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Telling lawyers to build a personal brand may be a big mistake

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.”

  • http://www.valanduseconstructionlaw.com Timothy R. Hughes

    Great post Kevin. The branding discussions have always hit a hollow note with me and you have put your finger directly on the issue.

  • http://lawyerist.com Sam Glover

    I don’t disagree with Doc’s post, but I think it is a matter of semantics. You can call it reputation or you can call it personal branding; the result is the same.

  • http://www.myrlandmarketing.com Nancy Myrland

    Kevin, call it what you’d like, and maybe not branding as it is a misunderstood and often maligned term, but we all do have a brand whether we like it or not. We can choose to let it be formed for us by those who observe us, and choose to define it as they wish, or we can take an active part in its formation and communication. I choose a combination of the two, hopefully led by the latter.
    To compare personal branding to celebrity and, in particular, Tiger Woods, is way off base. I am my corporation, so everything I do contributes to my reputation, everyone’s impression of what it’s like to do business with me, what I deliver when I work with my clients….aka my brand!
    The assumption that this is a shallow practice is not constructive, and will only serve to confuse lawyers and other service providers whose clients are looking for a reason to choose them.
    I’m not saying I’m blatant about using the words that I have chosen to define my brand, but it is my responsibility, and my practice, to use them, to model them, to act like them, and to communicate them when it is appropriate.
    Choose a different term, sure, but eliminating the need to define, craft, communicate and emulate your brand because it is only reserved for companies and corporations? I don’t think so.

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/karencariello Karen Cariello

    Kevin – most thought provoking post. I think many have been turned off by aggresive self-promoters – and labeled it all ‘branding’- and we run the risk of throwing baby out with bathwater here.
    At its most basic level, branding is a shorthand for the promise of value that the product intends to deliver. Thinking in these terms it’s easier to wrap your head around its application to a professional service provider. As Nancy eloquently said above it’s important to be proactive in defining what your promising to deliver to the community – what does one’s name mean? After all, isn’t the first step to Google someone before we hire them?
    In today’s crowded marketplace I think there’s a profound need to define your own promise of value and place it where people search – and this applies to anyone seeking employment as well as professional service providers.

  • http://blog.greatjakes.com Robert Algeri

    Kevin,
    Thanks for bringing Doc Searls to my attention. Your post really got me thinking. Branding does connote something cold when applied to people. I intend to be mindful of the four bullet-points that you conclude with. In fact, I’ve taped them to my office wall.

  • http://doc.searls.com Doc Searls

    Kevin, thanks so much for this.
    After three long posts on the topic, I had the sense that I was wasting my breath. Or, to mix metaphors, that I was trying to piss out a wildfire.
    But you’ve made my week. Or month. Or year.
    “Branding” isn’t the same as reputation, and no amount of promotion or repetition can make it so. The meanings of words can change over time, but their origins cannot. Branding has always been a corporate practice. There are limits to the extent one can make the corporate into the personal without peril to one’s integrity as a human being, and as a professional.
    It’s clear your advice to others has always been terrific. I’m pleased and honored that you’ve found in my writing one way to make it even better.
    Cheers,
    Doc

  • http://shatterbox.wordpress.com Jay Pinkert

    Searls just doesn’t make his case. Products absolutely have reputations, and companies actively “contribute to the success of others, and credit others generously for their contributions to [their] success” — think TOMS Shoes, Dell’s IdeaStorm, etc.
    And his riff on celebrity culture is more screed than critique.
    Pitting the terms “personal brand” and “reputation” against each other makes for a good homily, but as a practical matter, it is not a constructive dialectic for marketers — and it’s more than a little condescending.
    I’m with Nancy Myrland. Professionals and small businesses personally inform, shape and animate their organization’s brand ever day. Consciousness of that can only help lawyers.

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/sryoder Stephen R. Yoder

    Kevin, thanks for the four suggestions at the end of this article, it will do me good to remember them as I manage my personal brand.
    Reference to national celebrities misses the point somewhat. We all have a sphere of influence. We should be active in managing our message within that sphere.
    It has been said that our example speaks so loudly that what we say cannot be heard. Becoming aware of the value of our personal brand and striving to improve upon that brand is a worthy pursuit.

