Sometimes it’s the little things that wreak havoc with our carefully manufactured image.
We spend a lot of energy playing the part. We get a nice haircut, we make ourselves smell nice, and we dress up in a fancy suit.
Even our office space plays a role in our quest to make the right impression.
We hang diplomas on the wall next to our law license, opposite the perfect piece of art. The furniture is solid and brightly polished. Some of us lay out fancy $100 pens. We hide the piles of unfinished work in a lower drawer.
We think carefully about the words we say, the stories we tell, the friends we keep, the hobbies we enjoy, and the things we buy. We spend considerable energy playing the part and delivering on expectations.
But it can all unravel in an instant.
Sometimes it’s the smallest thing that undermines our credibility. Sometimes we don’t notice when it happens or understand why. We don’t see what others see.
Of course, we can’t control other people’s perceptions entirely. They see what they choose to see through their own filters.
And they interpret what they see in their own way. There’s simply no way to control what other people think.
But we can try.
Here are some of the things I’ve seen damage a lawyer’s credibility. They’re mostly small, but they cut to the core of what people evaluate when they decide to trust one another.
1. Email domain (and something free for you)
Your email address shouldn’t matter. In fact, many people won’t even notice your address. But if they do, it shouldn’t draw attention away from your name and message.
When people get your email, you want them to think, “Nice email. He must be a smart, impressive lawyer.”
You don’t want them to think, “1985 is calling from America Online.”
Is your email address firstname.lastname@example.org? How embarrassing. AOL? Gmail, Yahoo, or Hotmail? Seriously?
Instead, get a cool email address like Lee@RosenInstitute.com. That’s a sweet address that screams “I am important, successful, and smart.” You need an address like mine.
If you’re plagued by one of those outdated, distracting, credibility-damaging email addresses, use our free course to fix the problem in an hour. What are you waiting for? Here’s the email domain course.
2. Ugly work product
We used to work on cases with a lawyer who used multiple fonts in every document. He was a nice, creative, solid lawyer, but people perceived him as a clown due to his unprofessional work product.
His documents were always entertaining. Sometimes they made us laugh. They were even a little persuasive.
But it was all so weird and unprofessional. His paperwork diminished his credibility even when he wasn’t physically present.
Be creative, be different, and use design to create a work product that’s useful, understandable, and persuasive. But make sure it looks good. Don’t go crazy and wind up looking ridiculous.
3. Bad breath and poor grooming
Is it just me or is bad breath the worst?
When I get trapped by someone with bad breath, I want to throw up a little in my mouth (which I suppose would give me bad breath).
You can be the nicest person on the planet and say the smartest things, but horrible breath is a deal-breaker.
If you have killer breath, please stand back. Give that toxic brew some space to dissipate in the air. Please don’t get that Sarin gas crap on me. Buy some breath mints!
While we’re at it, get a haircut and trim that thing you call a beard. Bathe once in a while, too. Use hygiene products that smell nice (but not so much that your clients suffocate).
Oh, and take care of your fingernails. If you wear makeup, get it right.
It’s great that you love to exercise, but shower after your workouts please. When your odor arrives before you even enter the room, your credibility crumbles.
4. Dumpy car
Back when I was a 25 year-old associate, a condescending lawyer hopped out of his Jaguar and smirked at my car. He said something like, “Oh, you’re still driving that?”
He wasn’t impressed by my Honda Civic. Of course, we were both filling our own tanks in the self-service area, so he wasn’t nearly as superior as he believed. I still dislike that guy.
You don’t need a fancy car, but you do need to care of your belongings.
Your car should be clean and tidy. Empty your Dunkin’ Donut bags and used coffee cups before they pile up to the windows. Patch and paint those rust holes.
People judge us based on the way we take care of our stuff. Don’t leave the old sofa on the front porch. Don’t wait until you get a letter from the homeowner’s association to mow the lawn. Don’t leave the Christmas lights up until June.
5. Badly malfunctioning wardrobe
I’m the last guy who should give fashion advice. I own one pair of shoes (Nike sneakers). My entire wardrobe fits in my carry-on bag.
I’m not exactly Mr. Fashion, but I know dumpy when I see it and I know when it’s not working for you.
