2017 Update: We still stand by this advice on what to do when your client hits on you, but you may also want to check out our more recent discussion of sexual harassment at work.
We got a fascinating reader email from an eighth year attorney on the partnership track…
I am actively trying to build my client base, including going to lunches with local CEOs of start-up companies, etc. Today I went on a lunch with a 50ish CEO that I met at a seminar my firm hosted. During this lunch meeting at a local restaurant, he proceeded to make a comment about how attractive I was five different times during an hour long conversation. Whenever he would do it, I would just quickly move on to another topic and not acknowledge the statement. By the time I got back to the office, I was livid. I can’t imagine any of my male colleagues having to experience a situation even remotely similar to this. Here, I am trying to build a client base for myself and my firm and in doing so, I’m reminded that I’m looked at as an attractive women first and a lawyer second. Any thoughts/comments on how I can deal with this issue in the future? Thanks in advance!
Eeeeesh. We’ll say it again: eeesh. We’re curious to hear what the readers are going to have to say about this one. (Pictured: probably what your would-be client is hoping you’ll say…) First, we would say that you have two goals at these kinds of meetings. The first goal: get the guy as a client. The second goal: not ruin your relationship with whoever introduced you to this guy. And it’s okay if you decide halfway through lunch that you do not WANT to work with this guy, and just want to get out of there without dropkicking him. After all, the kind of politeness and interest you might show to a potential client will not be the same you show to “business acquaintance of a friend.” For example, after about the third time he mentioned that you were attractive, we might say something very calm such as, “let’s stick to the topic, please.” If he still persisted, we’d lean back and start to show disinterest, or use a break in the conversation to perhaps say something like, “Oh, this reminds me of the time __” and rattle off a few of your professional accomplishments. After about the fifth time, we might invent an emergency (preferably one showing how desperately you’re needed at the office by another client) to get the heck out of there. You have to know your own tolerance for these kinds of jerks, and how much aggravation you’re willing to put up with for a potential client.
That said, you should be very mindful of your body language and other triggers that might send someone the wrong idea that it’s a date. For example, be very clear with him at the start of it about why you’re at lunch. Second, there can be overlap between “I’m a professional who’s interested” body language and “I’m a woman who’s interested” body language, such as leaning forward to show interest. For women who are interested in flirting, there are a number of other things to do to convey interest — touching your hair and body, mimicking his behavior (to suggest that you’re on the same wavelength), turning your body towards his, exposing your wrists — try to gauge yourself for how many of these things you’re doing unconsciously, because you could be sending out “I’m flirting” signals without even realizing it.
Readers, what are your tips for dealing with this kind of situation — what’s your advice for what to do when your client hits on you?