  • http://www.legalwatercoolerblog.com Heather Morse-Milligan

    I don’t disagree with Kevin’s four bullet points, but I will argue that building and maintaining a personal brand is important.
    Lawyers come to marketers daily with the request to “differentiate” them from their competition. Usually this is impossible because their competition also graduated top of their class from a similarly ranked university, top of their class from an Ivy League law school, and are AV-rated, Best and Super-duperist with their competition who practice law across the hall, down the street or on the other side of the country.
    Having a personal brand is what differentiates you from your competition. Your personal brand is what you stand for. It’s based on your reputation. It’s what you’re known for in the marketplace. It’s what differentiates you from your competition. It’s what comes to mind when someone says your name.
    We all have a brand. We all have a reputation to maintain and manage.
    However, where reputations are earned, a brand can be built.

  • http://www.gjel.com/blog Ben Buchwalter

    Kevin — really great post. Simply because it has become so easy for lawyers to “brand” themselves, some seem to have gone overboard. But you and Doc are correct, people are not the same as corporations and should not be treated as such. And there’s nothing worse than self-promotion for the sake of self-promotion. In my view, though, when a lawyer as something substantive to contribute, promoting themselves isn’t annoying… it’s even welcome.
    I have a related question. How do Doc’s views and your above bullet points apply to law firms as a whole? Should law firms market themselves since they are an entity, not a person?

  • Paula Black

    Nancy Myland hit the nail on the head… we can let others define us or be proactive and conscious of how we are shaping our reputation. No matter what you choose to call it, a personal brand or reputation, it is the cornerstone of any good business development journey. It helps people instantly recognize you—and what makes you stand out. It sets people apart from the crowd and evokes an emotion, feeling or memory. Personal brand may sound cold, but it’s effect is just the opposite.
    So… are the bullets Kevin ended with building your reputation or your brand? Whatever it is… it makes good business sense.

  • http://twitter.com/lalaland999 Laura Gutierrez

    Like most of the comments above, whatever you call it…branding, reputation, personality…it’s the same thing.
    A meaning of a word – no matter what the word is – will almost always change. It’s the message that’s important, not the word itself. Why spend time on arguing what the definition means when we could be discussing the message or implementation?
    Kevin, I am not disagreeing with your points outlined, I’m just saying call it what you want, the message is clear – lawyers don’t just sell services, they must sell themselves.
    The word does not inherently give itself meaning, people give it meaning.

  • Gloria Fox

    Kevin,
    The ClueTrain Manifesto is a tremendous piece of work and a great guide to use for thinking about business practices in the 21st Century. Thanks for your great post reagarding “branding”….I’ve given that much thought myself and consider knowledge sharing very different than marketing or branding (in the traditional sense). People are appreciated for sharing their knowledge, we come to respect and appreciate them for that; Doc I believe is speaking to the humanity of that kind of sharing. There is yet much to learn about how to best share one’s expertise. In a Machiavellian world, one is out to out craft another, beat the others at all costs, there is no trust….cluetrain takes us somewhere very different….not unlike what is happening politically right now. Thanks again for your thoughts.

  • http://www.munnellassociates.com Betsy Munnell

    Semantics. But then my perspective is very particular–I was a deal lawyer for 30 years, and when I decided to switch gears and do business development training I chose to work strictly with younger lawyers–the “digital natives”, with childhood memories drenched in technology, who face a woefully constricted market, dramatically reduced opportunities and a profession in crisis. Many have inadequate interpersonal skills and no idea how to build, much less maintain, a network in person. Most have difficulty assuming responsibility for their careers, and have not yet learned that the apprenticeship model is long dead, and that the partners they assume will train and sustain them are holding their clients close, operating in silo mode and staying lean and mean for the next lateral move.
    I don’t care about the word. I do care about the fact that neither law schools nor law firms –on average–offer young lawyers any useful training on the topics discussed above. To us, as coaches and consultants, the importance of reputation, brand, visibility and relationships is self-evident, as it is to established rainmakers. But no one is explaining this effectively to the next generation, much less training them in the basics of networking and business generation. This type of instruction, like many aspects of professional development, is perceived as a soft cost in a law firm— and is often deferred or cut altogether at critical junctures–when business is off.
    And, without a doubt, it is a rare lawyer in today’s economic climate who is thinking about succession planning. The young ones need to be hard-nosed about it, or they’ll get lost in the shuffle.
    So, if I have to choose, I choose “brand”–because the word means the same as reputation if properly understood, but it connotes an urgency that young lawyers need to acknowledge and act upon.

