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It’s that time of year again. With major holidays right around the corner, there will be invites to parties, company-sponsored get-togethers, and social gatherings galore. For new lawyers, advice on how to conduct oneself at festive gatherings runs the gamut. At some firms, the annual holiday bash can be a nerve-wracking event, where associates have the opportunity to converse with senior partners � sometimes for the very first time. With booze flowing, some say it’s time to have fun without worrying about misstepping or misspeaking. Making an ass of yourself, say the liberal-minded, isn’t a kiss of death. Marty McNamara, partner in charge at the Dallas office of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, says, “We treat [the holiday party] as a nonbusiness event. If you make a fool of yourself, you make a fool of yourself. It’s not something that carries over to the office the next day.” But Tom Alleman, a shareholder in Winstead Sechrest & Minick in Dallas, and Charlie Marshall, managing partner in the Dallas office of Andrews & Kurth, disagree. “I think you’re always on duty, and I think [it's] always better to treat these things as if you’re on duty,” says Alleman. “It only takes one [person] to remember, and it takes only one over-the-top experience that’s exposed in the public somewhere. You might as well clean out your desk.” “It certainly is a trap for the unwary,” Marshall says, noting that mishaps are well-remembered, such as the time an associate at the country club holiday party excused himself to vomit in the bushes outside the door, or the year another inebriated young associate was taken home and deposited at his doorstep, as no one had a key to his house. The sprinklers awakened him the next morning, Marshall says. “The half-life of those stories is infinite.” But even for those few who take the “loosen up” mantra a little too far at firm parties, rarely are there repercussions. One Fort Worth, Texas, associate, who requests anonymity, says that at one fairly informal firm function, a colleague got drunk, stripped down to her thong, and went around offering a joint to her fellow party-goers. As for reprimands the next Monday? “Not a word was said,” the associate says, though colleagues did steer clear of her for a few days. The same associate says that despite the awkwardness that can follow such mishaps, generally firm holiday parties are a time to have fun without guilt. Party bygones are bygones. McNamara says associates should just be themselves. “We want everyone to be relaxed,” he says. “If you say anything or do anything, our view is it doesn’t have anything to do with the office. If someone has too much to drink, we just make sure they get home OK and someone reminds them where their car is.” Again, Alleman and Marshall take different views. “Holiday parties are lovely and fun,” Alleman says, but “remember that the firm holiday party is as much a public event as your appearance before the U.S. Supreme Court.” “While most senior partners may seem out of it,” Marshall says, “they have the memory of elephants. That can be lethal.” Because lawyers tend to have type-A personalities, he says, they thrive on competition. Slip-ups will be remembered: “We’re human beings, after all.” MAKE AN APPEARANCE When considering whether to even attend the firm’s holiday party, new associates are advised to use good judgment. Alleman says, “It depends on the climate of the firm and the climate of the party. There are Christmas parties that are command performances.” Alleman remembers the first firm party he attended at a former firm. “It was awful,” he says. The firm had fewer than 20 attorneys, half of whom Alleman describes as “really old guys” whom he didn’t think he’d have anything in common with. But he went anyway: “I really felt like if I wasn’t there, they’d all remember and think I was Scrooge in the making or not a team player.” No matter the climate, “good manners should always prevail,” Alleman says, noting a couple of faux pas to avoid: “I don’t believe embroidered Christmas sweaters should be allowed at any function for any purpose,” and “never, until you’re an equity shareholder, wear a tie that plays music. Only shareholders are allowed to be that offensive.” Marshall encourages associates to attend the firm’s annual party. “There’s a long memory for those who chronically don’t attend,” he says. But there are a few rules to remember, he notes. “The lovely centerpieces at tables many times involve candles.” And overly amorous behavior should be kept in check, he warns. Making a gaffe at a holiday party, while maybe not career-threatening, can earn an attorney a reputation that is impossible to shake, Marshall says, particularly at big firms, where the party may be the first time some attorneys meet. Lawyers “need a shorthand reference for someone,” he says. “If it’s ‘the person