To celebrate the launch of the 2nd edition of ‘How to make partner and still have a life’, Heather Townsend, explores what it really means to ‘Be Professional”.

What advice have you had at the start of your career? “Dress for success”, “Always volunteer”, “Be eager, but not pushy” – and plenty more? And I am sure you’ve had it drummed into you that you must always be professional.

What does that mean, exactly?

I don’t think most people really know, judging from the stilted behaviour I see at networking events. Some seem to be so afraid of appearing unprofessional, that they squash every last morsel of personality under a heavy rock and present a dull, corporate, stuffed shirt to everyone, talking about nothing apart from business.


I take their cards with little enthusiasm and make an excuse about needing to circulate. If they stick in my mind, it’s not for good reasons, and, unless they have a stunning reputation, I’m unlikely to send work their way.

So, even if we are hazy about what being professional is –  we are all clear about what it isn’t, aren’t we?

Unprofessional is in the eye of the beholder

I am sure I don’t have to tell you that too much alcohol, photocopiers and body parts, personal comments, sexism, racism, and so on are not professional. You’re too intelligent for that. But, somewhere between these extremes, lies the magic of a real, amusing, likeable, interesting, competent, trustworthy and professional human being.

That’s a start. You won’t ever be able to make everyone like you. My professional standards are going to be different to yours, and different again to the next person’s. It’s a judgement call how far you can reveal personal information about yourself such as your family, hobbies, politics – it will vary according to who you are talking to.

It’s fairly usual to only realise you’ve been unprofessional when someone else tells you so. And you need to decide whether that’s a fair criticism or not.

Professional is not a label you give yourself. It’s a description that you hope others will apply to you. David Maister.

You’ll need psychic ability and common sense

Your firm will have a set of standards to which you should adhere, but these are unlikely to be set out as a checklist. Until you have absorbed the firm’s culture, you might not know you’ve transgressed until it’s too late, and you’re told that everyone knows not to . . . whatever. That’s where you might need a touch of mind-reading. Or watch more experienced colleagues carefully and follow what they do (unless you think they are unprofessional, of course!).

The common sense side of being professional includes:

  • Being inoffensive – but not bland.
  • Never sharing rumours or gossip.
  • Being adult about triumphs and disasters.
  • Never complaining about your firm in public.
  • No backstabbing or undermining colleagues (in your firm or not).
  • Being polite and pleasant even when you don’t like the person.
  • Taking work seriously, owning up to mistakes, and fixing them.

I didn’t need to tell you those, did I?

What’s the basic minimum for being professional?

Like I said, it’s horses for courses, and behaviour that’s fine one day with one set of people might not be fine tomorrow with another set. However, I think there are some baselines below which professional behaviour should never dip. This is my checklist of what being professional means:

  • Taking care of your appearance, dress, and hygiene.
  • Respecting the relationship with the client.
  • Putting the client at the centre of everything you do.
  • Treating your colleagues with respect.
  • Presenting a united front with your colleagues in public.
  • Getting no more than merry if alcohol is served.
  • Not getting into a compromising situation.
  • Not posting anything on social media that could be embarrassing to you, a client, or your firm.

So, once you have ironed out the wrinkles of being unprofessional, just try to be you. Take a genuine interest in the person you are talking to. Share appropriate information about your life. Tell jokes, and laugh. Discuss sport, opera, films, whatever you find you have in common. Build rapport and make people remember you, like you, and want to work with you.

Aristotle said that we are what we repeatedly do. So, if you consistently act in a professional manner, then you will become a professional.

Author Credit

professionalHeather Townsend is a best-selling author and executive coach who helps people make partner in the legal, accounting, and consultancy professions. She blogs on the How To Make Partner website, where you can read many more articles about developing your brand.

The new edition of the best-selling How To Make Partner And Still Have a Life is now out. It’s been called ‘an absolute must-read (and potential life saver) for anyone pursuing a professional career.’

Buy your copy now and get 20% discount with the code H2MPG20