There was a much reviewed, discussed and commented upon post written by Kevin O’Keefe wherein he stated he was no longer going to push the ‘shallowness’ of branding to lawyers. He cites Doc Searles in this well written piece focusing on personal branding who argues branding is the province of corporations. People are not corporations and therefore cannot/should not be branded lest they do so at the peril of impugning their integrity. Whether he says sole proprietors such as solo lawyers should strictly build their businesses on reputation is up for interpretation. However, he believes others confuse ‘personal branding’ with reputation-building.
As for personal branding, I still think it’s an oxymoron. Branding is a corporate practice, not a personal one. Build a reputation by doing good work. Put that work where others can judge its value. Contribute to the success of others, and credit others generously for their contributions to your success. Never promote for its own sake. I think it’s a mistake to categorize these practices as forms of “branding,” because they are expressions of humanity and integrity.
Doc Searles makes a compelling argument. Kevin takes it a step further and extrapolates this argument to lawyers concluding, as many lawyers do, that lawyers work solely on their reputation building, not the ‘shallowness’ of branding. The implication is there is something cheesy and undignified about branding. He follows up by saying branding is not reputation. This is correct. Branding is absolutely not reputation. This is Kevin’s personal reflection which he has shared. Many who responded in the comments challenged his reflection. This post will, too.
Many successful lawyers are about both branding and reputation whether by calculation or happenstance. Some great lawyers achieve both simply by happenstance. (‘happenstance’ is used in the context of not recognizing they created a great brand or someone else ‘branded them’, but benefiting from it anyway.)
Kevin showcases a perfect example of this happenstance even though he was using it to make his argument that this lawyer didn’t need branding:
Can you imagine someone telling Clarence Darrow, labeled a ‘sophisticated country lawyer’, that he needed a personal brand to survive? I cannot.
Being ‘labeled’ as a ‘sophisticated country lawyer‘ is Darrow’s branding! It was his country lawyer roots (and image) and the use of his skills as an advocate and protector of the common man which got others to praise him. This was the basis of his reputation. Those who utilized his services or admired his talents communicated about his skills and his ability to deliver on his promise as an advocate and protector of the common man. Even if the label of ‘sophisticated country lawyer’ was bestowed by others he delivered on his promise of being so.
For the record, I am not disagreeing with Doc Searles concept of personal branding not being branding at all but reputation-building. I am, however, disagreeing with Kevin’s changed position on branding for the lawyer. His position elicits a purely emotional response, one which falls into the category of ‘work hard, have others like you, refer you business and you’ll be fine’. This can be damaging to a lawyer trying to differentiate themselves in this very competitive marketplace. In today’s market place it’s simply not enough to show up and practice and hope others like and talk about you.
Here is an unemotional reality. As Rajesh Setty said so well in his post on Tom Peters blog:
“A personal brand is your promise to the marketplace and the world. Since everyone makes a promise to the world, one does not have a choice of having or not having a personal brand. Everyone has one. The real question is whether someone’s personal brand is powerful enough to be meaningful to the person and the marketplace.”
I don’t think what Doc Searles states truly helps the individual practitioner. I do think it makes us feel good and allows us to avoid being proactive about our practices when it comes to what most lawyers perceive is distasteful – marketing and brand building. But feeling good is not going to build your practice. Not today. Branding your solo practice, which some can say is a ‘personal brand’, is a promise* you make to the marketplace, your potential client. It is solely within your control. Reputation is the perception held by others as to whether or not you have successfully delivered on that promise. You have to be proactive in both.
By way of a colorful hypothetical, John Jones is known as the ‘go to guy for DUI in Tenafly’. He has carved out that niche, named himself the ‘go to guy for DUI in Tenafly’. He has self- branded. His unspoken promise (because he’s not allowed to advertise a speciality) is he knows what’s needed to successfully defend a DUI in the town of Tenafly and the state of New Jersey. He has had a few cases which garnered great results for his clients and he delivered on his unspoken promise that if you have a DUI problem in Tenafly, New Jersey, he’s the man to see. His happy client may tell someone who has a DUI issue that he’s got to see the ‘go to guy for DUI in Tenafly.’ The prospective new client says, ‘Why?’ Happy client says, he was honest, reliable, knows DUI law because he did a great job on his case, and says it like it is.’ The client has now discussed reputation for delivering on his promise – the ‘go to lawyer’ for DUI-related cases. This is based upon his satisfied client’s perception, the perception he shares with others. This helps build John Jones’ brand, his promise.
The ‘Promise’ and the ‘Delivery’ on that promise are two different things. They co-exist and function in tandem but seldom share the same space. Reputation can build up or tear down your brand. Deliver on the promise and your brand is enhanced by your client’s perception you fulfilled your promise. Don’t deliver as promised and your client’s perception is you failed and your brand is diminished.
Promise* (Brand) and Delivery (Reputation) are not unique to corporations. Solo lawyers also have to make a promise and deliver ( a promise beyond those sworn to under oath).
This ‘Promise’ and the manner in which that promise is presented to the public is often the subject of heated debate and regulated by each state. You are not allowed to truly brand yourself (make an actual promise) nor are you allowed to use your reputation to build your brand (testimonials and comparative adjectives). The thinking goes that since your services are not a product, like a can of Coke, you cannot guarantee results for a future legal matter. Testimonials to your reputation for delivering on your promise imply future results. These can never be guaranteed like the predictable flavor of a can of Coke.
Understand that those in the legal marketing world break down branding and reputation for a very important reason. They understand creating an effective brand to showcase your promise to your clients requires one set of strategies. Your delivery on those promises requires your legal skills combined with excellent client service and law office management. The happy client’s perception of your ability to do it well creates your reputation.
So, do you think a solo practitioner can have a brand or should have a brand? Do you have a brand? Do you have a reputation? Do you have both? Have you ever even thought about your practice in this way? Let me know in the comments.