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Shake My Hand Confidently: Why Pre-Law Students Need to Learn Professionalism before Law School

As I walked into my Business Communication course on Thursday, students were talking about what constitutes a proper handshake. They asked me: “What if someone shakes your hand for too long? What should you do?” Termed the “hand-holder” by corporate communications publisher Ragan Communications, this question is just one of the many that today’s college students need to know to navigate the professional world. For pre-law students who will be thrust into the legal market during their 1L year, the costs of not displaying appropriate professionalism are too high to even consider. With the challenging job market, initiating networking with faculty and alumni attorneys and displaying mature, professional attitudes and behaviors, not only in interviews, but in the classroom, have become the new normal in law schools, where career centers have transformed into career and professional development centers. Professionalism has become a must-know for pre-law students entering the new “practice-ready” law school environment and the profession.

In the 2012 Professionalism study conducted by Loyola University Chicago School of Law Assistant Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid Pamela Bloomquist, which was presented at the Pre-Law Advisors National Council (PLANC) 2012 Conference as part of our “How to Prepare Graduating Students for Law School Life & Their Future as Professionals” presentation, law school career center professionals reported that between 2010 to 2012, they had seen a noteworthy decline in the level of respect entering law students displayed to their classmates (15.4% worse), faculty (31.1% worse), senior staff (53.2% worse), clerical/administrative staff (54.8% worse), and potential employers (42.7% worse). What do these statistics demonstrate? They both mirror the higher level of unpreparedness and entitlement exhibited by pre-law students and the new focus by legal employers on hiring law students who are already trained to be legal professionals. Unclear what professionalism includes? Write-in responses by law school career professionals to this question identified the following professionalism skills that had changed most dramatically for the worst: writing skills, oral communication skills, meeting deadlines, attire, attention to detail, listening skills, active engagement of people in productive workplace exchanges, online presence, ability to conduct an interview, ability to hold a conversation, email content, phone etiquette, face-to-face conversations, and, finally, attitude.

The Professionalism study’s results are similar to those found in the 2014 National Professionalism Study Workplace Report conducted by the Center for Professionalism Excellence at York College of Pennsylvania. The Workplace Report identified the qualities most associated with professionalism as communication skills (56.1%), being prepared (49.7%), proper appearance (21.3%), and being ambitious (21.1%). In the study, faculty members described a student who is professional as being skillful at personal interactions (37.85%), being focused (27.4%), and working on a task until it is completed (26.7%). Notably, over a third of professors (37.5%) and human resources respondents (35.9%) reported a decrease in the percentage of students acting professionally. While only one fifth of career professionals (21.8%) stated professionalism has decreased, 34.7% stated it has increased, most likely as a result of their efforts: “two-thirds of the offices (66.3%) have increased their focus on professionalism over the last three years.” The rapid increase along with the focus on innovative professional development programming is bringing professionalism to the forefront. Traditionally thought of as simply “interview etiquette,” these studies illustrate that professionalism today spans all areas of communication and interaction.

Professionalism though is unlike many other skills. While a student can learn how to brief a case in a class or two through trial and error, learning professionalism requires application outside of a classroom and discussion within a classroom. Like all of the scenarios covered in the 1L Torts course that ask “What if…?” professionalism also requires constantly asking questions, then applying those ideas, and then asking more questions.

So how do pre-law students navigate this professional landscape? What can they do to meet the challenges?

  1. First, start thinking and acting like an aspiring professional. Instead of just talking about the future, seize the day. Learn from the experts: Develop mentoring relationships with attorneys. Start with your alumni. Attorneys want to share their experience with highly motivated pre-law students.
  2. Second, develop your writing and research skills for this writing-and-research-based profession. Take an undergraduate Legal Analysis & Writing course. Conduct original, publishable research that includes interviews with practicing attorneys and other related professionals. Develop an ability to provide recommendations for legal action based on an understanding of the law.
  3. Third, develop your presentation skills. Refine your elevator pitch. Be comfortable talking about yourself—the value you bring to a situation. Lead with your strengths.
  4. Fourth, cherish your recommenders. Reach back and keep your mentors throughout your educational career up to date on your pursuits. You will need their guidance as you move into your future.
  5. And, fifth, develop strong interests. Bring your passion to an area of law. Get to know it. Read about it and research it.
  6. Finally, understand what professionalism means: It’s the kaleidoscope of your skills and behavior—your writing, communication, dress, listening, online presence, interview, conversational ability, etiquette, and attitude.       

So, how did I answer my students’ question above? Like a typical JD, I gave a nuanced answer. First, I told them, the “hand-holder” isn’t the correct and typical method for shaking someone’s hand. Next, I explained that some professionals make this mistake, while others actually shake someone’s hand longer than expected because they are attempting to engage the person more in what they are saying. Yes, it can be an attempt to gain attention and control, too. My advice: “Hand-holders” don’t intend to make you uncomfortable so don’t react. The handshake, even a hand-holder style, doesn’t last long, but if a student reacts negatively to the situation his or her reaction could have a lasting impression. After all, as Frank Tyger wrote: “Professionalism is knowing how to do it, when to do it, and doing it.”

About the Author

Karen Graziano, J.D., is a graduate of Fairfield University, Fairfield, CT, with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Communications and English and American University Washington College of Law (WCL), Washington, DC, with a Juris Doctor degree. She is intrigued by others’ stories and is devoted to helping others “develop their ideas in writing and quest in life.” She achieves this mission through her work as a college professor and a consultant, recently launching Graziano Career Works, LLC, where she strives to educate and empower clients to develop and achieve their educational, academic and professional writing, and career goals, and assists universities in achieving their strategic mission through course and program development. Karen founded the Law School Advising Program, Leadership & Professional Development Program, BRIDGE Society, and 1-credit Series of Professional Development courses, which includes Professional Development and The Legal Profession, for Villanova University’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. She served as the pre-law advisor for 10 years and continues her work with pre-law students in her Legal Analysis & Writing course. As a leader in the Northeast Association of Pre-Law Advisors (NAPLA), Karen served as the 2014 Conference Chair, led the 2013 and 2014 New Pre-Law Advisors Workshop Training, and currently serves as the president. As a pre-law student driven to attend law school to research and write about environmental policy, Karen cites her favorite law school accomplishments and experiences as publishing a journal article in the University of Colorado Law School’s Journal of International Environmental Law & Policy; co-creating the first environmental publication at WCL; studying this fascinating profession in her Legal Profession course; being immersed in environmental law courses taught by exceptional faculty members; and finally, writing a series of articles on inspiring mission-centered attorneys in the environmental and human rights fields.

Connect with Karen on Twitter, Blog, LinkedIn, Facebook, and Email. Visit Karen's Website.

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