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Branding. It’s one of the most overworked and overanalyzed topics in the marketplace of ideas. Paradoxically, or perhaps consequently, it’s also one of the most misunderstood. This misunderstanding isn’t a definitional one. There’s a general consensus that a brand “is the sum of what others think of you” or something similar.
But there are two pertinent, preliminary questions beyond “what is branding?” worthy of exploration: Why is it important? And how is it done?
This post focuses on personal branding for lawyers, not law firm branding. Your firm has a brand, but you do, too. Unless you’re the boss, you may have little control over how your firm is positioned. But you control your personal brand.
Some balk at the term “personal branding” and argue that it’s a clumsy, meaningless substitute for “reputation.” But there’s a difference. A lawyer’s reputation is a critical component of her personal brand, but the terms aren’t synonymous. Branding requires a concerted, strategic and active effort to describe, position and promote how one’s skills and expertise are relevant and uniquely able to solve a client’s problems. It’s not just about letting your reputation speak for itself. It’s purposefully injecting your unique value proposition into the marketplace. While reputation is something that happens to you, brand is something you make happen.
Ever wonder why the guy down the street with similar skills, experience, pricing and reputation consistently scores more opportunities than you? It very well may be that he focuses time and energy on developing and promoting his personal brand such that he is top of mind when clients need help of the variety he provides. You may be just as equipped to provide the help, but don’t get the call because you take a more passive approach to promoting yourself. You rely on your reputation, when you should be building your brand. Active, strategic management — that’s the critical difference between developing a reputation and developing a brand.
The market for legal services is fiercely competitive and lawyers need every edge they can get. A compelling brand can provide one. Last month’s “One of a Kind” post focused on the importance of establishing expertise to build an interesting, profitable practice. That’s step one.
Step two, the subject of this post, focuses on how to package, position and promote that expertise to the marketplace. To stand out, a lawyer must be mindful of both substance (expertise) and form (brand).
Think about how many times you’re asked what you do for a living, or what practice area you’re in, and eyes glaze over at your answer. How many pitches have you been involved in where you begin describing your background and your audience’s attention drifts toward email? How many people actually read from start to finish, let alone engage with, your firm website bio or LinkedIn page?
Do you leave a positive impression, a memorable mark, after any of these interactions? If not, why not?
A well-defined and developed brand lets people know who you are and what you’re good at. They’ll know your strengths, the value you provide and the types of situations you’re uniquely qualified to assist with. Accordingly, you won’t have to chase as much business — it will start chasing you. You’ll also have more leverage to charge a premium.
Conversely, a poorly defined and developed brand will leave your market confused about, or unaware altogether of, you and your practice.
Personal brands aren’t “created,” they’re “developed.” It’s a subtle point, but not a pedantic one. “Creating” a brand suggests that branding is a one-time or short-term event, when it’s really a process — a lifelong one. Brands evolve over time, just as you do.
There’s no single path or method to create a compelling personal brand, so I won’t suggest one. Sometimes blueprint methods work well, but in an endeavor such as this that is intensely personal and requires big, bold thinking, there is no single blueprint to follow.
But there are benchmarks. For a personal brand to be effective, it must be authentic, unique and bold. And it must grow and progress as you do in your life and career.
1. Authentic. People crave authenticity and transparency, and nothing is more authentic or transparent than being yourself, warts and all. Don’t try to be someone you are not — your brand will suffer for it.
One of the best ways to be authentic is to tell your story, as opposed to reciting your resume. From client pitches, to website bios, to social media engagement, expressing your brand as a story will help build something people care about, can relate to and want to buy into. People connect with stories, they’re memorable and evoke emotion — that’s why lawyers are taught to craft a story through their closing arguments and brief writing.
Consider the following possible responses by a young lawyer to the dreaded “Tell me about yourself?” question in a social business setting:
Lawyer A: I graduated from the University of Michigan Law School and specialize in corporate bankruptcy law.
Lawyer B: I was a junior in college when I realized how little journalism graduates earn out of school, so I rushed to apply to law school, knowing nothing about the practice of law. I got accepted into a mid-tier school, loved the challenge and curriculum, worked my tail off, transferred to and graduated from the University of Michigan. After graduation, I was supposed to be an M&A lawyer, but my first day of work was on Monday, September 17, 2001, and virtually every new associate in the firm was tossed into the bankruptcy department given the economic impact of 9/11. It was intense, terrifying, challenging and exhilarating.
