Business Lunch Etiquette: When Do You Offer to Pay?

business lunch etiquette

2017 Update: We still stand by this advice on when do you offer to pay for your share of lunch — links have also been updated below.

What is good business lunch etiquette where interns or summer associates are concerned — when should you offer to pay for your share of lunch? In general, when in business settings should you offer to pay? Reader S, about to be a summer associate at a law firm, wonders…

During summer social events, what is the protocol for paying for your share of the festivities / food / drink? I don’t want to be entitled but I also don’t know who to ask about paying. I might be over-thinking things a little, but I wanted to see if there was a polite (and non-awkward) way of asking about these things.

I think this is a great question — you hear a lot about summer associates being entitled, and it’s nice to hear someone wanting to contribute. We’ve talked about some good business lunch tips before, but we haven’t talked about when to pay. I’m curious to hear what readers say here, but for my $.02, this is how I look at it:
– If you’re at a social event organized by the firm for all of the interns, assume you’re not paying anything. Cocktail parties, after parties, bowling parties, whatever — if it’s a group event it’s paid for.
– If you’re out to lunch with fellow interns and no one has a company credit card, expect to pay your own way.  (In some circumstances it might be appropriate to submit the receipt for reimbursement, but most of the time it probably won’t be.)
– If you’re out to lunch with more senior colleagues as well as interns, it doesn’t hurt to ask if you can pay (but I’d be shocked if you had to). A simple, “Do I owe you anything?” or “can I throw my card down too?” may read as “oh how refreshing to see someone who isn’t entitled” the first few times you do it (but may get more annoying as the summer wears on).
– If you’re out to lunch with one other person (an older colleague, a partner, etc), you may want to consider offering to pick up the bill entirely — if they’ve been helpful to you, given you great advice, taken time out of their day to spend time with you, etc — but again, I’d be shocked if you had to pay, particularly if they have a business account (but even if not — most people have a “pay it backwards” attitude since they remember others paying for them when they were young).

Readers, what do you think? When in a business situation is it appropriate to offer to pay? Do you think it ever hurts to offer to pay?

Pictured above: Triple AmEx Bonus Round!, originally uploaded to Flickr by pnoeric.

Picture below via Flickr.

When should interns pay for a business lunch? Summer associates and other interns get taken out a lot for business lunches, both individually and in groups. Is it ever appropriate to offer to pay for your share or for your lunch partner? We discuss.



  1. Perfect timing! :

    So tomorrow is my first day at a new internship and my boss said I having lunch with her – offer to pay but don’t expect to right?

    • That’s what I would say. That’s the hardest part for me – knowing whether to offer even when you know you’re not going to have to pay.

    • Personally, I think this is the kind of situation where vaguely reaching for your wallet is called for. Nine times out of ten, your boss will say “no, we’re getting this,” and the tenth you can just pull it out and split the check.

      • +1 That’s usually what I do as well. I’ll ask the first few times, and then afterwards I’ll just casually have my wallter out when the bill arrives. Usually the boss or whoever will respond with no need, but it’s less awkward than asking I find.

    • I would think if your boss invited you to lunch on the first day of your internship your boss is paying for it. I’d have cash on hand just in case but wouldn’t make a show of reaching for the check.

      • Agreed. Your boss is taking you out for a welcome lunch. Be gracious and say thank you – that is all that is expected here.

    • No, do NOT offer to pay. You are the INTERN and you are mabye not getting paid alot if at all, and your boss invited YOU. Women should onley pay when they invite a man (who is subordinnat) to go out and even then should NOT pay if the guy reache’s for his Wallett.

      When I go out with the manageing partner, sometime’s I pay, but I ALWAYS bill it back to a cleint anyway, so it does NOT realy matter.

      If a guy cleint invite’s you out for lunch and it is a cleint, let him pay, unless he think’s it is a date, and then you pay and then bill him back thru the monthly billeing’s. That way, he can not expect anything sexueal from you and he is paying anyway! YAY!!!!

      If you go out with a group of peeople, men and women, offer to pay and pay if other ladie’s are paying, but if the men want to be big, they will pay, but do NOT under any cicusmtance’s let a guy do anything afterward’s if they pay, b/c it is only a few buck’s out of pocket. FOOEY on men who want sex for the price of dinner! FOOEY!

      • This is about work events. Gender should not be a factor in determining who pays and how much. I find it really offensive that you suggest that the rules for men and women in business settings are different.

