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To borrow a phrase from Charles Dickens, for young lawyers in today’s legal market, it’s both the best of times and the worst of times. Worst of times because there’s no place to hide. Clients are less willing to pay for the time of young associates. Law firms, therefore, can’t afford to put up with mediocre performance. They are expecting more value from associates because clients are expecting more from them.
Things are changing so fast that young associates today face challenges that others before them did not. During the “good old days” there was great comfort in being told that you just needed to keep your head down and do good work, and everything else would fall into place in due time. you didn’t need to think about things like developing business because there was plenty of business to go around for talented lawyers. Today, any comfort derived from such advice is false.
On the other hand, these are the best of times. It’s during moments like this — when things get tough — that merit matters most and opportunities to achieve stand-out success exist. Young lawyers have the chance to achieve things that were never before possible. The internet has changed everything. There are fewer gatekeepers, and those that remain have less influence. A small firm, small market, entrepreneurial young lawyer, for example, has the ability to leave just as big of a footprint in the digital landscape as anyone else.
Want to make a big impact as a young associate? There’s little to stop you, except for your own limiting beliefs about what’s possible.
I wrote my new book, “The Essential Associate,” for young lawyers who aspire to succeed, grow and advance on a partnership track at a law firm (or at least want to keep the partnership option open). It addresses the dual imperatives of becoming an excellent lawyer and generating work for yourself and other lawyers at your firm.
Building mastery as a lawyer and building a book of business both take a long time. You can’t focus on one or the other in isolation. When it comes to advancing in a law firm, you have no choice but to be smart and agile enough to work on both in unison.
As a young associate, it’s easy to ignore the urgency of the need to build a practice. After all, it has likely been drilled into your head that your most important responsibilities are to work hard, bill lots of hours and perform high-quality work. And, because it’s easier to procrastinate than it is to take action, the hard work that should be done today is put off until some undetermined point in the future.
While it’s unrealistic to think you will bring in much — if any — actual client work without gaining more experience and expertise, it’s even more unrealistic to think you’ll bring in work later if you don’t plant seeds for future business development now — things like building a network and making a name for yourself.
This is best accomplished by building a powerful personal brand.
There’s no great dictionary definition of the term “personal brand.” Trying to define it is like Justice Potter Stewart trying to define “obscenity” — you know it when you see it. Take a look around your firm. I’m certain there are partners, and even associates, with strong personal brands among your ranks. These are lawyers who get calls from members of the media. They generate lots of speaking opportunities. They garner attention not for their outsized personalities (or at least not only), but rather for their outsized expertise in a particular practice area or industry.
One of the most frequently cited and helpful colloquial definitions of branding is from Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, who said, “Your brand is what people say about you when you’re not in the room.”
Put another way, a personal brand is the thing that sells you when you’re not there to sell yourself.
In my book, I provide a deep dive, step-by-step guide that details the actions young lawyers must take to build a powerful personal brand. They include:
At its core, personal branding is about setting and meeting (or, better yet, exceeding) expectations. In this sense, your personal brand is a personal code you live by. Your reputation is based on your ability to make commitments and then fulfill them. If you make a commitment and fulfill it, you’ll earn trust. If you fulfill it with a sense of urgency, you’ll earn even more trust.
Think about your own network of friends and colleagues, and what first comes to mind when you think of individual members of your network. Chances are that you associate one or two characteristics with each person.
There are probably a few people who immediately come to mind who you would call if you were ever in a tight spot. These people are dependable. There may be others you would reach out to after experiencing difficulty or loss. These people are empathetic. Others may be on speed dial if you have a home improvement project to complete. These people are resourceful. The reason you associate these people with particular attributes is that they have reinforced these qualities through their actions over time. People are drawn to others not because of the beliefs they hold, but rather because of the consistency and convictions of their beliefs as manifested by their actions.
What comes to mind when members of your network think of you? What is the code you live by? What is the personal attribute that you are known for, both as a person and as a professional?
Building a powerful personal brand requires a heavy dose of self-awareness. Are you generous? Are you hardworking? Are you reliable? Assess and understand your unique strengths, recognize your weaknesses and then build your brand by reinforcing your key personal attributes through all of the actions you take and the relationships you form.
Business development is an intensely personal endeavor. You need to be out there, meeting people, developing and spreading your reputation among potential clients and referral sources. It takes time and energy — both in short supply for young lawyers. Since you can’t clone yourself, your ability to scale yourself is limited. You can’t be everywhere, focused on everything, all at once. Despite these challenges, the imperative to lay the foundation for future business development persists.
Here’s the good news: It’s not necessarily your physical presence that matters when it comes to building your reputation among potential buyers of legal services. More important is the power of your ideas, and word of mouth from people who know and trust you.
If your ideas gain traction and spread among your audience, then you can still make an impact on someone regardless of whether you have the ability to engage with them one on one. If you’re the type of person who makes commitments and then fulfills them with a sense of urgency, you’ll gain a positive reputation among people that matter both within and outside of your law firm.
As a young lawyer competing in today’s legal marketplace, there’s no doubt that you have a tough road ahead of you. But keep in mind that the biggest opportunities present themselves in moments of adversity. Those who rise up to meet today’s challenges stand to benefit most.
There are many things you need to do to become a successful lawyer. Here’s a good place to start: Resolve to build your personal brand. Now, and for the rest of your career, it will be the thing that sells you when you’re not there to sell yourself.
Jay’s “90-Day Personal Brand Building Road Map” includes 12 weeks’ worth of activities and action steps that will help you craft your personal brand. If you want to lay the foundation for future business development, this workbook will help you move forward. Use it as a companion to “The Essential Associate.” Download here (just $4.99).
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