who set fire to the centerpiece at the holiday party,’ that’s how you’re remembered.” Marshall also says associates should avoid senior and name partners and their spouses, at all costs: “That’s a no-win situation. They can be greeted cordially upon arrival and upon leaving. There is no conversation you can engage in that will actually work.” In seriousness, Marshall says the holiday party is generally a feel-good event that associates should try to enjoy: “You don’t get together collectively very often, so there is a very nice aspect to it. There is a warmth that goes along with having a successful business and professional relationships, and seeing how it’s all grown. It’s a wonderful time of year.” SMALL-TALK SKILLS Now is also a perfect time to establish, brush up on, or hone your skills when it comes to making small talk. Most everyone has heard the famous statistic about how many people would rather die than speak in front of a group. What is not so commonly known is that many people also fear simple conversations. Some would rather hide than engage in small talk. What they don’t understand is that they may be missing out on big opportunities. According to Stanford University research, only 15 percent of a person’s success in business is related to technical skills. The rest is related to people skills. If you hope to make partner one day, you will be expected to bring in clients. How can you do that if you’re not connected? Perhaps you dream of opening your own practice. How can you do that without persuading others to believe in you? Whether it’s a business or social setting, you can do certain things to help make small talk easier and beneficial. If you are at a business-related function and know few if any people there, remember: If you’re uncomfortable, most likely others are too. Look for someone who is alone. Make eye contact. Smile. One of the most important parts of small talk is putting people at ease. A smile goes a long way to accomplishing that. Then comes your introduction. People will tend to follow your lead. If you say, “I’m Tom,” most likely what you will get in return is, “Sue.” When introducing yourself, you want to spark a conversation: Offer your hand and say, “Hi, I’m Tom Logan. I work at ABC Firm.” Chances are, Sue will say, “Sue Thomas. I’m corporate counsel for XYZ.” Now you have information to start a conversation. Ask Sue questions related to her work. Also, keep questions focused. If every question is a different subject, you will sound like an interrogator and put people on the defensive. When you’re at a function you attend on a regular but limited basis, where you see the same people but this is your only contact with them, choose words carefully. You don’t want to say, “Hello, Bill. Where’s [your wife] Jennifer?” A lot can happen in a year, and Bill may no longer be married to Jennifer. Instead, a safer approach is, “Hello, Bill. Fill me in on what has happened since I saw you last.” This way, no one is put on the spot. Whatever Bill chooses to talk about, it will be on his terms. Perhaps you’re in someone’s office when the need for small talk arises. Are there diplomas or pictures that catch your eye? I once commented on a painting in a woman’s office. Her face lit up. As it turned out, she had a wonderful personal story behind it, which she was delighted to share with me. She said later, “No one has ever commented on it before.” No matter the setting, asking questions about the other person shows interest. People will remember that. It will set you apart from others. Of course, the other aspect of showing interest is to actively listen when the person does respond. You never know, the person you show interest in today may become a client tomorrow � or even a boss. CONVERSATION KILLERS Just as there are ways to help generate conversation, there are ways to kill it. As important as questions are, the wrong types are deadly. For example, questions that require one- or two-word answers won’t break the tension or help a conversation develop. Questions on politics and religion also can backfire. Also, certain behaviors can kill a conversation and create an unfavorable impression of you. Monopolizing the conversation, focusing on yourself, interrupting, being the expert on every topic, or advising others on what to do in every situation will have people avoiding you for the rest of the night � and at the next event. Small talk serves important purposes, allowing you to meet new business and personal contacts. It’s a way for you to make a favorable impression on people. You can easily accomplish this by putting others at ease, showing interest in them, and listening to what they say. Skillful small talk can reap big results. Cristina Smith is a free-lance writer based in North Carolina. This article first appeared in Texas Lawyer, an American Lawyer Media weekly newspaper.

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