For those who haven’t had a chance to check out my new book, The Essential Associate, I’m sharing the full text of Chapter 8—The Power of a Personal Brand. While the book is geared towards associates, I believe the lessons discussed in this chapter across experience levels. Enjoy! And don’t forget, if you are interested in purchasing the book for yourself or your colleagues, it’s available on my site, www.theessentialassociate.com, and on Amazon in both print and Kindle formats.
Chapter 8 – The Power of a Personal Brand
The problem with most business development advice is that it’s tactical and not strategic. Do this. Don’t do that. Try this software. Dabble in that social media platform. Tactics are important but only in the context of a larger strategy. And the ultimate strategy for a young lawyer hoping to build a sustainable business development pipeline is to build a strong personal brand.
There’s no great dictionary definition of the term “personal brand.” Trying to define personal branding is like Justice Potter Stewart trying to define “obscenity”—you know it when you see it. Take a look around at others in your firm. There are partners, and perhaps even some associates, with strong 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 (or at least not only) for their outsized personalities, but rather for their outsized expertise in a particular practice area or industry.
One of the most frequently cited 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 what sells you when you’re not there to sell yourself. It’s the natural result of your behavior in the marketplace.
There are three steps required to build a strong personal brand:
Choose a narrow niche market to serve
Create awareness and build your reputation in your niche market
Grow, cultivate, and nourish relationships over time
Building a strong personal brand is not a passive endeavor. As we will discuss in detail in the chapters to come, it’s an active process that takes time, patience, and lots of hard work. The process is what’s required to identify a target market, capture attention, build relationships, and establish trust that will lead to future business development opportunities. The odds are that your law firm invests heavily in building its brand. There are a number of reasons that you need to focus on building your personal brand as well.
It's a Way to Scale Yourself
You’re likely familiar with the concept of “scale” in business. We see it all of the time in the tech world, where startups work furiously to scale up and build infrastructure to manage and absorb growth when the time comes.
Businesses can scale, but can people? It’s an issue that many lawyers and other professional services providers struggle with. You’re one person with tremendous demands on your time due to the needs of your clients, colleagues, and firm (not to mention your personal life). You can’t be everywhere at once, which limits your ability to grow your book of business. If you’re taking a deposition, you can’t also be taking a client to lunch.
This is a problem because business development in professional services is still 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, which are both resources in short supply for most lawyers. You can’t clone yourself, so your ability to scale yourself is limited. You can’t be everywhere, focused on everything all at once.
Or can you?
After all, it’s not necessarily your physical presence that matters when it comes to building your reputation among buyers of legal services. More important is the power of your ideas, and word-of- mouth marketing 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 can engage with them one-on-one. Accordingly, it is possible to scale yourself if you focus on growing your personal brand.
A personal brand is a promise. It clarifies and communicates what makes you unique. Crafting this promise requires you to understand your values and strengths. It also requires self-awareness. It’s important to know your weaknesses, too.
Once you know who you are, and what you have to offer, then you can spread this message in the marketplace of ideas through the articles you write, the speeches you give, how you position yourself on social media and your firm bio page, what organizations you’re involved with, what causes you support, who you associate with, and the manner in which you present yourself in other public settings.
You, as an individual limited by the laws of physics, are not scalable. But your personal brand and the promise of value you project into the marketplace can spread and grow.
It Creates Alignment Between Your Expertise
and a Clients Needs
Your personal brand is impacted and shaped by everything you do, and don’t do, to put your best foot forward. If clients are going to buy from you, they need to understand who you are, what you stand for, and the value you bring to the table.
Sure, some clients buy sight unseen, but that rarely leads to a relationship that lasts over time. The most meaningful, satisfying, and profitable engagements typically result from situations where clients seek out a specific lawyer for a particular reason. They know who they are looking for and why, have done their due diligence, and often have been referred to the lawyer by someone they trust. There’s clear alignment between what the client needs and what the lawyer has to offer.
The only way for them to know that there’s alignment—as opposed to just hiring someone and hoping for the best—is if the lawyer projects a powerful personal brand into the marketplace. A lawyer with a strong personal brand puts prospective clients at ease because they can more directly discern what the lawyer does, and how and why they do it.
By serving clients within a specific niche, you’ll be better equipped to understand what problems your clients face. If you can identify and articulate those problems, you’ll be in a position to communicate with members of your audience in a way that resonates.
Putting the work in to become a well-branded lawyer offering specific solutions to a particular audience is worth the effort. Once you define what you do and for whom, you won’t have to chase as much business. It will start chasing you.
It Helps to Overcome Buyer's Remorse
Think about your own past experiences trying to hire someone to help out with an issue. It’s hard, right? Hiring a service provider, be it a carpenter or a lawyer, is difficult because you’re making a commitment in advance based on someone’s promise to deliver a result in the future. It’s not like “kicking the tires” on a product before a purchase.
Before committing to someone you probably felt a certain level of unease. You asked yourself: “Does this person know what they are doing? Is the price fair? Will they do what they say? Will they complete the task on time and on budget?”
Anxiety grows when the service provider starts using platitudes to describe their alleged expertise, and making vague claims and using jargon to illustrate the problem and proposed solution. This is meant to impress you, but it only frustrates and confuses you.
