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By: Katie Fridsma

Reprinted with permission from the Center for Advanced Legal Studies: http://www.paralegal.edu/

When they say first impressions are everything, well…they’re right. I’m not talking about in your personal life, where that person who rubbed you the wrong way when you first met later became one of your closest friends. But in the professional world, where you’re subconsciously judged by the firmness of your handshake or the warmth of your “good morning,” a first impression can make a world of difference.

Employers—including employers of paralegals—often make decisions about who to hire based on their first impression of the applicant. Some businesses are even beginning to re-title their receptionist or front desk position to “Director of First Impressions,” recognizing the importance of these positions in setting the tone for their entire company.

Be a Professional First Impression-Maker

In addition to being one of these aforementioned “Director of First Impressions,” at Center for Advanced Legal Studies (though that is not my official title), I am also a professional actor. If there is any field that realizes the significance of first impressions and where careers and employment depend sometimes entirely on that first impression, it’s theatre.

Both in my studies to earn my MFA in Acting and my professional work since then, I’ve learned that an actor’s real job is a professional auditioner. From the second you walk into an audition, you are being sized up and assessed. Most directors know whether or not they might cast you in a matter of seconds, before you even begin your audition; and in most casting calls, you have 60-90 seconds to do your audition. 60-90 seconds to somehow stand out among the dozens or hundreds of people auditioning that day. From my experience in both the legal office/administrative setting and the acting/auditioning arena, it would be fair to say I’m a professional first impression-maker.

First Impressions in the Paralegal Field

First impressions are no less important in the legal arena, specifically for paralegals. Your career path in law could be drastically different depending on the kind of first impression you make. Whether it’s interviewing with attorneys for a coveted job or being the first person to meet with a new client, paralegals also need to be professional first impression-makers. You’re first greeting or handshake with a client sets the tone and expectation for all of their dealings with your firm.

Your Chance to Be the Exception!

Here’s the thing about making good, no, great first impressions: it’s not common. I’m shocked by how many very pleasant and competent individuals still do not make great impressions at first. Self-awareness is a tricky thing, and if you want to improve your first impression skills, you may need to ask others what their first impression of you was. Don’t shy away from doing some unflinching self-analysis here or asking for insights from others. Rest assured, if you can make a great first impression, you will stand out.

Tips on Making a Great First Impression

I want to share a few tips on making great first impressions. I am not going to present to you those typical and common-sense bullet-points so often thrown around in these types of conversations. Yes, dress professionally and neatly. Yes, give a firm (NOT limp, NOT death-grip) handshake. Yes, remember names, smile, and make eye contact. Of course, of course, of course. These things are extremely important, both in the paralegal field and any area of life, and should be second-nature to you. Have a few trusted friends or colleagues rate how well you do these things if you’re not sure. But I want to talk to you about those more enigmatic aspects of a first impression, two subtle factors that change a good first impression to a great first impression: Comfort and Confidence.

Comfort

We hear “be yourself” so often. But do we really do it? Have you ever caught yourself having a drastically different work persona from your rest-of-life persona? I know I have. I think sometimes we “put on” a professional version of our self instead of simply being who we are in a professional setting. Or we try to be who we think our potential employer (or casting director!) wants us to be.

The thing is, folks, people see through it. It comes across as fake. I can’t stress the importance of being comfortable in your own skin. I once had a position where I felt that I couldn’t meet my employers’ expectations and I was walking on eggshells around them. Instead of taking a deep breath and continuing to be real around them, I noticed that I was developing a reserved and deferential “work persona,” scared to make a wrong move; and I’m sure that this unnatural and uncomfortable work persona in turn affected my interactions with their clients.

Since then, I have consciously tried to bring more consistency to who I am at work and who I am everywhere else, trying to be the same person to everyone I come in contact with during the day. I still sometimes cringe when I answer the phone and hear a tad of a “phone voice” in my voice. It’s an ongoing process. But think how rare and refreshing it is when you talk to someone who seems so comfortable with themselves, so real and genuine. Don’t you want to be that person?