  • http://kevin.lexblog.com Kevin OKeefe

    Wonderful comments all of them. It’s dicussion like this that allows this kid with half a brain to learn a few things.
    It seems it’s more than semantics. Brand is different than reputation. I just can’t see a law professor we all looked up (they were different for each us) as 1 L’s telling us how important our brand was going to be. I can see he or she telling us how important our reputation was though – and us nodding our heads – and aspiring to one day earn that reputation, not a brand.
    Can you imagine someone telling Clarence Darrow, labled a ‘sophisticated country lawyer’ that he needed a personal brand to survive? I cannot.
    When someone’s reputation is unfairly sullied, they’ll ask ‘Where do I go to get my reputation back?’ They don’t ask where do I go to get my brand back?
    Legal marketers have struggled against lawyers’ anymosity toward them and their hard work of marketing a law firm. Maybe it’s because they hear terms like brand and don’t want a brand or to be marketed? Maybe those lawyers want to know how to be a better lawyer, how to serve more people, and how to let more people about their skill and passion without selling themselves? I don’t know.
    Right now I’m feeling in my gut that people are not brands and that the legal profession may be better off not to tell lawyers to ‘brand’ themselves.
    What Doc says in his comment makes a lot of sense to me. “Branding” isn’t the same as reputation, and no amount of promotion or repetition can make it so. The meanings of words can change over time, but their origins cannot. Branding has always been a corporate practice. There are limits to the extent one can make the corporate into the personal without peril to one’s integrity as a human being, and as a professional.”

  • http://solopracticeunivesity.com/proud-to-be-solo Susan Cartier Liebel

    “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.”
    This is a great quote from Rajesh Setty in this post: http://www.tompeters.com/dispatches/010824.php on TomPeters! Lawyers, specifically solos, can only have personal brands – their promise to the marketplace/clients.
    The discussion of ‘corporate branding’ does not take into consideration the entrepreneur/soloist. And if it does by calling it ‘personal reputation’, this is confusing the two. Why? Because corporations have reputations, also. Reputation for good customer service, reputation for overcharging. These are unrelated to branding.
    Branding is the promise. Reputation is the delivery.
    Great discussion!

  • http://www.alabamaproductinjurylawyer.com Craig Niedenthal

    Kevin and others: Tend to agree that YOU are your brand. Your reputation, your ethics, what others think of your work product…ultimately that is your brand.
    Susan is probably right that to some extent, using the technical concept of it, “branding is the promise”. But as time goes on in your career, and your reputation as a lawyer and the quality of your work gets known, you can promise whatever you want…at that point, yes, your brand is reputation. You can’t “brand away” that which has been earned….for better or worse.

  • John Hill

    I’m not a lawyer so maybe what I offer now does not apply. But I have been in advertising and marketing and what is being missed here is this. If you’re known in legal circles for being good and honorable as, say, a Vegas personal injury lawyer, that is reputation (within the field.) Branding is being known beyond it — and mainly applies to future business spin-off diversification. If you have a ‘brand awareness’ to some degree to the city in general as a lawyer, but start up a group of tax preparation offices, for example, your “brand” extends to this new business – and helps it.
    Until there’s any business diversification, branding per se is a good thing and helps, but really comes into play if there’s franchised offices or new related businesses or services being offered to the public who already know your brand. “Branding” is when you take your well-known reputation and capitalize on it in new ways (which you can’t imagine doing now, of course,…but someday?)

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