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Presenter’s Paradox: For the Most Effective Attorney Bio, Embrace Science

By Katherine Hollar Barnard

Most of us assume more is better — the more experience we can show, the more impressive our bios become. Instead, heed the “Presenter’s Paradox.”

A search for attorney bio tips will get you a river of opinions about a mile wide. Sure, advice can be helpful — but it turns out there’s solid science behind crafting a bio your audience won’t forget. First, let’s lay the groundwork.

Do You Pack Credentials Into an Attorney Bio?

A survey by BTI Consulting found that a whopping 91% of corporate clients use attorney bios to research and hire outside counsel. And nearly 60% use online profiles to compare their lawyers with the competition.

Given the importance of these materials, it’s tempting to cram in every possible credential. Most of us assume that the more experience we can show, and the more we can demonstrate competence across a multitude of areas, the more impressive our bios become. More is better, right?

But research shows that’s exactly the wrong approach.

The Presenter’s Paradox

Instead, lawyers should heed “The Presenter’s Paradox.” This phenomenon, identified by psychologists and bolstered by a growing body of research, boils down to this: Mentions of minor qualifications detract from mentions of major strengths. These findings are detailed in the Journal of Consumer Research and Harvard Business Review.

Here’s how it works:

We assume that our credentials have a cumulative effect, so if a potential client weighs attendance at a top law school a 10, a multimillion-dollar verdict a 10, and experience in her specific industry a 10, adding “some French language skills” (a 2?) would pad the score further, for 32.

In fact, the opposite is true. Listeners average your credentials, so adding mediocre (and potentially irrelevant) qualifications drags down the score. Instead of a total of 32, when the lawyer adds the low-value credential in this hypothetical, the average goes from 10 to 8. Had she left out the middling detail, she’d be far better positioned.

The Presenter’s Paradox holds whether marketing a niche practice or standing out in a generalist practice:

Stop the kitchen sink bios, and play to your major strengths.

Here’s an exercise for you.

  • Take a fresh look at your bio, and spend some time honestly contemplating three topics:
    • What am I absolutely great at? (A good starting point: a summary haiku.)
    • Who do I really want to serve?
    • If clients recommended me to a friend, what would I want them to say? (How was it working with me; how did I make them feel; what did I deliver? Why are they recommending me in particular over someone else?)

This helps you figure the exact audience you want to target, which makes high-impact brevity much easier to accomplish.

  • Next, pretend you’re one of those clients you really want. If you were dealing with the typical problem your clients face, what would you be looking for? How might those clients be feeling in the midst of that problem? How can your bio reassure them that you are the best possible solution for this problem?
  • Now, start jotting down an outline of your bio. Scrutinize every item — and the way in which you make it relevant to your audience — keeping in mind the Presenter’s Paradox and the client perspective. Aim for the highest average with your 10-out-of-10 stuff. (Do a quick review for the Seven Deadly Sins of Attorney Bios while you’re at it.)

Revisit this exercise for specific pitches, and remember that your bio should not be everything to everyone: It should present the most compelling argument possible for your target audience.

And that high school French probably isn’t it.

321 Illustration ©

Lawyer Bio Writing Tips

“3 Keys to Crafting an Effective Professional Website Bio” by Gina Rubel

“It’s a Social Network: First or Third Person for Your LinkedIn Profile?” by Nancy Slome

“7 Steps to a More Authentic, Fresher Attorney Bio” by Nancy Slome

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Katherine Hollar Barnard Katherine Hollar Barnard

Katherine (Katie) Hollar Barnard is the managing partner of Firesign | Enlightened Legal Marketing, a marketing communications agency that focuses on law firms and legal services providers. A former Big Law CMO, she advises law firms and legal service providers on brand identity, marketing communications and more. Follow Katie on LinkedIn.

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