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Q. I have read numerous articles that offer generic tips and resolutions that can be followed in the new year. Although these are interesting, I am more interested in some suggestions that you have that a lawyer can specifically embrace. Can you cite a few things that I may be able to adopt that could make a difference this year? What type of factors are those that help to distinguish the most successful lawyers you work with from others?

A. This is a particularly timely question, as a few of the suggestions that follow were underscored by encounters or other activities that occurred over the holidays. I will offer my top-five tips for 2008. This month we’ll examine the top two; next month’s column will address the final three recommendations.

Find that dog-eared copy of Strunk & White, aka sharpen your speech.

Lawyers are among the most educated, intelligent collection of professionals in the country. High native intellects, strong work ethics, and 19 years of education (at least) most often combine to produce an elite group of practitioners. It thus is surprising to hear an increasing number of attorneys commit some common verbal missteps.

For instance, I watched a national news conference in which one of the country’s most celebrated lawyers occupied center stage. It was a masterful, captivating performance, at least until the following words were uttered: “No one should have went to jail.” I immediately thought that I must not have listened carefully enough — did I really hear a superstar lawyer say “should have went?” Sure enough, the transcript confirmed that those precise words were used.

I was acutely aware of that particular phrase, as it had echoed just as loudly several years earlier. At that time, I was part of a team of executives who sat through a day of “dog and pony” shows in which some of the country’s top firms competed to represent our company. The leader of one of those firms used just that phrase, along with several other verbal miscues. As we deliberated later, what do you think was among the topics we discussed? Yes, it was the destruction of the English language, which led one of my colleagues to ask, “How can we pay a lawyer $500 an hour who can’t use the language well? Won’t this reflect poorly on our company, too?”

The start of a new year serves as a good break point at which one might want to step back and examine if he has similarly allowed some poor speech patterns to develop. After all, if one of the leading members of the bar can make such mistakes, how can the rest of us be impervious to this malady?

I will list just a few of the most egregious grammar mistakes that are on the rise today (there are countless books that cover this topic in greater depth). It is important to note, though, that I am not advocating that we all adopt the King’s English and speak in a stilted fashion that is incompatible with modern life. There is no need, for example, to assume that William Safire is sitting on your shoulder, poised with pitchfork in hand, and ready to jab you every time a mistake is made. There is a time for informality, but some basic tenets must be followed, as befit a true professional. Try to avoid these bell-ringers:

Improper use of participles. This is our “should have went” example. Related missteps include “could have did” and “should have drank.”

Not understanding reflexive pronouns. An especially irritating misuse that is closing fast on the lead concerns reflexive pronouns. For example, “I, myself, have done that” (excise the word “myself”) and “Tom, Janet, and myself went to the movies” (substitute the word “I” for myself).

Ending a sentence with a preposition. We all learned this in third grade, but this error is back in full force. If I had a dollar for every time I heard “that is where it’s at” (or some similar phrase), early retirement could have been a reality.

Mispronouncing common words. I will skip regional dialects, as these can influence the pronunciation of quite a few words. Rather, here are several that transcend geographical forces:

“Social.” We will hear this word quite a lot in 2008, as social security is a key election issue. Remember that there is an “l” at the end of the word; the word is not pronounced ‘sosha’ and thus does not refer to the manager of the Los Angeles Angels.

“Asterisk.” In a similar vein, do not forget the second “s” in this word.

“Lackadaisical.” Since no lawyer could possibly have this adjective used to describe him, perhaps unfamiliarity explains an increasing inability to pronounce it. It is helpful to remember that there is no “s” that follows the “k.”

I apologize for the preachy aspect of this recommendation. It is offered since the little things, such as grammar, can make a huge difference. Lawyers, whether they work in a law firm, corporations, government, or some other fora, operate in a super competitive environment. As language is a realm completely under your control, don’t let it be a factor that holds you back in any setting.

Present yourself in a good light.

I am not referring to the need to showcase your better side in that captivating Web site photo or your publicity headshot. I am also not jumping on the Extreme Makeover bandwagon or suggesting that you pay a visit to “Doctor 90210″ to explore some type of plastic surgery to enhance your look. Rather, this recommendation merely urges some to work a bit harder on how you present yourself to others. I will briefly explore three examples.

The first point was driven home during the most recent holiday season. I was very fortunate to have received quite a few holiday cards, which were much appreciated. Unfortunately, there were five signatures (actually quick scrawls) on cards that, despite Herculean efforts that a handwriting analyst would admire, simply could not be deciphered.

Each of these cards was sent by lawyers in large law firms, so a supposition that I should have been able to quickly deduce the signatory certainly was not in play here. Consequently, the sender, who intended to do a nice thing, actually achieved the converse, as the message I received was that this lawyer was either arrogant enough to assume that everyone knows his hieroglyphic-like scribble, or too busy to take the time to legibly sign the card. Oh, well, at least the cards were captivating.

Second, it is becoming increasingly apparent that in-person meetings are becoming secondary to phone calls and e-mail, particularly the latter. It thus behooves you to ensure that what others hear, or see, when you are communicating with them, is consonant with the image you hope to convey. As such, a hurried or downcast voicemail greeting may be the first thing that a prospective client hears, which is hardly the impression you want to create. Take a deep breath, collect yourself, and make sure your message is crisp, professional, and upbeat. Similarly, remember that e-mail can linger for quite some time in one’s inbox and mind, so don’t fire off that message when you are angry or harried. Take an extra minute to at least read it before hitting “send,” to determine if it, as a standalone communication, has the tone and substance that puts you in the best light.

Finally, we are now deep into this “business casual” era that has infiltrated law firms and corporations across the country. I will leave it to others who are much more qualified than I to opine as to whether this has proven to be a true positive for businesses. However, to loop back to the theme that underlies this month’s article — that lawyers are supposed to be a breed apart – I at least posit that you, and other readers, may want to assess whether you have joined the ranks of the bedraggled who are not doing the profession (or their employers) proud.

In this regard, I have had the privilege of visiting countless law firms and companies across the country, which range from some of the largest and best known to many small, cutting edge boutiques and start ups. It is becoming increasingly disquieting to see some lawyers in those businesses that virtually look like they rolled out of bed shortly before our meeting. I have been greeted by partners (again, in major firms), who are clad in wrinkled Dockers and sweaters that were pulled over scruffy T-shirts. Summer is the time when the golf course look has become accepted, which arguably is OK, except that I have met with quite a few lawyers whose attire would disqualify them from playing on a municipal course.

I am not, in any fashion (no pun intended), suggesting that lawyers need to dress every day is if they are attending a formal event. Rather, remember that you are being paid a lot of money and are in a leading profession, which carries a bit higher expectation as to how you appear. What if tomorrow is the day that a client unexpectedly pays you a visit? Or, for in house lawyers, what if a member of the board of directors changes his plans and drops into your office on a whim? How will you feel about how you look? If it is anything less than 100 percent, it most assuredly will impact your mindset and can affect how you perform in the meeting. Additionally, how will the other person react upon seeing you?

Think back to all those days spent studying in the library, the lost weekends and late hours that have piled up since you started practicing, and all the other sacrifices you have made to attain your current position. Wouldn’t you prefer that your skill, and not something like your attire, be the factor that influences a particular outcome?

FRANK M. D’AMORE is the founder of Attorney Career Catalysts, www.attycareers.com, a Pennsylvania-based legal recruiting, consulting and training firm. He is a former partner in an AmLaw 200 firm, general counsel in privately held and publicly traded companies, and vice president of business development. He can be reached at [email protected].

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