        (Then again, I don’t take advice from people who can’t spell simple two-syllable words anyway…)

        • Seattle Lawyer Mom :

          Search the archives for posts by Ellen and you’ll see this is someone with a very longterm joke persona created for our amusement . . . .

    • Your boss is almost certainly taking you out and is expensing it. I wouldn’t offer to pay.

    • I don’t understand why you’d even offer. This is probably a welcome lunch, it is the boss’ job to pay.

    • I have been on both sides of this topic. I can honestly say that offering to pay as an intern shows respect. Now, of course, I would never allow an intern to pay, however I appreciate their manners. I think it goes back to the old, “assume” cliche. Never assume anything. If an intern assumes I will be “footing” the bill without a simple “thank you” or assuming I “owe” them something can ruin your reputation and give you a “black mark”, not a good thing to have on your record.

  2. Cornellian :

    Do keep in mind that informal post-work happy hours are just that, post-work. It’s probably a good idea to go, if invited, but it’s not a firm function, and it’s pay your own way among associates.

    Also, check with HR on lunch policy. Most firms I know of have a policy (ie no more than x dollars/head, twice a week per summer associate, etc), and it looks bad to break that.

    • In-House Optimist :

      This. If it’s not an “official” event, figure that you’re paying your own way (and don’t expect the associates to pick up the tab for the after-party or “after-event-drinks”) unless someone expressly tells you otherwise. It used to drive me nuts that the SAs thought we’d just pick up the bar tab at the end of the night, and then we’d be stuck paying it because we wanted to make sure they had a good time and didn’t want to put them on the stop. I have a budget too, kids, and there’s no line item for “summer associates’ drinks.”

      • In-House Optimist :

        Ugh, not only did this come off whinier than I intended, I clearly had a typo… spot. Not stop.

  3. So I get the impression that the perfunctory arguing on the topic that I engage in every time is unnecessary?

    • And really annoying. It comes off as insincere and sucky-uppy.

    • Seattle Lawyer Mom :

      At least at large law firms, summers should not offer to pay when out to lunch with attorneys. Everyone knows the firm is paying. It would silly and pretentious to offer to pay. Just let the senior lawyer grab the bill, and nicely say “thank you so much for lunch.” Just to make it perfectly clear, most large law firms that have summer programs have a staff person who will discuss lunches during the orientation, and you can ask anything you like then without the attorneys around, so you can ask then for anything about your firm’s culture regarding paying for lunch.

  4. Good advice, but I probably wouldn’t say “do I owe you anything?” — it just seems presumptuous if the other person isn’t treating. I think “what do I owe?” or something similar would be much better because the payer can easily say “nothing, our treat” or “$10” if that’s not the case. Do I owe anything just has too much expectation (would be the opposite of refreshing in my book) – either someone bought you lunch and you owe nothing or you owe your share of the meal, which you should roughly know anyway.

    • +1

    • Diana Barry :

      +2. I also say “let’s split it” as a statement, and then let the other person demur if they want to.

      • Cornellian :

        Agreed. And, perhaps this falls in the pet peeve category, but I think if it’s a pay your own way type thing, you (not just summer interns, everyone) should err on the side of generosity if you’re leaving early and leaving others with the bill, and not squibble over who had mixed drinks or beer or wine, if it looks like the group is just going to split pro rata.

    • I totally agree – I always go for ‘what do I owe you?’ and I always round up when estimating my share of the pot.

      Because I’m good with numbers my friends usually trust me to split the bill when I go out for dinner with them, and especially when some of us are having starters and some aren’t and some are sharing mains (eg pizzas) and some aren’t it works best just to work out what each person needs to pay for as a sum of their food (ie, half of a bruschetta, a third of a pizza, and half of a dessert) within reason – and I always overestimate those to account for a tip, because there have been group meals where we order a set menu that’s £9.99 or something and people are unwilling to put more than £10 in, even though they should be adding £1ish for a tip… (UK, so we tip less than in the USA)

  5. If I ask and it’s part of my job function, I pay. If someone’s doing me a favor, I pay. If it’s “business development”, the person that benefits pays. If it’s an old pal, we usually alternate.

  6. I mostly agree with Kat, but I’d say that if it’s during work hours and you’re at a sit-down place, or it’s at an official intern function afterhours, don’t offer to pay at all. It was always weird when summers did this, like they didn’t get how it all worked. If the firm is big enough to have a summer program, the associates almost definitely all have firm AmEx, which is what they’re using to pay for lunch. A trip to the food trucks, though, may be on you. If it’s a dinner reception at the Mandarin Oriental, everything is paid for (including transportation in most cases — you can probably submit your receipt for taking a cab to and from the event). If it’s after-hours, or post-event, definitely assume you’re paying your own way. It may be that the associates have leeway to put these drinks/food/taxis on the firm, too (we did, but that was in the Good Old Days pre-recession), but there’s no way to know that. If you’re going out with anyone outside your organization, offer to pay. Typically the older, more senior person will insist on paying, but it’s polite to offer.