You need to dress the part. That doesn’t necessarily mean expensive suits or flamboyant ties or whatever. It just means you should dress in whatever way is appropriate for the situation.
You wouldn’t wear your swimsuit to a high-end restaurant. You wouldn’t wear a tuxedo to a fried chicken joint. You wouldn’t wear worn-out gym shorts to an important interview.
If you have taste like mine (in other words, bad), get help from someone who knows how to make fashion decisions. Some lawyers pay people for this service, but you might have a fashionable friend who is willing to be honest.
6. Declined credit card
You’ve invited another lawyer to lunch. When you’ve both finished eating, you put your card down and the server runs the charge. Declined.
A declined credit card doesn’t always mean you’re over your limit…but sometimes it does. Regardless, it’s an embarrassing situation. How it affects your credibility depends on how you handle it.
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When it happens–and it will–stay calm. Don’t yell at the server. Don’t keep trying to explain it. That only makes you appear less confident. Expect a card decline to happen at some point and be prepared.
Have a backup plan when you know you’ll be the one paying the bill. Keep a second card or enough cash on hand so you won’t have to count on your lunch date to pay.
People judge one another based on how they manage their finances. After spending an entire lunch building your credibility, you don’t want to ruin it in a flash.
7. Being a bigoted, sexist pig
We never think we’re the one who thinks these things. I tell people I’m a “reasonable guy,” but times change. What’s considered reasonable changes, too.
Be careful what you think, do, and say, because the whole world is watching, and we think less of you when you act like a bigot.
When in doubt, don’t say it. If it starts with “I don’t care what gender you are…” or “I’m not a sexist or a racist…” or “It doesn’t matter to me which color you are…” or “I don’t normally say this about…” you should probably just stop.
Political conversations often lead to these issues. Avoid political conversations whenever possible.
In our highly polarized environment, your political statements are loaded with meaning that goes beyond the specific words you speak. So, say less.
Social media amplifies your words. The wrong words are especially powerful and can be turned against you.
Change your mind, not just your words, and you’ll maintain your credibility.
8. Filler words
So, like, while we’re talking about, um, words that can–you know–undermine your, uh, credibility, we should also, like, um, talk about filler words.
Here are some filler words you probably use: “Like,” “um,” “ah,” “er,” “you know,” “okay,” “hrm,” and “right.”
I record a weekly podcast that forces me to think carefully about filler words because I know I’m going to listen to myself later (because I’m an egomaniac and I always listen to myself). This exercise forces me to edit myself as I go.
Edit yourself as well. Get feedback from a trusted friend to determine if you use filler words excessively without noticing. Most of us do at some point. It’s hard to avoid.
9. Weak shake
Shaking hands is easy. You (1) make eye contact, (2) smile, and (3) firmly shake the other person’s hand.
Don’t do anything weird. Don’t do the two-handed thing. Don’t hold on too long. Don’t shake weakly.
Shaking hands is an important part of people’s first impressions, so shake properly. Practice it if necessary. Come find me and I’ll give you lessons.
Shaking hands is easy, so don’t let it be the thing that diminishes your credibility.
10. Getting wasted
Whether you’re at the firm holiday party, a dinner meeting with a client, an after-work gathering with co-workers, or a party with friends, don’t drink too much.
Getting drunk, high, or wasted in whatever way you prefer doesn’t boost your credibility. It’s a quick, powerful, and effective way to undermine trust.
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You’ll find yourself in settings where you think there’s no risk in having “just one more.” Those settings will turn upside down in an instant when the wrong person comes walking through the door. This is definitely a better-safe-than-sorry situation.
The small things matter
It’s unfortunate how quickly years of relationship-building can evaporate. We work hard to demonstrate our good character and reliability, and then we make a mistake that undermines all that credibility in an instant.
Thankfully, investing time and energy in relationships gives you some latitude. As you build a relationship, you also deposit credit in the bank account of trust.
This balance minimizes the impact of a blow to your credibility when there’s a long history between you and the other person.
But even when there’s positive history, repeated credibility issues will destroy the trust you’ve worked hard to build.
When it comes to building credibility with other people, we tend to focus most of our energy on the big issues. It’s also worth thinking about the small details because they can undermine us if we’re not paying attention.