I regularly talk about a lawyer’s personal brand. To me that means the reputation a lawyer has built for being a trusted and reliable authority in a niche of the law and/or locale. Not an all together bad thing knowing lawyers get their work by word of mouth, not advertising.

But a recent blog post by widely-read blogger and co-author of The Cluetrain Manifesto, Doc Searls, has got me thinking. Doc talks about the ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Branding.’

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.

Branding works for companies and products in part because those things are not people. Buildings and offices and ballparks and shoes may have human qualities, but are not themselves human. Likewise humans may be industrious or durable or attractive in the manner of good companies, but that doesn’t make them corporate.

You and I are not brands. Our parents did not raise us to be brands. Nor would we want our children to be brands, any more than we want them to be logos.

Even if one could personal brand themselves, Doc argues there’s nothing to be gained.

‘Personal branding’ is a nice gloss on playing for celebrity. And celebrity is a Faustian bargain. Ask any veteran celebrity and they’ll tell you that. They live in fishbowls and yet, for all their familiarity, are not well understood as three-dimensional human beings. The healthy ones deal with it gracefully. The unhealthy ones use their celebrity as a façade (as with Tiger Woods), as a pass to a virtual Las Vegas where everybody keeps indiscretions secret (as with Tiger Woods), or as an ideal they can never really match (and hence seek surgical alignment, as with too many to count).

Many of us assume without question that celebrity also equates with income. It doesn’t. There is a degree of correlation, but in the long run we get hired for the useful goods we bring to the market’s table. Not because we have a ‘personal brand.’

I’ve presented at law schools, bar societies, bar associations, and association conferences of legal professionals talking about building one’s personal brand. I’ve talked about the importance of creating a personal brand – and of making yourself indispensable by doing so. I’ve talked about the importance of using blogging and other forms of social media as tools in building one’s personal brand.

I was as passionate about the topic as I was talking with a jury in a closing argument. But as with juries, I often received a hollow response from some of the folks I was speaking to. Maybe it was my treatment of lawyers like they were Cialis – something Eli Lilly and Company works hard to brand.

Rather than talking of personal branding, I’d actually be more comfortable categorizing the below practices for lawyers as expressions of humanity and integrity, as opposed to forms of ‘branding.’

  • 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’ve learned a ton from Doc Searls over the years. Today it’s “Building trust and maintaining a reputation matter. Calling both ‘branding’ is a categorical error.”