Why Solo Practitioners Can and Should Develop A Brand

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 lawyeris 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.

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18 comments on “Why Solo Practitioners Can and Should Develop A Brand

    • We must have just been sharing a brain on the topic. It’s an important one to discuss which is why all opinions are welcome. I just don’t want those who read this blog to be confused by branding and reputation. They both have to be cultivated.

  • Susan, thank you for continuing the conversation. With all due respect, I’m still not sold. :) Also, I’d like to clarify something. On my FB Company page (http://www.facebook.com/GoldenPractices) I didn’t intend to say that I don’t “equate a brand with a promise.” I wrote “Promise HINTS at brand but does not equate to it.” which SHOULD have had a “necessarily” before “equates” — the intent being that a company can “promise” something and may or may not succeed at creating the public/buyer perception that THAT promise is a truth, and thus part of the brand.

    A promise CAN be part of the brand but a brand isn’t LIMITED to a company’s promise. Brand definition is often CREATED by outsiders formally (ie “what do you think we stand for?” “what do you think of when you hear [insert company/product here]?” or informally (think KMart…) regardless of what the company was promising. The brand definition, quality, and value (good or bad) are actually entirely in the eye of the beholder.

    Sometimes a company starts off with a promise but, either way, they have to regularly ASK outsiders these questions to test if the brand is true or maintained. The answers will never be 100% yes. But the brand works if a majority of people agree that the definition/promise is their perception and it doesn’t work if they don’t. Reputation can be part of the perception of brand delivery (or non delivery) but reputation can be a lot of other things to, thus I did explicitly say that a brand is not the same as reputation.

    I think we agree on a lot of points here, probably more than we disagree on, but I’m just not sold that it’s important or helpful for a professional to adopt the thinking that they need a “personal brand” in addition to developing a solid reputation for performing well and being accessible and informative as a resource for his or her clients.

    And the reason that I am skeptical that a “firm” can have a true brand is that knowledge and services are delivered by individual humans, not a collective, consistent group.

    • Michelle, thanks for joining in over here. And now you are taking it to the next level. I’m promising Y but my audience sees me as delivering X so the brand morphs through engagement. The Promise changes. And quite possibly the delivery . But the premise I started with holds true. A perfect example in the corporate world is Avon’s Skin So Soft. Sold as/ promised as a skin softener. It proves to be s great bug repellant and develops a whole new market . Sadly, Avon can’t market it as such for FDA reasons but the world knows.

      I do believe individuals in a solo practice can develop a brand no different then this process described and for the reasons outlined and they should.

  • Susan, thanks and perhaps I’m missing something, but please help me understand how you see “brand-building” as a necessary activity beyond already requisite “reputation-building” and how are they different in your eyes?

    thanks! :)

  • Michelle,

    It is necessary in today’s market for lawyers. We always talk about differentiating ourselves. What do we mean? We mean branding. Branding is proactive and within our control as you already noted. Reputation is created over time. If one enters the market place without a ‘promise’ to help start the business building we’re lost. And this starts, quite often with a solo practitioner, as finding a niche and then clarifying that niche. But, there could be several others to select within that niche (all before they’ve had a chance to really build a reputation which comes from delivery on that promise).

    You have to define yourself and your promise to bring in business. In some ways it is the chicken/egg. But here is a perfect example of a new solo who is cultivating both – niche and brand in order to have an opportunity to build reputation.


    There are more but she is making a promise to her audience and it is clear. Reputation will flow if she can deliver. If she didn’t present herself as such, would anyone ever find her for their specific solution and give her an opportunity?


  • Susan, I totally agree with the approach, ESPECIALLY proactively positioning oneself as a specialist and on committing to other service-quality differentiators–like pricing versus billing for instance. If we now label that as branding versus “specialization” and commitment to service (the old-fashioned terms) I’m okay with that. I just think that the word “Branding” has unfortunate (corporate) baggage that doesn’t help us when we are educating lawyers about business development. I also think branding, as a term, is much less clear (as evidenced by all these blogs and discussions about what it does and does not mean) than talking about specializing and differentiation. At VeraSage, we see a lot of this with and around the word “Value pricing” – it has so much baggage. And we just mean pricing in advance and pricing on purpose. That “value” thing freaks people out. The same with Branding.

