Community + Relationships

Helping Others Understand What You Do for Work

  • Stating your legal occupation can be a conversation-killer if you don’t prepare your message
  • In casual settings, keep it light, specific and explanatory to engage others in conversation
  • When networking, focus on the problems you solve to show value and stand out from the crowd

When it comes to explaining what you do for a living, in some ways lawyers have it easy.

After all, our profession is as well-known as doctors and firefighters (which, together with lawyers, form trifecta of children’s aspirations). We certainly have it easier than our friends in data analytics.

Even so, it seems most people hear “lawyer” and jump to one of a few stand-out stereotypes: the pencil-pusher or the Perry Mason (or Tom Cruise in “A Few Good Men” for the younger crowd).

So if you want to answer the question “What do you do?” with a bit more oomph, it’s time to say something more than “I’m a lawyer, and you?”

First things first, your explanation depends on your relationship with the audience. Do you want to impress them? Engage in conversation? Sound busy? Or sound casual?

Either way, you’ll typically want to choose an answer that makes your career sound productive, professional, and meaningful—and also gives your listeners a frame of reference for your workday. Wherever you are, there’s a way to answer accurately and lead to the conversation or impression you’re hoping for.

#1 Party Time

Is there any more dreaded question than this one to answer for a group of semi-strangers at a festive gathering? In the worst case scenario, your answer confuses, bores, or intimidates them … and definitely goes no further than “And you?”

There are three keys to party conversation: Keep it fun, keep it light, and give your fellow conversationalists something to respond to. Which means you need to add in a little specificity. If you’re a corporate lawyer, which practice are you in and which type of clients? You don’t need to mention the name, but offering up whether they’re public or private, as well as the industry will give your audience a more granular sense of what you do. If you’re a litigator, talk specifically about the issues you’ve handled, especially if there were some novel arguments in your cases. Trust us, you’ll start a conversation by mentioning more detail for your listeners to follow up on.

If you’re on the more technical side of law, there’s something for you, too. Mention some of the more current developments in law you focus on. Whether it’s tax, intellectual property, or another specialist area, your audience is likely to have heard of some of these more news-oriented events and be more engaged in the conversation because of it.

On the flip side, if you want to get a bit more general, you can also mention difficult clients, demanding partners, and hectic schedules to connect with others. You’d be surprised at how many other people travel a lot, deal with difficult clients, or spend all day at a desk—and most of them want to swap eye-rolls with you about it. Just make sure to come across more amused than bitter, since you don’t want to be seen as bashing your job or clients to people you’ve just met.

Think about a party you attended where you had the best reaction and a fun conversation after revealing your profession. Why do you think the reaction was so positive?

#2 Networking

Have an elevator pitch? If you don’t, you probably know you need to have one, and that the average pitch isn’t going to distinguish you at a lunch with 10 other lawyers. Instead of filling your seven-second slot with jargon and legal specialties, focus on explaining the problems you solve and the value you bring to the table.

Try swapping “I’m a small-business lawyer” for “I help high-growth entrepreneurs make money without getting tied up in paperwork.” Not only does that introduction show exactly what you do and point out your value, it also shows expertise and confidence—the key traits for a rainmaker.

#3 Dating

There’s no place you’ll have to battle lawyer stereotypes more than on a first date. Say “I’m a lawyer,” and you risk painting yourself as argumentative, unavailable, or as a status symbol. But you also don’t want to seem evasive or, worse, self-promotional. The trick here? Offer a quick answer along with a short, light explanation. “I’m an appellate lawyer, which means I help my clients appeal previous court decisions.”

Remember, dates are all about getting to know each other, so offer your partner a chance to probe further with “How familiar are you with [insert the type of law you practice]?” Their answer will let you know if they want to hear more, or if they’re ready to move on. When said without condescension, that question is also a best-case choice for holiday dinners, airplane seatmates, and any other casual conversation setting.

Of course, be prepared to discuss how busy lawyers really are and entertain a few lawyer jokes along the way. After all, some conversation pieces are just a part of the job.