For both new and experienced paralegals, the thought of going to a business lunch or dinner can strike fear. Take the same attorneys and paralegal managers you see in the conference room, put them around a dining table, and things suddenly become awkward. Whether you're faced with the prospect of dining with colleagues at a work-related conference or event or preparing for a formal business dinner with potential or existing clients and colleagues, I’ve provided tips that will help you to sail through a business lunch or dinner with grace.
Business dining etiquette
Novice legal assistants often struggle with the very concept of the business plus lunch (or dinner). Is it supposed to be business, or lunch? It's supposed to be both, but the focus should be on making the most of your time with your host to meet specific career goals (for example, discussing workplace performance, learning about new job opportunities, or developing a mentor-mentee relationship). Ultimately, it’s an investment in further developing a relationship outside of the typical office setting.
As a general rule, business meals consist of small talk before getting down to legal matters and other business. If you're naturally shy or uncomfortable making small talk, determine 3-4 potential topics ahead of time (e.g. upcoming travel, interesting news articles about legal trends, or conferences in your field) so you can contribute to the conversation. If you’ve never met the host before, do some research about them and see where they’ve worked, gone to school, and lived. This can spur conversation and shows that you did your homework.
After the small talk, which can range in time depending on how well you know your host, you’ll usually shift into discussing business. It's always best to take your cues from the host. If they address a business-related question to you after 5, 10, or 20 minutes, they’re signaling the transition to business topics.
If you need a refresher on place settings at a fine dining restaurant, The Paralegal Society has an excellent overview. Read it and practice by setting your own table at home if you're nervous that you'll accidentally use the wrong bread plate or water glass. When you’re confident in your table manners, you’ll feel more relaxed and be able to present yourself in an authentic manner.
What to order
For many legal professionals, the question of what to order can be a tricky one. Again, follow your host. If they order appetizers or a first course, you should, too. If they say they have a meeting immediately after lunch and will need to leave at a certain time, go straight to the main course. Remember, this isn’t about the food, it’s about getting quality time and conversation with your host so try accommodate their schedule and time constraints.
In terms of the types dishes that are “safe” to order, there are no rules. With so many people having food allergies these days, your dining companion is not likely to make assumptions about your behavior or personality if you order the goat cheese salad instead of the steak. That said, don’t turn the conversation into a chance to talk about why you're avoiding gluten or how great you feel since going vegan. If you do have specific food preferences, peruse the restaurant menu ahead of time to identify options you can order. Avoid messy foods that could cause an embarrassing splatter or spill – pasta with red sauce, burgers or any foods that require eating with your hands, etc. The eating part shouldn’t distract you from the conversation at hand or necessitate a trip to the dry cleaners. At the end of the day, this is an opportunity to spend time with someone who will help you reach your career goals.
Business dinner ethics
In the event where you’re dining with colleagues and others -- at the NFPA Conference, for example, or with a potential client and attorneys -- it's important to employ business ethics. Above all, you absolutely shouldn’t mention in a public place anything that could be considered confidential. Look around your table and consider all of the people who may know names and facts pertaining to your case, clients, or firm. In the worst case, this information could sabotage the firm's relationship with a client. Even in the best case, those present can think that you lack discretion and good judgment, traits you don’t want to be seen lacking in the legal profession.
Paralegals, do you have any other tips for successfully handling the business lunch or dinner? Or a personal story of what NOT to do when dining with coworkers or clients? Let us know in the comments.