    Branding, to me, is taking humans and making them more corporate which professionals do NOT need to be, instead of making these professionals more humanized, authentic, and accessible. This is why I object to the term for individual use…especially in the era we are in. I believe that is where Doc is coming from too. Ironically, I had read the homepage of http://www.cluetrain.com on Friday morning and it resonated with me so much (those guys had POWERFUL vision in 1999!!) about humanizing companies and business people. That is exactly what lawyers and other professionals need to continue doing. I do think words matter and I think the branding label is not the best term for what we are helping professionals to embrace.

    I always enjoy your discussions. Thanks for being so thought provoking again!

  • Hey there Susan, I SO don’t mean to beat a dead horse. I just read Raj’s post again on TomPeters.com (which I had not read thoroughly before) but it supports what I’m arguing so I’ll quote:

    “1. It’s NOT what you say about yourself….Your personal brand is an assessment the marketplace makes about you and who you are and what you bring to the marketplace” – thus going to market (at launch) touting a promise is not the same as a brand.

    Further to that point, his #4 is “It’s NOT something you can ASK for….People give it to you when you deserve it.”

    Does this influence your stance? :)

    • On the Rajesh piece, he’s referring to a ‘personal’ brand. I used his first paragraph to describe what a brand is – a promise. But I’m talking about branding of a business, where the solo practitioner is the business. I hope you saw this when I was writing my original piece lest we be talking back and forth about different topics.

  • Ok, now I know I am beating the horse… you wrote: “Branding is proactive and within our control as you already noted. ” and it is important to note that I don’t claim branding is “within our control” – my discussion maintains that the brand, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

    Thanks, I’ll be done now for awhile. Happy Sunday!

  • Michelle,

    The horse isn’t dead :-)

    In the facebook discussion where this started you replied in your comment:

    “Promise” is articulated by the provider/seller and completely in their control. ” (Unless I misunderstood you or you were referring to something else?)

    There has to be a starting point. Either one waits until someone tells you what you are worth after performance and labels you. Or the starting point is making a promise, delivering, earning the reputation for fulfilling the promise. The promise is the brand. I believe you can direct your branding by being responsive to your audience and their perception of you, quick to grow, reshape as needed, unless your market sees you completely differently and guides you accordingly… or dismisses you.

    If you opt for the latter you are in control to the degree you craft the promise/brand and the manner in which you deliver and the market accepts you. There is engagement because one cannot exist without the other.

    Lawyer’s cannot claim specialization. That’s is a very specific, regulated term as you know.

    That a lawyer might be offended by the term ‘branding’ or see it as dehumanizing or deem it too corporate for an individual doesn’t change the dynamic that exists. And for someone to dress up the term in ‘nicer’ clothing doesn’t change the process. It’s branding. A rose by any other name…

    I strongly believe a solo practitioner should be in charge of creating their brand/promise and the manner in which they deliver on that promise to earn reputation. They have to be responsive and adaptable to the market in order to survive but in charge from the beginning in order to be competitive.

    I also think being in charge is the nature of the solo practitioner. And I don’t think a good business person such as the successful solo practitioner should be offended or feel dehumanized or too corporate because they understand the concept of branding and utilize it to build their practices.

  • I agree that personal branding is essential for lawyers. How else do they distinguish themselves from others within their niche. It isn’t enough to say, “I’m an estate planning attorney.” Have a personal story behind it that engages the person who may learn of your services so if they or someone they know needs them at some point, they’ll remember you. I tell my personal story about how I went from being a divorce attorney to being a legal matchmaker because it is my purpose and passion to connect people. I connect people personally, professionally, day in and day out because it’s what I’m mean to do, and because I get so much joy from doing it. No one has ever heard of this before so without branding, no one would understand how or why I do what I do. They might just think I’m nice for putting people together! Lori T. Williams, Owner/Managing Attorney, Your Legal Resource, PLLC

  • Hi Susan -
    I just stumpled upon your blog and I find this subject fascinating. I work with solo professional service providers in building their niche, brand, and practice. I’ve considered “brand” to be one of the “I can’t define it but I know it when I see it” things. I agree with your general train of thought. Here’s another angle: I recently heard a luncheon talk by a guy who provides team-building training. A dime a dozen. I don’t know anything about his reputation. But I do know one thing about him that sticks in my mind: he’s the purple guy. He wore a purple tie. His business cards were purple. His Powerpoint theme/background was purple. All very professional, tasteful, well-coordinated, and distinctive.

