If You Want a Different Career, Unhappy Lawyers, You Need a Personal Brand

I’m betting that most of you lawyers loathe the idea of creating a personal brand. Plus, I’ll double down and wager that when you need to revise your resume, so you can escape your current pit of lawyer hell, er, make a career move, is when your resistance reaches fever pitch.

If you adore the whole personal brand idea, and have a few iterations of resumes to support different facets of your brand, stop reading. Go grab a coffee or a cocktail, depending on the hour, and check back later.

Smart at Lawyering . . .

Let’s be blunt: Most lawyers harbor a nuclear sub’s worth of skepticism about marketing in general, and about marketing their firms and practices particularly. Some of this antipathy stems from lawyers’ inherent questioning of everything. That’s part of what makes people successful lawyers, after all.

pouting toddler seersuckerBut another part of the hostility is that lawyers rarely understand much about marketing.

We were not the people who took business classes in undergrad, by and large. We took more intellectually oriented courses, like philosophy, political science, literature, or even engineering. And don’t think for a millisecond that we consider business classes to be on the same intellectual plane of worthiness. As if!

In addition, lawyers are generally decent with words, and bright enough to see through some more obvious marketing manipulation. So we assume that marketing is pretty easy, fluffy stuff, and accordingly roll our eyes through those endless seminars the powers-that-be force down our throats.

How am I doing? Ringing a bell for you?

. . .  but Dumb at Marketing and Business

The thing is, lawyers are also highly likely to suffer from the Dunning-Kruger Effect. What’s that, you ask?

Dunning-Kruger Effect is a cognitive bias whereby people who are incompetent at something are unable to recognize their own incompetence. And not only do they fail to recognize their incompetence, they’re also likely to feel confident that they actually are competent.

–Mark Murphy, Forbes

One of the most interesting parts of Dunning-Kruger is that the less competence you have in an area, the better you think you are at it. Lawyers, being an intelligent lot generally, often think that a quick scan of some articles on a “simple” topic like marketing means they are well-versed, although they’ve never written any marketing materials or planned a campaign. Or, they will reject the reasoning in those articles and substitute their own, despite a lack of any training or experience in marketing.

Sorry, You’re Already Branded

I do remember when the idea of a personal brand started floating around in the 90s. I instantly detested it. It seemed manipulative and somehow dishonest. That’s because, having done nothing but lawyering then, I had almost no idea what the whole personal brand idea was about.

Here’s the thing: Like it or not, you already have a personal brand. It’s really another name for your reputation. A personal brand is about how others experience you. But it’s not limited to in-person interactions. Other factors play into the mix, among them:

  • the tone of your emails,
  • whether you post on social media,
  • what you post on social media,
  • what groups you belong to, online and in person,
  • your hobbies and interests, and
  • your general attitude and disposition.

Also, that maxim about “actions speak louder than words” completely applies to your personal brand.

A personal brand isn’t about creating some fictitious persona. It’s about creating a reputation for yourself about attributes that matter to you. What do you want to be known for? A razor-sharp intellect? Great problem-solving skills? Unassailable ethics? Loyalty? Reliability? Superb writing? Those are the kinds of things you control, and should focus on when you consider what you want your personal brand to be.

fashion woman red fenceIf you’re planning on switching to a non-law career, a personal brand is key to knowing how to present your strengths to non-lawyer employers.

Who Does Everyone Think You Are?

When you’ve been working for a little while, you have a brand. (Yes, that includes you, brand new associates.) You aren’t working from a clean slate. So it’s a good idea to find out what your personal brand is right now, before you decide if you should change it or just sharpen it.

There’s a great idea for researching that in Dawn Graham’s book, Switchers, about career changers. (I haven’t made it completely through yet, but so far I like what I’ve read.)

Graham suggests emailing 10 people, who should be a collection of friends, family, and current/former colleagues. You ask only 3 things:

  1. What are my strengths?
  2. What areas need development?
  3. What am I known for in the group/family/company?

I know at this point many of you are terrified. Every one of your shortcomings have just flashed up on your internal movie screen.

shocked face bl whIt’s OK. Just breathe. That truism about you being your own worst critic completely applies here. Unless you ask people who you never got along with, your people won’t trash you.

Also, you may be very pleasantly surprised by some of your feedback. Something that you considered common may turn out to be prized by those around you.

One caveat: Since most of you have many lawyer colleagues, consider asking at least five non-lawyers for their feedback. A former assistant, say, or a paralegal you no longer supervise. Don’t forget people who knew you in college or before. Professors, classmates, coaches—that sort of thing.

It’s not that your lawyer friends aren’t lovely, but many of them tend to be a little deficient in emotional intelligence department, and can get hung up on minor things. That’s not the view you need.

If you don’t want to collect all this data via email, consider using a free survey tool, like Google or Typeform. You might send out a note to all your intended participants before hitting them up with the survey, explaining what you’re doing.

Shape Your Brand to Honor Your Strengths

Once you’ve gotten your responses (and thanked everyone), find a few quiet minutes to look at them. What patterns or themes do you see?

Remember, this is not the Voice of God delivering permanent judgement; you’re just seeing what impressions people have of you right now. Those impressions can and will change, with time, effort, or both.

Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • Do you agree with what those impressions are?
  • Are they how you want to be known, and what you want to be known for?
  • If not, what would it take on your part to change them?
  • Are erroneous impressions something you care about deeply? Just because it’s expected that you care, doesn’t mean it’s actually important to you.

The Core of Your Brand

For example—although I haven’t gotten my data back yet—I’m pretty sure that at least some colleagues would say that I could use work on being more organized, and maybe work on time management generally.

They would be 100% correct.

But, I am not willing to invest my entire being into changing that perception. Sure, I could and should improve some, for the sake of being a little easier to work with.

Being that person who plans out every project to the nth degree? And plots out my day in 10-minute increments? Nope. Not who I am and where I want to live.

Some of you may be appalled about that decision. I totally get that.

Yet I would say that being the person who is creative and innovative is vastly more important to me. It’s a core component of my brand, and more importantly, who I am. And from long experience, I know that creativity does not jump when I say when. It has to be wooed, and it will stomp off in a huff and a hair flip if I try to put too many expectations on it.

helen-mirren-hair-flip-hundred-foot-journey-premiere-02In other words, the more I put energy into being better at things I suck at, the less energy to plow into my important work.

Your brand should emphasize not just your strengths, but the strengths you care most about. Figure out what those are, and you are on your way to an authentic, useful personal brand. If you’re looking to change careers, paying attention to your personal brand is an important part of the process.

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer who helps unhappy attorneys how to find the work that makes them glad to get up in the morning—at least after they’ve had coffee. Email her at jalvey@jenniferalvey.com if  you want some insight about what that work is for you.

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