We All Judge Books By Their Covers

May 17, 2012

My former co-worker at the courthouse had a favorite attorney. He was smart and articulate and, I think most significantly, a really sharp dresser. He wore well-tailored suits and strikingly beautiful neckties, and wasn’t afraid to wear salmon or pink colored shirts. On the other hand, my co-worker also had a catch phrase for lawyers that would come into the courtroom not looking very well put-together. She’d say “his wife doesn’t love him.” Meaning that if the offending attorney lived with somebody who actually cared for his well-being, he wouldn’t have been allowed to leave the house dressed like that.

In general, I was less concerned by how attorneys would dress when they appeared in our courtroom (though there were a few notable exceptions), but I was often struck by the horrible business cards that would be handed to me. You see, it is a common practice in courtrooms in this part of the world for attorneys to check-in with court staff by handing over a business card or two. So in my time with the court, I’d probably received 1,000 different attorney business cards. And they can ran the gamut. From the basic information in a simple serif font, to a full-color photo with a list of qualifications, business cards can range from cheap to expensive, minimalistic to extravagant, informative to enigmatic. And like my fashion-conscious friend, I was quick to judge the attorney who handed them to me.

But who cares what a court clerk thinks about a lawyer and his business card? Well, I could go on for hours about why a lawyer should care what a clerk thinks, but for the purposes of this post, let’s consider the following: do you think these attorneys are using a different business card for court than they would hand to a prospective client they meet on the street? Are lay people you meet at a cocktail party any less judgmental when they’re considering whether or not to have a professional relationship with you?

Things like neckties and business cards make the first impression. They let us know if you’re somebody with good taste, or if you have the good sense to recognize that you need to connect with somebody who does have good taste. When somebody hands you a business card that still has remnants of being torn from a do-it-yourself printer page, are you really listening to what that person has to say, or are you wondering why that person couldn’t be bothered to buy professionally-printed cards at Staples?

But beyond the quality of printing, isn’t the content of your business card, or stationary, or website, significant to how we judge a person and their work? When you get handed a business card that features a photo of an attorney in a zoot suit and fedora (true story), are you considering the glossy finish of the card? Would you think any differently if you found this person’s website and it looked like his 10 year-old nephew put it together?

Doesn’t it make sense that we should put our best foot forward when we initiate a business relationship, that we should wash our clothes and comb our hair, and act like we know what we’re doing? Then why is it any less reasonable to hire a professional designer to put together your visual package: our signage, our stationary, our business cards, our website? Should we not do everything we can to succeed?