On the other hand, a service provider who communicates a calm and measured description of their expertise, experience, and approach to solving the problem increases your confidence that you are speaking to the right person. You focus less on price than you would have if you still felt unsure about the person’s abilities. After all, you likely care more about the outcome than you do the cost, and you’re probably willing to pay a bit more if you trust that the problem will be addressed the first time correctly, without having to go through the process again.
New business engagements of any variety that begin well, with high levels of mutual trust and respect, tend to end well. A distinct and compelling personal brand helps to overcome buyer’s remorse. A personal brand helps clients take the leap of faith required to hire a lawyer, and move forward with a higher level of confidence.
It's a Way to Tell a Compelling Story
Building a strong personal brand is no easy task. It’s comforting to think that we understand what our personal brand says about us, but when we take a more in-depth look, it’s easy to see the fallacy in that logic. Your personal brand isn’t what you say or think it is. As Jeff Bezos said, it’s reflected in what other people say about you.
Your personal brand is the story people use to describe you to others; and it’s far better if the story is one you crafted, instead of one conjured up by someone else.
Hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of other lawyers do what you do. As much as you’d like to believe it, it’s highly unlikely that you have a unique skill set. But you do have a collection of values, life, and work experiences that make you unique. In this sense, you do offer something of value that no one else can offer: a set of skills filtered through your lens on the world.
You have a story to tell. And if your personal brand reflects your personal story, members of your audience will know who you are, what you stand for, your professional strengths, and what they can expect when they hire you.
Think about how many times you’ve been asked what you do for a living, or what practice area you’re in, and eyes have glazed over at your answer. How many networking events have you been at where you begin describing your background and the person you’re speaking with begins to tune out? How many people read your website bio or LinkedIn profile from start to finish, let alone engage with it? Do you leave a positive impression, and a memorable mark, after any of these interactions? If not, why not?
Developing your personal brand story doesn’t mean being boastful. A well-defined brand lets people know who you are and what you do. They’ll understand your strengths, the value you provide, and the types of situations you’re uniquely qualified to handle. By focusing on crafting a powerful personal brand, you’ll have a powerful story to tell. Yes, a lawyer’s personal brand is a story. If it’s a gripping tale, it can lead to the type of word-of-mouth that sells your services, even when you’re not there to sell them yourself.
It's a Code to Live By
Think about your network of friends and colleagues, and what first comes to mind when you consider each person within your network. 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 that 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 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? Developing 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, and then build your brand by reinforcing your key personal attributes through all of the actions you take and the relationships you form.
It Builds Bridges to Business Development
Personal branding and business development are distinct concepts, but also inextricably linked in important ways. Business development in the legal industry is a long game played over many years, and the key to building a sustainable book of business is accomplished, first, by building a strong personal brand.
Scott Becker didn’t begin his quest to build a practice by knocking on doors and making cold calls to potential clients asking for business. He worked hard to develop his reputation as a thought leader and build his network within a narrow industry. He began crafting his personal brand while he was still an associate, and then he generated business development opportunities as a result of his efforts. He had to take the first step before he could take the second and expect any success. This is the approach of someone who’s playing the long game.
A short-term approach to business development, on the other hand, requires the hard sell. The hard sell approach is a central theme in the classic movie Glengarry Glen Ross, in which Alec Baldwin’s in- famous character, Blake, admonishes a group of real estate salesmen to “ABC,” which is an acronym for “Always Be Closing.”
Whether it’s at the local car dealership or electronics superstore, we all deal with salespeople who take the ABC hard-sell approach. Sometimes it even works, especially when what’s being sold is a commodity or some other inexpensive product or service that we might need on the spur of the moment. Despite the salesperson’s off-putting approach, we buy because it’s convenient to do so at the moment; or we just want to get the person off the phone or off the front porch.
An “always be closing” approach may work well for salespeople in certain industries, but it almost never works when it comes to business development in the legal industry. This is because the precursor to legal engagements is mutual trust between attorney and client, and trust can only be built over time. If you try to close the deal with a prospective new client too early, then trust and goodwill will evaporate—along with the opportunity. By positioning yourself as the expert and demonstrating that you understand and can solve the types of problems that your clients face, it allows people to sell themselves on the idea of hiring you. A strong personal brand builds a bridge to business development.
Is It Working?
Let’s say you’ve bought into the benefits of developing a personal brand, and have taken the steps outlined in the next several chapters meant to guide you in building your own. Here are some of the benefits that you can expect.
Other attorneys and professionals will take notice, and better understand what you do. You’ll receive more referrals aligned with your expertise, and less that aren’t.
Clients, too. As with referral sources, clients and prospective clients will have a better sense of your expertise. They’ll know what you do and how you can help, and new opportunities will reflect that understanding.
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 will become sharper and more valuable. Your ideas will attract more ears and eyeballs and new opportunities to speak and write will present themselves.
You’ll be more profitable. One of the key factors that drives down prices in any market is the availability of substitutes. As a well- branded expert, your expertise will be perceived as rare and valuable, which will enable you to charge more for your services.
You’ll be more productive. Once you narrow your focus and direct your energy, you’ll increase your productivity. More importantly, your productivity will be geared toward a clear objective. You’ll feel less scattered because you’ll no longer be trying to serve and please everyone.
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 powerful personal brand, you’ll have something to aspire to, and benchmark against, on a consistent basis.
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