I’ve noticed that a lot of lawyers are suffering from information overload in all the advice about what to focus on when building a practice. Clarifying basic concepts is a good place to start. And truthfully, it’s also a relief to simplify some of the jargon.
Here’s a guide to the four concepts that most lawyers and firms need to consider.
Who you are: your identity and brand
The attributes that describe who you are and what you have to offer are grounded in the concepts of identity and brand. Lawyers often feel anxious about marketing because so much of their personal and professional identity is wrapped up in their brand.
Identity underpins all law firm marketing. It is what is central and distinctive about you, your practice or the profession.
Identity is tied to your firm culture as well as the nuts and bolts of what you do. In a legal organization, it could refer to the underlying values that influence the type of people you hire or the type of clients you prefer to work with.
Identity can change over time, though.
After law school, you might describe yourself as a lawyer. But you’ll eventually specialize in a practice area or crave a different work environment and adjust the description. Or, on an organizational level, a firm might develop into a very different place than it once was.
I’ve encountered many different definitions of “brand” (including “hogwash”, from one of my more cynical clients!). When working with lawyers, I prefer to describe brand as the ways in which you best represent “who you are” to everyone you interact with, inside and outside your firm.
In other words, your brand is the sum total of how you distinguish yourself or your organization.
Strong brands bind groups of people together, spurring loyalty and a feeling of belonging. For example, you might have an “employer brand” that is a subset of your overall firm brand. But if your communications messages for each are vastly different, you’ll run the risk of incoherence.
What others perceive about you: your image and reputation
Lawyers and law firms invest a lot of time and money in what they communicate: identity and brand. The return on this investment is measured by how others perceive the individual or organization: image and reputation.
When others think of you or your organization (or even the legal profession), they often have a preconceived notion of what you are like. This is your “image”.
If you’ve ever had to explain to a client that his case is not going to unfold like an episode of Law & Order, you know what I’m referring to.
People evaluate identity and brand, based on their own experience and expectations, not what you tell them to believe. This is why it can be so difficult to shape an image – as much as you try to influence it, it’s still subject to interpretation.
Your reputation is the overall appreciation, trust and esteem that others feel for you. These are intangible, emotional perceptions that are difficult to put into words.
If people are asked to describe your reputation, what will they consider? They’ll think about personal experiences (identity), evidence of your activities (branding, communications and behaviour) and what others have to say about you (image).
A reputation is like a savings account: it builds over time. All the experiences others have with you, good or bad, factor as credits or debits in your favour. The trick is to build up as much credit as possible so that you can draw on the account when the need arises. Any lawyer whose firm has experienced a crisis will understand this analogy.
Image and reputation are the external manifestation of your identity and brand. If there is alignment – if you’re attracting the ideal recruits and clients or being asked to join the right committees– you’re probably doing things right.
From my experience, the best way for lawyers to gauge their reputation is simply to make a habit of: a) accurately representing who they are; b) objectively finding out what people think of them, and; c) tying the two activities together to put their best foot forward in their marketing efforts.