorses (no relation) Harvey J. Coleman’s Empowering Yourself: The Organizational Games Revealed branding theory called P.I.E., an acronym for Performance-Image-Exposure. When broken out, it asserts that  the correct division among these elements is:

 Coleman notes that “Performance” appears to be the least of the elements, but he stresses that it is the quality of the performance makes or breaks a career. Excellent performance getting lots of exposure is good; shoddy performance getting lots of exposure is bad. It can be a career-ender.

Real exposure Coleman urges his readers to be sure that hard work is seen by all of the stakeholders on a career path: “You can’t be promoted to the next level if no one knows what you’re doing or what you’ve done.”

Self-assessment Career development professionals will cheer his strong endorsement of on-going self-assessment. He suggests focusing on weaknesses (to fix them) as well as strengths (to improve them), and follow the profiles of successful individuals from whom best practices can be learned.

When he suggests that people “dream big,” he adds the helpful caveat of the need to be able to “pivot.” An excellent suggestion, because much can be learned from the challenges arising in a bump in the road. Also, plans engraved in granite can be exploded by changes in personal circumstances, in the economy, or in newly developed interests.

This little book should be required reading for high school, college, and professional students, new professionals, and the advisers and mentors who guide them.  

Why Grammar Matters: not just the Oxford Comma

If you don’t care where the comma goes, you may want to re-think becoming a lawyer.

Long before bloggers at began debating  the Oxford Comma, I always made this point to prospective law students during the years that I worked in law school career services.
Lawyers’ writing, which includes much more than briefs and court documents, requires an astonishing amount of precision. When ambiguity trumps precision, the door to expensive and embarrassing litigation may open. Saying “I’m sorry” will not insulate you:

  • from the difference between $4,000 and $400,000,000 of Officers’ and Directors’ Liability Insurance in a signed contract;
  • from your clients’ skepticism about your competence should your documents be littered with typos and grammatical errors (“I can spell. Why can’t my lawyer? What else is wrong with her advice? ”) [props to the excellent lawyer and writer Maura O'Connor]; or
  • from the understandable rage of a prisoner whose statute of limitations for appeal tolled because you weren’t clear about the difference between working days and calendar days.

All too often, law students want give short shrift to Legal Writing because it is either pass/fail or has fewer credits than other first year courses. This is a foolish and short-sighted attitude which law grads live to regret.

In addition to the task of teaching legal reasoning and writing, Legal Writing instructors care deeply about grammar, and they have a wonderful platform in which to share their concern and their passion. In a post on the Legal Skills Research Blog, Deborah K. Hackerson (St. Thomas, Minneapolis) links to an excellent post from Stanford Law Library's Rachel Samberg called How to Use Legislative History to Teach Grammar which describes a "might comma" teachable moment.

Teaching bright students who come from a variety of disciplines with a broad range of attitudes toward grammar rules is a challenge. In Statutory Interpretation in the Age of Grammatical Permissiveness: An Object Lesson for Teaching Why Grammar Matters , Susan J. Hankin (Maryland) makes many excellent points, not the least of which is that legal writing is, indeed, different from other kinds of writing. I once met with a 1L who was a poet who was distressed because she thought that her legal writing instructor was stomping all over her creativity. "No," I said, "you are learning a different kind of writing. After all, if your toaster were to burn down your house, would you send a  poem to its manufacturer, or would you write a stern letter outlining duty, breach, causation, scope of liability, and damages?"

In the rush to learn "legal reasoning," students may neglect the fact that grammar (and spelling) are two critical components of legal writing which make their work useful and accessible to clients. 

Interview Alert: What does the interviewer see in the parking lot?

If you don't get the Culture and Manners Institute's Etiquette Tip of the Week, you risk doing things that will harm your career in ways that you will never know.  

In this week's tip, Certified Etiquette Instructor Callista Gould adds a new potential blunder to your interview checklist:
A woman who works for a trucking company told me she watches interview candidates all the way out to the parking lot. "I want to see what their cars look like," she said. "Because if we are going to trust them with a $120,000 vehicle, we want to see if they take care of their personal vehicle. Is it clean?  Does it have scrapes and dents?  Bumper stickers?" 
A lot of people in human resources are looking out the windows.  And their stories are great: candidates parking in the handicapped parking without qualifying tags, stripping down into something more comfortable before they drive away, hanging out on their cell phones like they are on a stake out of next candidate (Inside the building, they are asking, "Is he/she still there?") and my personal favorite, making out with the person who drove them.
The interview is not over with the final handshake or when the front door closes behind you. Do not linger and make sure your impression outside the business is professional.
One more thing that has been seen from an office window: A candidate was to meet with the Character and Fitness Committee of his state's Board of Law Examiners, whose staff  wanted to inquire about his dismal driving record which included multiple and current driving license suspensions. Any possibility of a good outcome was cut short when he was seen getting out of the car in which he drove himself to the meeting.

Legal Alternative Career Roadblock: people hate lawyers

Reply All 9/1/2011 Donna A. Lewis
Among the roadblocks for lawyers interviewing for jobs without the title lawyer is the fact that lots of people hate lawyers, and all of the Jerk Lawyers that the individuals on the hiring committee have ever dealt with are sitting your shoulders in an interview.

Why do people hate lawyers? The simple answers focus on lawyers' tv ads and the incessant political drumbeat against all malpractice litigation. 

 There are more complex and nuanced reasons:
  1. Lawyers deal with individuals' difficult problems. Individuals rarely visit lawyers to receive or deliver good news.They meet with people in suits who speak a different language and who present options which range from dreadful to unimaginable to unintelligible.While it is true that the best lawyers try very hard to make sure that their clients really understand problems and options, it never easy to be certain. Lawyering is hard work. 
  2. Lawyers deal with difficult problems in organizations. In organizations which separate legal from everything else, the Legal Department may be the last stop before presenting a project to Supreme Deciders for approval. This can get ugly.
Imagine that you are on a committee that has been charged with solving a problem, and, after months of research, you and your colleagues make the best presentation of your lives to one of The Lawyers. If The Lawyer has issues with your ideas, you hope to hear this:  
"Congratulations, you have done excellent work to define the problem and recommend solutions.We need to work together to iron out some issues that you may not have considered. I look forward to working with you before we present this proposal to The Supreme Deciders." 
The Lawyer may say something else. The Lawyer may look over his glasses and say "no." Just "no." It doesn't matter that at some future time, The Lawyer will collaborate with you.You and your colleagues know that you have been kicked in the stomach, and you all agree that you will never be keen on adding a law-trained person to your team. Who would want to work with A Jerk Lawyer, even in another capacity?

Your remedy: You may never know the individual stories of the Jerk Lawyers who join you in your interviews, but you should always remember that they may be there. Your job is to make sure that the people with whom you interview know that you are not a Jerk. Be prepared to discuss your work on teams and to demonstrate how you have collaborated with others.