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Q. I’m going to be joining a large law firm this fall and would like advice on handling my image. Specifically, I look very young for my age. How best can I look credible to my fellow lawyers and, more important, my clients? Any tips regarding clothing, demeanor, or anything else? A. First of all, you can’t do much about the basic fact that you’re young and just starting out. The only thing that will change that is the passage of time. Remember that your older colleagues will, to some extent, understand your situation — and if they don’t they certainly should. Youth is youth, with all its charms and defects. The great thing about having young recruits is they bring fresh air into an office, they can often identify new ways of doing things, and they inject new ideas and energy into the atmosphere. Everybody’s been young once and knows the pitfalls. It is true that being taken seriously by clients often can be adversely affected by an overly youthful appearance. Many people have complained to me that clients and other people they encounter in practice (including judges) will comment on how young they look, even asking their age. One judge asked a female lawyer, who was sitting in chambers representing a client, whether she was still in high school! Unbelievable, but true. So your concern is not an idle one. Regardless of whether you’re dealing with clients or colleagues, there are a few points to keep in mind. Often, people who look very young tend to overcompensate: They are more aggressive than necessary, they act overly pompous, or they are arrogant, irritating people with know-it-all attitudes right from the start. Try to avoid coming on too strong as you begin practice. Sometimes people overcompensate by dressing in a way that is overly formal or severe. Whether you are a man or woman, remember that including some personality in your dress is a sign of confidence, not inexperience or audacity. So wearing a striking tie or shirt, a colorful scarf or antique jewelry, is a mark of individuality. Very trendy wear or overly casual garb would probably not work in your favor if you’re combatting a “too young” appearance. Dressing down automatically makes people look younger, so be careful if your firm has casual Fridays; you will cement in people’s minds an impression of looking overly young if you don’t choose your casual wardrobe with care. Newbies can be so focused on proving their professional abilities that they neglect interpersonal skills, which are critically important. Remember that a major objective in relating to clients is to make them feel comfortable and at ease. Your clients want to trust you and you need to build that trust. Experienced lawyers are marked by a natural manner, while less-experienced lawyers sometimes are afraid to show their personalities and feel insecure about joking around and being relaxed. A confident person isn’t afraid to show his or her true personality. Some younger practitioners openly express a lack of confidence. They say things like, “Gee, I just don’t know what to do,” or, “I’ll never make it here.” They confide too much in others that they are scared or intimidated, and they indulge in too much public hand-wringing. Correctly or not, many colleagues will write these people off. So be careful about fretting too openly. Make low-key efforts to seek out help, and remember that everyone has to learn their way around. The most important thing is to keep your eyes open and learn, learn, learn. Q. I have been encouraged by my colleagues to play on a sports team for an apparently noncompetitive, just-for-fun game. While I welcome the opportunity to meet new people, the plain truth is that I am very bad at sports. Any kind of sport. I always have been. The first impression I would leave with people on the team is that I can’t play — which they may (unintentionally) hold against me. What should I do? A. Many people cringe at the thought of displaying laughable athletic abilities before co-workers. But the fact is that playing sports within legal workplaces is widespread and, ideally, a great way to interact with colleagues and get to know people. And those informal relationships can, of course, lead over time to even more things — better case assignments, advancements, you name it. So if you can join in and don’t suffer too much, it’s a worthwhile thing to do. Excelling at sports within a work environment can distinguish you, properly or not. (In Cameron Stracher’s account of working at a large law firm, Double Billing, he pulls himself out of obscurity — and wins praise from partners — not with excellent legal work but by winning a running race.) And of course there’s a gender dimension to this question. You don’t mention if you’re male or female, but expectations are probably greater for men than women when it comes to participating in sports events. (However, both men and women can gain fame with stellar performances.) I’d say you need to gauge how casual and “fun” the sports in your workplace actually are. Sometimes these games really are just an excuse to run around and bond together. Most players are more interested in getting people together and having fun than in proving their prowess. There isn’t too much pressure on lame players. Other times, the participants are deadly serious, unforgiving of those who can’t catch a ball to save their lives. I’d ask someone who’s involved how competitive your colleagues get. If they’re overly intense, bag it. It puts too much unnecessary strain on you. Here are some tips. If you decide to go out to play (a good idea since you were specifically invited), maneuver things so you’re playing inconspicuous positions that require less skill and interaction. Play right field in softball, not shortstop or center field; in basketball, guard an opposing player who’s also not superstar material. If you decide not to play, tell those who harangue you that it’s not your thing, but that you’ll be happy to watch them play and go out drinking with them afterward. Also, be assured that there are lots of other ways to bring yourself to people’s attention so you fulfill the “informal networking” requirement without subjecting yourself to social agony. Consult the myriad marketing and networking manuals out there to get some ideas that are more consonant with your own personality. Q. I am a third-year law student and I work part-time at a small firm that is not doing well. The area of practice of the firm is not what I went to law school for, and because of the economy I have not been able to find another job. I really would like to become a public interest lawyer but have no idea where to start. Should I quit my current job now? Or wait until I pass the bar? A. I’m presuming that you’re a young person. You have the luxury at this stage to take a hard look at what you want to do in your life and mold your actions accordingly. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve talked with who, at various ages (in their 20s, at midcareer, even late in life) have confessed, “I hate what I’m doing,” or, “I really wanted to pursue another career but I never made the switch.” It’s shocking how often people drift into areas they don’t like. In midlife, these ill-conceived choices can lead to much soul searching and angst, but at that point there’s often little that can be done about it. Keep in mind that the reason many middle-aged people look with envy at younger people who are at the beginning of their careers is they see people who have real options, who haven’t made critically important choices that reverberate through the years, and who aren’t boxed in due to mortgages and loans and obligations. Following your passion is an important criterion for long-term career satisfaction. It makes the difference between a job that is a pleasure, something you’ll look forward to every day, versus something that seems like a chore and an onerous burden. The law often requires long hours, and spending much of your life doing something you don’t care about is enervating. If the only job you can find is in an area you’re not interested in, make every effort to read up on areas you are interested in, cultivate contacts, and go to bar association gatherings so that you can cross paths with people who are in the area you like. You can lay the groundwork for a switch even while you are employed in a job that’s not exactly your preference. And these days, it probably is wise to stay put (certainly to wait until you pass the bar) rather than to leave without the prospect of a permanent job. Therefore, you need to appraise your needs in life. For instance, are you very materialistic? Do you see yourself as a main or sole breadwinner in a family, supporting a spouse, providing for kids who will need to go to college, etc.? What motivates you — is it money and prestige, power and influence, or mission and outcome? If you visualize a future where you need to earn lots of money, that reality will limit what you can do, or at least make it much harder to choose a low-income endeavor such as public interest law. If you prefer to have a mission, something where you feel like you are doing some good in the world (whatever your definition of “good” might be), that will guide you in different directions than if you see a job as a vehicle more for material wealth. So your question isn’t an idle one. The way you resolve your options early in your career can be vitally important to your long-term happiness and health. Many people (often mom and dad) will try to talk you out of passionate endeavors that are low-income. But it’s essential to maintain some independence on this point, to think deeply about what you enjoy, why you enjoy it, what your needs will be, and if at all possible to follow your passion. That process, pursued successfully, will provide fuel for the long journey through life. Holly English, a former litigator, is principal consultant with Values At Work in Montclair, N.J., which helps organizations build high-performance workplaces. She also writes on law and management topics. She may be reached at [email protected].

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