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Each February, Michelle Mitchell plans a booby-trapped dinner for the 80 or so law students who may know plenty about the Rule Against Perpetuities but zilch about a fish fork. As associate director of career development at Michigan State University College of Law, Mitchell devises the menu for the school’s sell-out etiquette dinner, which includes such challenges as explosive cherry tomatoes, unruly peas and far too many spoon options. “I pick a tricky dessert, too,” she said. The dinners are designed to address the deficiency in basic etiquette know-how among young people, a problem that apparently has become so pronounced that law schools and law firms alike are assuming the task of teaching social graces to a generation raised on Taco Bell take-out. “They didn’t grow up sitting at the table with a full family, with linens and Lenox on the table,” Mitchell said. “They’re just not used to it, but their employers expect them to know it.” Professional development departments at law firms and career services offices at law schools are busy instructing so-called Generation Y on the finer points of dining, socializing and electronic communication. Some programs cover the fundamentals, such as when to use a superior’s first name or when to send a thank you note. Others deal with e-mail manners, including which situations call for face-to-face meetings and when to use the phone rather than the computer. Still other firms offer more in-depth training that addresses how to negotiate a deal tactfully and confidently, and how to ask for plum assignments. Michigan State’s dinners cover the basics. Keeping cellphones turned on while dining-”I preach about that,” Mitchell said-is a common blunder for attendees, as are using the wrong eating utensils and trying to gobble down bites that are too big. Other gaffes she warns students about include drinking alcohol when it is inappropriate, dressing too casually and ordering an entree that is difficult to eat (think crab legs). “Students aren’t comfortable being in these situations, and they don’t think about their choices,” she said. McDermott, Will & Emery is one of many law firms that provides etiquette lessons for its new associates. In charge of etiquette at the 1,025-attorney firm is Sharon Abrahams, the director of professional development who also trains second-year students at Yale Law School each year. Part of the challenge for the younger generation is that the etiquette game changes, Abrahams said. Some of the old rules based on gender, such as standing when a woman approaches the dinner table, have given way to new customs based on seniority. She also noted that kissing upon greeting at a social event is an accepted custom in some parts of the country, but considered too forward in other regions. A delicate approach with her trainees is best, said Abrahams, who tries to avoid using the word “etiquette” when conducting her sessions. “It’s a touchy subject,” she said, adding that an “erosion of good manners” has created the need for more etiquette training. But Kavan Lee, a third-year law student at Northwestern University School of Law, said that most of his classmates learned the rules before beginning law school. They just needed a refresher course before starting work, he said. With a job lined up at Baker & McKenzie after he graduates next semester, Lee attended the school’s etiquette training dinner last fall to brush up on his manners. “Most of it’s commonsense stuff, but it never hurts to clean up the rough edges,” he said. The 50 or so students attending the dinner were instructed about the difference between continental and European etiquette, with an expert who walked around the tables providing pointers for improvement. Watching how people reacted when they made blunders also was helpful in learning to recover gracefully from a faux pas, he said. A few of the rules seemed silly, Lee said. For example, passing the butter all the way around the table to the right, the proper direction according to the rules of etiquette, when the person seated next to him on the left had requested it was a bit much, he said. He also took issue with putting nametags on the right lapel, when the left seemed more logical. Althea Brown, a first-year associate at Dewey Ballantine, was able to polish her etiquette skills when she started as a summer associate and again when she went full-time at the 572-attorney New York firm. She said that one of the most helpful “soup to nuts” tips she and other associates received was how to work a room-alone-at a business function. She learned to be more comfortable about approaching people and joining in conversations. She also got pointers on handshakes and e-mail. Morton Pierce, chairman of Dewey Ballantine, said manners training is something that associates request. “Many of our lawyers have said that a course on how to act in social situations in the business world not only be interesting and fun but also [be a] big help in ensuring that they know what to do-and not to do-in dealing with clients and colleagues,” Pierce said. Some of Dewey Ballantine’s training was provided by Ann Marie Sabath, president of At Ease Inc., a business protocol and etiquette firm based in Cincinnati. People from Brown’s era are part of what she calls the “McManners Generation,” most of whose members cannot distinguish a butter knife from a grapefruit spoon. “It’s not their fault,” she said. “No one taught them.” Sabath has provided training to many other law firms including Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft of New York; Clifford Chance; Dorsey & Whitney; and Proskauer Rose of New York. Common etiquette errata Sabath sees among young attorneys include bringing a “Starbucks” coffee into a meeting, hogging food at buffet lines and failing to send thank you notes.

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