    Now, I wouldn’t say that “the purpose guy” was his brand, but I think it’s part of his brand. It’s not his “promise” per se, but it’s what’s distinctive and memorable about him, that helps me remember who he is, among all the people who have similar promised.


    Best regards,
    Ann Kruse, JD, MSOD
    Coach to leader and professionals who are going places.

    • Ann, The Purple Guy is creating a visual connection and it is memorable. But it’s not his brand per se. Purple tells us nothing about what he does and who he is or any promise he makes to deliver. But it is memorable. It’s a walking logo of sorts. If he makes the right connections with this logo it will trigger you to remember his services/his promise, etc. Just my $.02.

  • Susan:

    Doc Searles has been instrumental in the development of VRM or Vendor Relationship Management. See Project VRM http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/vrm/. Doc is a leading light in the tech industry.

    But I believe he confused the notion of authenticity with corporate branding. The blowback against corporate brands – and particularly with the use of celebrities – is that consumers increasingly see celebrities as no longer authentic or relevant. In an era of American Idol, we all have a chance to BE or BECOME a celebrity.

    In Tiger Wood’s case, his “brand” was the steely-eyed single minded drive to golf greatness. His ability to concentrate was (and is) amazing. But if your brand is to intimidate opponents rather than connect with fans then you cannot afford chinks in your armor. Tiger’s affairs show us that he is willing to perpetuate a false face. Contrast his brand with that of Phil Mickelson who is passionately loved by the fans. Who resonates with golf fans now? Tiger? Maybe, but I would more likely see Phil Mickelson with more lasting impact on the lives of fans. See http://www.cbssports.com/golf/story/13332391/mickelson-sliding-into-hero-void-left-by-tiger/rss

    As I see it, personal branding is even more important today. But the branding should be focused on transparency and showing what you care about. Consumers are more interested today in what you care about than what you simply do.

    As an example, you’ll recall that I expressed dismay at the General Practice Solo Conference in Orlando (where I met you) that the Florida Bar had recently announced an initiative to investigate the seeming decline in civil jury trials in Florida. I commented that the silence from the organized Bar was deafening. Why didn’t a personal injury lawyer step up and use that announcement to show that he or she cares that our continued jury “institution” is fundamental to our civil liberties? Perhaps because to be “authentic,” such lawyer would have to put his money or time and effort where his mouth is and provide some investigative service to the initiative.

    Finally, you may recall that I spent my presentation illustrating why Lady Gaga is so loved by her fans. Aside from the indecipherable “She gets me …,” comments, her fans usually remark that they admire her. Her attention to issues such as womens’ body image strikes a chord with young women all over the globe. And Her recent partnership with Virgin Mobile to combat juvenile homelessness reinforces to her fans that she cares for something more than simply money. Finally, she engages her fans in social media in a clear conversation. Incredibly, she is perceived to be so generous with her attention and sharing of the spotlight that other artists gravitate to her (Beyonce and Lady Gaga co-produced their recent blockbuster “Telephone” video). Why can’t lawyers see that there are numerous opportunities to work together, a coopetition – See a Wikipedia page on “Coopetition.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coopetition

    Lawyers need to ask themselves why can’t they have fans, too.

    Daniel Perry
    Twitter: DanielPerry

  • I think branding works to an extent. I like having a logo on my business cards that corresponds to my website and my letterhead. It gives a sense of uniformity and organization. Logos and mottoes are easier to remember than names. I don’t know how many times at functions someone will ask me if I know such and such attorney, but until they describe some idiosyncrasy of the lawyer, I’m not always sure to whom they are referring.

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