Smartphones, laptop computers, tablets, ebook readers, digital cameras, and other mobile gadgets are all essential in today's connected world. Yet the lawyer who carries or wears even a few of these devices into a business meeting or conference risks being viewed as a nerd, a geek, or perhaps even a Batman wannabe.
Sandy Dumont; owner of The Image Architect, a style consulting business in Norfolk, Va., says that attorneys need to pack away the multiple phones, tablets, and other gadgets before entering a meeting or proceeding. "You don't want to have too many contraptions, because people might think you've gone over the edge and have become obsessed with technology rather than business," she says.
Dumont notes that a traditional briefcase offers the best method for transporting both papers and gadgets. She notes that carrying a thick leather case generates the impression of an attorney who's serious about his or her work and is prepared to address any possible situation. "Just make sure that everything, including the laptop, goes inside the case," she says. "Carrying a computer alongside your case can give you kind of a hobo look."
On the other hand, Constance Dunn, a Redondo Beach, Calif., image consultant, and the author of "Practical Glamour," maintains that it's eminently possible to looking completely stylish and in control without hiding your mobile gadgets. "You can carry 50 devices and still look as smooth as vermouth," she promises.
Dunn says the trick to is to learn how to handle your gadgets without looking like a fumbling incompetent. "When it comes to devices, you need to pay attention to how you take them out, use them and then put them back," she says. "It's almost like a dance."
Learning and practicing the correct gestures for using a mobile device will help you show colleagues and clients that you have total possession of yourself and your surroundings," Dunn says. "One of the most desired characteristics of an attorney's persona is smoothness -- the sense of being in control."
Dunn says that the first step toward handling a gadget with the Úlan of a George Clooney or Julianne Moore is to picture in your mind of how you wish to appear to the world. "Get that image firmly in your head and emulate it," she says. "It will become second nature as you work on it mentally."
Gesture proficiency is also achieved by fully understanding how each of your devices operate. "You don't want to be seen squinting quizzically at a screen," Dunn says. You should also know where each device is located on your body. This means that all of your gadgets must be given designated places that don't change from day to day. "Your BlackBerry, let's say, is always in your left-inside jacket pocket," Dunn says, adding that there's no hard and fast rule as to where to place each device, as long as each location is comfortable and easily reachable for smooth access. "It's almost like law enforcement, where it's key to have firearms, handcuffs, and other things in their own set places," she says.
In a unique twist on conventional thought, Dunn observes that older attorneys often seem to handle gadgets more naturally and fluidly than their younger counterparts, perhaps because they've had more time to practice the art of appearing polished. Dunn believes this is proof that acquiring an "in-control persona" is something that attorneys of both sexes gradually build throughout their careers. "If you're more of a junior type, momentary pressure can temporarily override your persona," Dunn explains. "That's when a young attorney, or a somewhat older colleague who lacks a fully formed public image, is most at risk of creating a negative impression on nearby observers."
Some lawyers, Dunn observes, take extra measures to burnish their in-control persona. "Many attorneys, for example, have become used to carrying two cell phones," she says. "One is for client phone calls while the other is for personal use." The advantage to such an arrangement is that the personal phone can be turned off or left at the office to keep trivial interruptions at bay.
Patrick J. O'Connor, a partner in Harper Meyer Hagen O'Connor Albert & Dribin, a Miami law firm, says his observations indicate that attitudes about mobile devices in the legal community are changing rapidly. He believes that feeling geeky or nerdy about mobile gadgets is mostly a matter of being overly self conscious. "At this point, technology is so integrated and essential to the practice of law that [gadgets are] looked at as standard issue," O'Connor says.
Yet O'Connor adds that the type of mobile device one uses can still play an important role in how other people perceive you. "I think there has been a perception in the legal community that the BlackBerry is a more professional device," he says. "Traditionally, the iPhone was [seen as a device] for gaming and entertainment applications, and the BlackBerry was the device you really do business on."
But O'Connor notes that perceptions often change over time, and that devices that once suggested a degree of unprofessionalism can suddenly become not only acceptable, but popular and desirable. "The majority of attorneys that I deal with day in and day out now seem to have iPhones, and there seems to be no problem with that," he says. On the other hand, attorneys thinking about using a bargain or obscure gadget brand may still want to think twice about the acquisition before straying from the pack.
Ostentatiously flashing or displaying a gadget collection is the height of bad manners, Dumont says. "Some people want to empty their briefcase or their pockets and put everything on the table." In extreme cases, with a highly connected attorney, the resulting assemblage can give the impression a sidewalk sale.
Dumont says that using a highly integrated mobile device is the best way to reduce the negative visual impact created by gadget clutter. "There are so many things in a smartphone these days," she says. "You can get your phone, e-mail, camera, ebook reader all right there in one product, so there really is no reason at all to dump a pile of hardware onto the table."
Yet scattering digital detritus onto a table surface is a minor sin compared to an unconscionable activity that Meader says she's actually heard reports of: gadget battery-charging during a meeting. "Even if the gathering is being held in your own office, it's not something you should be doing," she says. "It just looks like you're not organized and that you haven't properly prepared for the day."
Dumont says there's only one gadget that's completely inappropriate in any professional setting: Bluetooth earpieces. She says the wireless device "makes you look geeky and so obsessed with your work that people think you've gone overboard." She says that wireless earsets should be reserved for use while safely out of sight from colleagues and clients.
Julie Maeder, a corporate image consultant with New Leaf Image Consulting in Troy, Mich., agrees that Bluetooth devices are best used only in private settings. "Unless, of course, you have some reason for wanting to be considered a nerd," she says.
THE DEAL KILLER
So what is the absolutely worst mobile gadget faux pax, the one that's almost up there with wiping your lips on the tablecloth or embarking on a single-digit exploration of your nasal cavity? Maeder says that it's staring at someone across a table while carrying on a phone conversation with a colleague, friend, or family member. "It's very disconcerting," she says. "It causes confusion and, frankly, it just doesn't look good."
Maeder's advice: "Quickly end the call or leave the room."
As any well-presented attorney knows, it costs a lot to dress stylishly. This simple yet painful fact also applies to mobile gadget cases. Sure, you can pick up a flimsy plastic or Leatherette covering online or at your local fleamarket. But how will you look when the dye rubs off on your hands or if the thing falls into pieces in front of shocked colleagues and clients?
There's simply no getting around it. If you're interested in achieving the ultimate level of understated mobile style and quality you'll have to pay the price, as these haute couture vendors amply prove:
Vaja: Stylish handworked leather cases for most types of mobile gadgets. Prices begin at about $50, which is actually on the modest side, as you'll soon discover.
Louis Vuitton: The legendary French luggage maker offers distinctive phone and tablet cases at prices that, if you have to ask, you may wish to redirect your product search to eBay or Amazon.
Gucci: If your taste leans toward Italian designers, you'll be glad to know that Gucci sells phone and tablet cases that, in some instances, actually cost less than the device itself.
Yves Saint Laurent: If $750 doesn't sound like too much for a stylish iPad case, you'll want to shop here.
Chanel: An attractive quilted lambskin iPad Clutch -- certainly not your average "mallette en cuir noir" -- will set you back $1,555 (iPad not included).
Oscar de la Renta: A Python iPad Clutch, featuring an ultra suede lining, can be yours for about $350.
John Edwards is a freelance writer based in Arizona. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org