Much of the discussion in legal marketing and business development circles focuses on law firm branding. But it’s important to realize that while firms have brands, individual lawyers do too. Unless you’re the boss, you may have little control over how your firm is positioned. But your personal brand? Well, good or bad, that’s in your hands.
Some balk at the term “personal branding” and argue that it’s a clumsy, meaningless substitute for “reputation.” But there’s an important 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. Personal branding is a matter of purposefully injecting your unique value proposition into the marketplace. While reputation is something that happens to you, brand is something you make happen. Developing your personal brand, therefore, is critical to effectively positioning yourself to audiences that matter.
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 proactively building your brand. Active, strategic management – that’s the critical difference between developing a reputation and developing a brand.
WHAT’S YOUR UNFAIR ADVANTAGE?
That’s all well and good, you may be thinking, but how does one go about building a personal brand? Great question. I go into detail about this big topic in my book, One of a Kind: A Proven Path to a Profitable Legal Practice. Putting aside this shameless plug, a great place to start is to try to identify and define your unfair advantage.
The term “unfair advantage” is a popular one in tech startup circles. It was popularized in Ash Maurya’s excellent book, Running Lean. In his book, Maurya quotes tech entrepreneur Jason Cohen’s definition of the term: “A real unfair advantage is one that cannot easily be copied or bought.”
In other words, an unfair advantage is a marketplace distinction that is unique and not easily replicated. It’s exactly what a personal brand should be. So find some quiet time and ask yourself some hard questions. What value can I provide to my clients that others cannot? Perhaps your unfair advantage derives from your background – you were a mechanical engineer before attending law school and are uniquely positioned to provide IP counsel. Maybe you acquired expertise in a niche area of the law for a narrow industry during a prior engagement. The point is that, to have an effective personal brand, you need to stand for something distinct. To be all things to all people is the path to irrelevance and commoditization.
The only other thing I would add is that a personal brand must be authentic. People crave authenticity and transparency, and nothing is more authentic and transparent than being yourself, warts and all. Don’t try to be someone you are not – your brand will suffer for it, and it’s unsustainable. As Anne Morrow Lindbergh once said, “The most exhausting thing you can be is inauthentic.” Not only that, but if the unfair advantage you promote is inauthentic – meaning you can’t live up to the high standard you’ve set for yourself – then your personal brand will obviously suffer as a result.
Taking a stand is hard. This is particularly true in a conservative profession such as the law. But you know it, and I know it: Times have changed and unless you’re willing to change with them then you’ll find yourself – fairly or not – at a distinct disadvantage rather than an unfair advantage.