Confidence

This goes hand-in-hand with comfort. Being comfortable in your own skin means you are confident in who you are, and being confident in who you are means you will come across as comfortable with yourself. And confidence is so much more attractive when coupled with humility. BUT don’t go assuming you know what confidence is and that you are confident. There is a fine line to walk here, folks. True humility does not mean timidity or down-playing yourself. And true confidence does not mean carrying yourself like you are God’s gift to mankind. Take a moment to honestly self-assess your level of confidence AND how it comes across to others.

Shine by Comparison

Let me give you an example from theatre, from the many auditions I have watched. Picture this: Person A walks to center stage hurriedly with her head slightly down, looks out at the directors and introduces herself somewhat diffidently, gives an awesome audition, says thank you, and quickly walks back offstage. Person B walks onstage with her head tipped back, introduces herself with a tone so confident she might as well be saying “you can just end the auditions and hire me right now,” does an awesome audition, then says “thank you” in a tone where she might as well have said “you’re welcome” and saunters off the stage. Person C walks onstage with a normal and self-assured step, keeping her head up and making eye contact and smiling at the directors, stops on her mark, introduces herself like a real and pleasant person, does an awesome audition, makes eye-contact again with the directors saying a genuine “thank you” and walks offstage the same way they walked onstage.

Person A probably thought she was being humble, but it came across as under-confidence. Person B probably thought she was simply showing her confidence, but it came across as over-confidence. The true confidence, someone comfortable with themselves and not forcing confidence or humility, was portrayed by Person C. If each person gave an equally awesome audition, who would you be drawn to? If these same three people were in an interview for a paralegal position, who would you hire?

Comfort + Confidence = ?

I almost wrote a third C word: Connect. But I realized that would be redundant. When you meet and talk with someone who is extremely comfortable in their own skin, who is genuine and has a humble confidence, you automatically connect with them. It’s like that song, “When you’re smiling, the whole world smiles with you.” When you’re comfortable with yourself, you in turn set people at ease and make them feel comfortable with themselves and with you. When you can have a conversation with a stranger and engage them as a real and genuine human being, people feel connected with you. They feel that they can be real with you. People will be drawn to you and they will respect you (and in turn, they will be drawn to and respect your workplace, your law firm, and anything else you are representing). And that is the art of first impressions.

Create a life mission.

One quick idea in conclusion. At the end of my grad school experience, one of my professors made us each come up with and write down our life mission. It was such a difficult assignment. It’s not the same as your goals for your career or your personal ambitions. A life mission is deeper than that, it overarches both of those things and states the kind of person you want to be and the kind of impact you want to make on the world—the “why” behind everything you stand for and do. It takes a lot of thought to come up with one. Here’s mine, for an example: “To both strive for and infuse others with an insatiable pursuit of truth, an unashamed desire to live fully and authentically, and a love of all that is good and beautiful.” I have that written down on a piece of paper in my wallet; it’s with me wherever I go. And I assure you, the best auditions, interviews, and first impressions I’ve ever done/had/made, were the ones when I took a moment beforehand and read my life mission back to myself.

True confidence and comfort with yourself can be difficult to grasp in some settings, especially if the stakes are high, but if you take a moment to remember who you are, what you believe in, and why you do what you do, that confidence and comfort will be there. You won’t have to fake it or force it or put it on. I encourage you to take some time to write your own life mission and remind yourself of it from time to time, especially as you’re going to interviews for paralegal positions or making important decisions to advance your legal career. I promise you won’t regret it. Happy great first impression-making!

Katie Fridsma, MFA is the Administrative Assistant at Center for Advanced Legal Studies, The Paralegal People™, in Houston, Texas, where she also is a professional actor. Contact Center for Advanced Legal Studies at 800-446-6931 or info@paralegal.edu to request more information on their paralegal training programs or continuing education workshops. www.paralegal.edu

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A Tip from the TPS Dog – Layla the Great:

I learned this one from my mom. If you plan to wear nail polish to a trial, be sure to add a clear top coat over the top of that lovely shade of polish. In the event your nails scrape across the front of one of those really expensive, white, demonstrative blow-ups (and you better believe they will in the midst of the paralegal shuffle), you’ll leave no streaks behind. Wear the top coat. Save the boards!

And while you’re at it, have an absolutely fantastic work week! Charge on through those legal gates of glory, raise that caffeinated beverage in a unified paralegal salute, and show ’em what you’re made of. Be sure to stop back by the paralegal playground later this week!