The first is the response I typically gave when I practiced — while true, it’s utterly forgettable. The second is more along the lines of what I should have said — it’s more authentic and memorable, and would have helped shape my brand story at that point in my career.
Storytelling allows you to frame your uniqueness and connect the dots between the client’s needs and the value you provide. It creates loyalty and bonds with clients and colleagues. That’s because in relationships — attorney/client ones included — people crave authenticity and inspiration. A good brand story can deliver both.
2. Bold. Your brand story should be more manifesto than bio. Your narrative should describe not just where you are in your life and career, but where you want to go. It should be aspirational. Think of it as goal-setting. By being bold you’ll not only stake out new ground for yourself, but you’ll create some personal accountability, too. Your career objective is no longer an abstract in your mind, but a crucial element of your brand story.
3. Unique. Large “full-service” firms that are all structured similarly, offer similar services and serve similar markets and industries have difficulty — with good reason — developing a brand that convinces audiences they are different in any meaningful sense. That’s not to say it’s impossible, or that some don’t do it extremely well, but it’s hard. A narrowly focused expert, on the other hand, can move past generalities, hyperbole and embellishments and develop a brand that draws notice. You’re an original — your brand should be also.
In this context, being unique is as much about how you act as it is about what you say. In an industry that is largely conservative, conformist and commoditized, individual attorneys have an outstanding opportunity to develop a unique brand based on the client experiences they create, as opposed to the things they say about themselves. From pricing to hospitality, communication to education, there are countless ways lawyers can create unique, valuable experiences for clients that can set them apart.
Let’s say you’ve bought into the benefits of developing your brand, and have been actively and strategically managing your brand for six months or more. You’ve narrowed your focus, begun presenting yourself differently and more purposefully with clients and prospective clients, improved your Internet and social media presence, put your thought leadership in the public domain, and generally sharpened your brand in line with your expertise. What are some signs you should look for to know whether your efforts are paying off?
1. Other attorneys and professionals will have taken notice, and better understand what you do. You’ll receive more referrals in line with your expertise, and less that aren’t.
2. Clients, too. As with referral sources, clients and prospective clients will have a better idea of where your expertise lies. They’ll know what you do and how you can help, and new opportunities will reflect that understanding.
3. You’ll be more visible. Because you are a more focused and visible expert in your niche, both online and offline, your content marketing efforts have likely become sharper and more beneficial. Your ideas are attracting more eyeballs and, consequently, new opportunities to write and speak present themselves.
4. You’ll be more profitable. One of the key factors that drives down prices is the availability of substitutes. As a well-branded expert you’ll be able to charge more.
5. You’ll be more productive. Once you narrow your focus, and focus your energy, you’ll increase productivity. You’ll feel less scattered because you’ll no longer be trying to serve and please everyone.
6. At a minimum, you’ll be more purposeful. Many of us approach our careers without a plan and drift from day to day, then year to year. By focusing on developing a personal brand that is authentic, bold and unique, you’ll have something to aspire to, and benchmark against, on a consistent basis.
More than ever — through the reach of the Internet, social media and business networking sites, and the plethora of publishing and advertising outlets available — you have the power to craft your own unique brand story. At the same time, if you don’t take control of your brand, you can’t hide from it. Your uninspiring story is still out there for all to see.
Your brand, just as your reputation does, develops every day. So there’s no time like the present to start working on yours.
Jay Harrington is co-founder of Harrington Communications, where he leads the agency’s Brand Strategy, Content Creation and Client Service teams. He also writes weekly dispatches on the agency’s blog, Simply Stated. Previously, Jay was a commercial litigator and corporate bankruptcy attorney at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom and Foley & Lardner. He has an undergraduate degree in journalism and earned his law degree from the University of Michigan Law School. Follow him @harringj75.
Practical advice for building a more profitable practice. Almost every lawyer wants to command higher rates and attract more clients. But many are stuck perusing ineffective strategies. Others don’t even know where to start. In his new book, lawyer-turned-legal marketer Jay Harrington lays out a path for lawyers to build a profitable practice.
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