Legal Mentoring, Marketing and Branding Services

Your Personal Brand And Your Professional Reputation

“Your professional reputation is everything.”

That was the overarching messaging my colleagues and I gave the time I spent working at a law school. It is a message that is generally true, but the way we presented it was not careful enough with the nuance of personal branding. When we spoke of professional reputation, we were focused on encouraging our students to conform to a certain archetype of professional reputation that we had decided was correct.

I think it is true that your professional reputation has a huge impact on your legal career. It has a bigger impact than many law students appreciate. To a large extent, your professional reputation will dictate the opportunities you have, how lawyers and judges treat you when meeting you for the first time, and how new or prospective clients view you. So, given the enormous impact of professional reputation, why do I regret how we presented that message to our law students? The message we were sending seems like the right one.

I regret it because we presented that message in too narrow of a spectrum. When we spoke of professional reputation we spoke of it in a narrow range that we had defined. Rather than encouraging students to consider their own professional brand (and how their professional reputation fit into that brand), we chose the brand for them and encouraged them to fit our pre-determined brand guidelines.

For example, we routinely counseled students on how to “dress for success.” Now, I think it is fair to explain to students the common expectations of the professional attire in the legal community. And, failing to meet those expectations certainly has an impact on how lawyers view the person they are meeting. But, it is really true that ALL lawyers have to dress the same way to enjoy professional success? Of course not. Gerry Spence created a successful personal brand in the legal profession and a key part of that brand was his western attire. A very successful attorney I know dresses in denim and a motorcycle jacket any day he is not in court.

Now, to be fair, making fashion choices outside the professional norm is probably a risk. It is far safer to dress consistent with the professional norms. Yet, that is a choice for each person to make. In telling students they HAVE to dress a certain way, we substituted our brand judgment for theirs. I believe our intentions were good, but our analysis was flawed.

As Seth Godin explained in Purple Cow: Transform Your Business By Being Remarkable, “remarkable” is a good thing. Sometimes “remarkable” comes from being excellent in a way that consumers already expect. In legal terms this is the top ten percent of each law school class. However, Godin also points out that sometimes remarkable is about being the purple cow. People will stop to look at a purple cow. Not everyone will like the purple cow, but everyone will notice it. And once everyone notices the purple cow, then the people who LIKE the purple cow know where to get it.

That same reality applies to so much of how we mentor new lawyers. I recently reviewed a personal branding exercise created by a former law school colleague. The exercise gave several different law student behaviors and asked the student to rate how helpful or how destructive each behavior was to their professional brand. As I reviewed the experience, I could not help but notice that the exercise never asked the students to define what their personal brand actually is. After all, how do you know if any activity adds to or detracts from your personal brand if you have not defined what that personal brand? The implicit message in the exercise is that there is a generally correct personal brand as a starting point. I don’t think that implicit message is correct.

At a recent public speaking engagement on branding, a law school career services person asked me to just make sure that developing a personal brand did not lead students to submit their resumes on purple paper. Apparently a student had done that in the past and some of the big firm employers had complained. I am not sure a purple resume is actually a bad thing. It depends on the student’s personal brand.

A purple resume definitely seems like a risk. I suspect few large firms will be impressed with it. But, the thing is, the student succeeded in being noticed. A purple resume is remarkable in the Godin sense. Now, it is remarkable in a way that is likely to appeal to very narrow segment, but as long as the student understands the risks, why not? A purple resume conveys a pretty clear message about the student’s personal brand. If the student wants to send that message and adopt that brand, shouldn’t that be the student’s choice?

As experienced lawyers we are often quick to default to “is, therefore ought to be” thinking when we mentor. If we like our own personal branding then we encourage our mentees to adopt our brand. Or, we encourage students to adopt the brand of some other lawyer we may admire.

The irony of this mentoring mistake is that the best personal brands are authentic, not contrived. Great mentoring helps the new lawyer discover his or her own personal brand; it does not demand that the new lawyer conform to a brand that already exists. My own view is that it is far better to be an original you than a cheap version of someone else.

Further, many of the very best jobs in any industry are invented rather than located. New practice areas spring up in the legal profession all the time. New practice models change the status quo. How can we expect the next generation of lawyers to innovate and be original if we are constantly demanding that they conform to rigid brand guidelines we impose upon them?

The best mentoring is not top down; it is collaborative. The best mentors help their mentees grow and develop the mentee’s own personal brand rather than working to force the mentee to conform to the mentor’s brand. To be sure, honest and candid feedback about professional norms is essential. A good mentor will help a mentee explore the risks of an innovative personal brand. Many innovative personal brands fail. A good mentor helps a mentee assess the possibilities and consequences of creating a brand that falls outside common professional norms.

However, after providing the honest feedback, a good mentor must step back and allow the mentee to make his or her own choices. Because, whether the mentee’s personal band succeeds or fails, it is ultimately the mentee’s career, not the mentor’s.

In other words, great mentors are mindful of the advice of St. Francis DeSalles that the mentee must, “Be you and be that well.”

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