    • Cornellian :

      That’s a good point on informal lunches. If a group of associates asks you if you want to check out the new Turkish food truck on their way out the door, that’s just a group of people asking if you’d like to tag along, not an actual lunch. Actual lunches with summers aren’t only for the free food, and the mentoring/interviewing aspects of it are harder to accomplish if you’re grabbing drinks downstairs after work or standing in line at a salad bar or food truck.

      We have a senior associate who is always organizing informal after parties, etc, and I’ve had to sort of flag the “informal” (pay your own way) part of it to the summers already.

      • It’s so helpful for someone to flag it for summers. If you’re an associate, you probably have a feel for what the firm does and doesn’t cover. But for summers, they might not be able to tell what the firm is likely to pay for and what’s likely coming out of someone’s pocket. If the firm pays for a car to take you to Casino Night at a fancy hotel, it isn’t insane to think they might also pay for post-party drinks — especially if the last time there were post-party drinks, an associate plunked down the AmEx and said “no worries, these are on Uncle [Firm]!” (Whether the associate was authorized to do that or not is another question, and a point on which the summers would be equally ignorant).

    • Agreed. In general, if you are the summer associate and the firm is putting on an event for you, you aren’t paying and aren’t even expected to offer. Everyone knows summer associates have massive student loans, and you are essentially being wooed all summer. Yes, it’s important to have good manners (and I like the food truck example, where clearly, yes, you are paying for your own lunch), but firm events are just that – on the firm.

  7. I always pull out my wallet. I always expect to pay and this keeps me from looking shocked when the other person doesn’t pick up the tab.

    These days I am usually picking up the whole tab, whether it is on a corporate card or my own dime. That’s the price you pay sometimes.

    However, don’t ever argue. Either pay if they let you or don’t pay if they offer. Don’t make a fuss. It’s a small thing but amazing how some people make a big deal out of it.

    Managers, don’t make your interns pay for lunch! There ought to be some formal etiquette around that.

  8. I vehemently disagree with Kat here. It’s OK to offer to pay on a date but not at work. TBK is right: it’s weird and it looks like the person is offering isn’t sophisticated or doesn’t know how business works. Awkward!

    You don’t pay (and don’t offer) if you are: the intern, the more junior associate*, the client, support staff person, mentee (e.g., law student on informational interview), or the interviewee.
    *the more junior associate might pay if you are taking an interviewee/intern/client out to lunch with a more senior attorney. Be prepared.

    You pay if: you are the more senior attorney, the interviewer, the attorney in the attorney-client relationship, the mentor, you are “recruiting” your buddies and your firm has pre-approved your lunch/meal/drinks for reimbursement (score!).

    You split the bill if: you are out with your (same-level) buddies, it’s a social lunch with your co-workers (i.e., not likely to be reimbursed–the more senior attorneys should have a handle on this).

    • I’m with K-Padi on this one….great summary!

    • 100% agree. But I’d add always say “thank you.” Even if it’s an associate using the firm’s credit card. (Psst: the two hours they spent at lunch with you are *not* billable, meaning they’ll be making them up on December 28 while feverishly trying to make their hours. Usually they just wolf down a sandwich and bill straight through lunch. So say thank you.)

      • Cornellian :

        really really good point. I think the summers will get used to us being harried soon but the first few weeks it’s hard to communicate to them how crazy things can get and how much it’s not their fault.

  9. I don’t know how it works in other professions, but at my Big Law firm summer associates were never expected to pay for anything at either official events or lunches with attorneys . Obviously it’s different if it’s just a bunch of people randomly going out for drinks or something, but attorney lunches were basically considered “official” because you were expected to be going to lunch with attorneys multiple times per week. So, if it’s something like that where it’s basically “part of the job,” then I’d say you should not expect to pay anything. I would still be sure to say thank you to the attorney who paid though, even though I knew that they were getting fully reimbursed. It just seems polite.

    • Cornellian :

      And you’re thanking them for their time, which is more valuable than I think you realize as a summer.

  10. TO Lawyer :

    On the other side of things – my firm has a couple summer students but not a formal program. I, along with another associate are planning on organizing drinks or lunch with them just so they don’t feel so isolated but it’s not a formal firm-organized thing. I’m the most senior – should I be picking up the tab?

