Miss Manners comes to town

Mary Crane

Mary Crane once cooked for President Clinton but that didn't stop this trained lawyer becoming the etiquette guru of American law. Now she's on her way to London to teach our people-shy lawyers a trick or two. By Morag Preston.

Mary Crane knows the perfect recipe for success – she picked it up at the White House. Until two years ago she worked there as a chef and if there is one thing she learned it is that if you want people eating out of your hand, then you must practise good manners.

These days 38-year-old Crane, a pint-sized American, teaches essential social skills to ambitious but people-shy attorneys across the US – from the value of writing thank-you notes to the graceful art of working a reception. Now she is planning to come to London at the end of this year.

What makes lawyers more likely to listen to Crane is that she is one of them. Her stint as a White House chef comes a long way down her CV.

After graduating from law school in Washington DC, she worked at the legal departments of American Petroleum Institute and then the American Heart Association.

"The thing you have to remember about lawyers is that you need to prove to them that you have something they will benefit from," says Crane with a crafty smile. "Good manners and client service are one and the same thing. People always respond to good manners. If lawyers want to be effective rainmakers, then they need to be polite."

Crane works for Jaffe Associates, a fast-expanding training company based in downtown Washington DC which caters for a healthy slice of the country's top 200 law firms, from New York to California. Two-and-a-half-hour starter sessions for groups of up to 20 people can cost between US$3,000 and $7,000.

Crane's biggest bugbear about the profession is its reluctance to listen to others. "The problem lawyers have is that we think we know all the answers," Crane says. "But the really successful lawyers aren't necessarily the ones who know all the correct legal answers. They're the ones who sit down and spend time with clients, figuring out what is important to that client."

Crane, dubbed the Miss Manners of the legal world, believes that every lawyer should have a dual personality. "I'd be willing to bet that most people who hire a litigator want to believe that their litigator will act as if they're going for the kill when they're in a trial situation," she says.

"But I'd also bet that before the trial situation and after it – when the litigator is talking to that client one-on-one – the client wants someone who is closer to a priest than a killer."

Business-cum-social occasions are a Crane speciality. The correct etiquette required for a drinks party or reception is a complex business it seems. She poses this problem: "Let's say you meet Bill Gates at a party and you have the opportunity to introduce him to your firm's managing partner. Gates is a potential client. Do you introduce the client to your senior partner or the senior partner to your client?" The answer is to introduce the least important person to the most important.

Although lawyers may appear confident – even bullish – Crane says she is always asked two questions: "What do I do if I arrive at a reception on my own knowing nobody there?" and "How do I initiate conversation with a stranger?"

Sounding like an American football coach, she advocates a buddy system. Always attend receptions as a pair, she says. While you work one side of the room, let your companion work the other and, if all goes well, meet up at the end of the room and introduce each other to your new acquaintances.

Jumping into a conversation uninvited is best avoided, says Crane, who suggests "breaking and entering" as a more civilised alternative. "If there is a group of people talking and somebody walks up to that group and starts making eye contact, they're almost automatically admitted into the group. They can watch the exchange going back and forth and then determine when it's appropriate to say: 'That was interesting. Can I ask another question?'"

It frustrates Crane that lawyers arrive at cocktail parties and receptions without an all-important game plan. "There are too many people who go to these events and then walk away afterwards wondering why they didn't meet a prospective client," she says. "Next time, make sure you spend some time deciding why you are attending a cocktail party or a reception before you go."

A thank-you note is obligatory, she says, and too often overlooked. Crane has concocted a sure-fire, three-step recipe: thank your host for the event; say a line about something special at the event, maybe the food; then a follow-up – "I will call you next week", for example. She says it works every time.

It is that follow-up which turns seemingly self-assured lawyers into socially-inept cowards. Crane cites the case of a client, an exceedingly successful partner in a New York law firm who bills $500 an hour and boasts a stack of business cards that dwarfs the Empire State Building. But he feels uncomfortable with picking up the telephone to invite business associates to lunch.

"I remember listening to him and thinking: 'This is my brother when he was 15-years-old and he didn't know how to ask a girl on a date,'" says Crane. She is also advising a group of female partners in Toronto who are troubled by the idea of cold-calling potential clients. "These women grew up in an environment where girls didn't call boys. That's not what was done."

Another of Crane's clients with a similar problem decided the best solution was to hire a "nanny". She would phone him every Friday morning to ask how many follow-up calls he had made that week. "He was hiring a mother to nudge him," quips Crane.

The model of discretion, Crane refuses to use tales of life behind the White House gates, where she worked until 1996, as an illustration of how not to behave. She refuses to say a word, good or bad, about that other well-known lawyer who so famously forgot his manners in front of an intern.

But she will say that President Clinton has instilled impeccable manners in his daughter: "Every time Chelsea called down to the kitchen for a snack, she would begin with 'please' and end with 'thank-you'. Given the circumstances, this 16-year-old could have been a spoiled brat. She was anything but." Take it from a woman who knows.