    • Anonymous :

      Definitely, because your organized it and are the senior. Find a way to expense it if you can.

    • I think you should split it with the other associate(s) if it’s lunch or during the workday. If it’s after-work drinks, I don’t think you need to pay if it’s informal, but that said, I think it’s nice to buy a round in this sort of situation. Since there’s no official program, why not buy them lunch (even if it’s just pizza to the office) and then also invite them for drinks at some other point in the summer where they can pay their own way? This way you’re not spending a crazy amount of your own money but you’re still giving them an opportunity to be social with you and have some summer events going on.

    • As a uni student (so closer to the summer associate stage than any other, though I’m not planning on entering biglaw) I’d be fine paying my way, if:
      – when you choose where you’re going you take slightly lower budgets into account. I know I prefer to pay £13 for a main course at lunch than £7 for a couple of drinks… so lunch rather than drinks might be in order, if you can go somewhere more affordable.
      – it’s clear on the invitation that everyone will be paying their way. I’m sure there’s a subtle way of saying that – I would do it like ‘oh, y place has a $15 set menu for lunch, and it’s delicious – anyone want in?’
      – you aren’t any more extravagant in what you order than you would be on a student budget.

    • Your firm should pick up the tab. But, yes, you handle the payment details (charge it to your card, submit the receipt, etc.).

  11. Anonymous :

    When I was a summer associate, I remember worrying about this very issue. However, on my first day, a junior associate met with us to go over the “questions you want to ask, but don’t feel comfortable asking.” Someone asked about paying for lunches and the associate explained that we should not worry about paying for anything. In addition to covering major firm events for all of the summer interns, the firm also reimburses attorneys who take summer associates out to lunch. This put all of us at ease and prevented the awkward “do I owe you anything” situation.

  12. So one word of warning: this may well be different if you’re not at a law firm. I had one friend, for instance, who was a summer clerk at a large government agency in D.C. His division took their clerks out for dinner one day; the clerks ordered modest entrees and the lawyers ordered entrees plus drinks. Then the lawyers split the tab evenly among everyone at the table. Pretty classless (don’t make law students subsidize your drinks) but for law students, if you’re not at a law firm, and possibly even a large law firm, you probably can’t assume too much.

  13. Em’s advice above is right on. These rules absolutely don’t apply if you’re anywhere but a big law firm. For law students in summer government jobs – pull our your credit cards, baby, you’re going to need them.

  14. Funny, just today I got an email from our legal director saying we have a summer intern starting next week and asked me if I could take him to lunch (and expense it).

  15. Avoiding Mod:

    This brings a flashback of when I was a “baby” at the company.
    I had been an intern at the firm for 5 days when they went to a summer resort for a company-wide end of year celebration.
    I remember sitting at the lobby and the General Manager + Sales Director (2 most senior managers at the company) were sitting next to me.
    Then SD asks: “Houda, would you like something to drink?” “Oh thank you, but unfortunately I don’t carry cash on me” awkward silence, GM and SD exchange looks and then SD goes on to explain that as a rule, the most senior person always pays.. and he got me a “lemonade”.

    My type-A brain rehashes this episode every now and then. I was staying at the hotel so could have charged this to my room anyway .. but my brain froze ..little Houda was so mortified.

  16. I would advise the summer associates in Biglaw to find a junior / midlevel who seems approachable and just ask what the policy is. I try to just lay it out for the summers – the limit is this much, here’s when we can have the firm pay, this type of happy hour is covered, this type isn’t. Then no muss, no problem.

  17. Rascacielos :

    Hi. New poster here. I’m shadowing a barrister in London next week, after he very kindly responded to my request to shadow him for a second time. As with the last time, he suggested we go for lunch with another colleague of his. Now I get the point behind not offering to pay when you’re a summer intern at a big law firm but it’s a bit trickier because barristers are self-employed and also because the arrangemen t is a bit more informal than the usual summer internship. So at lunch, should I get my purse out as a gesture, offer to pay at least my half or say/do nothing at all? I don’t want to be a complete numpty and reveal that I actually don’t know as much about the “business” and finances of Chambers as I probably should do!

  18. I think this is spot-on. I always make sure I can cover my portion if I’m in a group or the whole thing if it’s one-on-one. Usually the natural protocol as you laid out would fill it all in, but occasionally you get stuck with someone who doesn’t know the rules. That’s when you want to be prepared to pay for your own way regardless of whether you “should.”

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