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Erin Binns (firstname.lastname@example.org) is assistant director for career planning at Marquette University Law School.
What people think of you matters. Your professional reputation—or brand—will impact the opportunities that are available to you. Even big law firms that are obsessed with grades move beyond academic performance to a more complete view of candidates before extending offers. Small firms, government agencies, and public interest employers give great weight to a candidate’s perceived fit with their organization and character before making hiring decisions.
Whether by strategic management or by happenstance, you will end up with a brand. Your interactions with professors, classmates, lawyers, and judges send signals about the person you are and the lawyer you’ll become. Don’t permit your professional identity to be defined by chance. Rather, take control of your professional brand early in your career to avoid closing doors inadvertently.
Consider carefully how you’re presenting yourself in your professional communities, including your law school. Your current peers will resurface throughout your career as clients, opposing counsel, coworkers, and judges. The following steps will guide you toward creating a professional brand that gets you noticed and garners you respect.
Assess. Self-assessment is an essential first step in brand identity. Be realistic when evaluating what you have to offer. Puffery doesn’t fit well into the schematic of a professional reputation. Work with what you have and commit to brand improvement as you move forward.
Begin by identifying relevant strengths and worthwhile experiences. Look to your résumé for skills and characteristics as demonstrated by academics, honors, leadership, service, and work. Do you have a history of leadership and strong communication skills? What specific examples can you share to evidence these strengths?
Move beyond your résumé and explore other attributes that are generally valued in a law student. Are you an incredibly positive individual who is eager to step up on projects? Are you the go-to person in a crisis? Do you have a history of good judgment? Other worthy qualities include being prepared (during class, student organization meetings, and internships); producing thoughtful, thorough, and well-written assignments; having a can-do attitude and strong work ethic; responding to e-mails, phone calls, and requests for assistance; communicating well with all kinds of people; handling yourself professionally in business and social settings; and being directed and goal-driven.
If you’re further along in your legal education or had significant work experience prior to law school, you may brand yourself in terms of practical skills, specific and unique legal experiences, and knowledge of a niche area of law.
Identify. Your brand needs to be simple and easily identifiable. After developing an exhaustive list, select a few strengths and experiences that make you stand out among your peers. Then evaluate the relevancy of your attributes with what your professional community and potential employers value. A valuable resource for guidance in brand development is your career services office (CSO). The staff can assist you in identifying your strengths and educate you as to how they’ll play in various legal communities.
Develop. Knowing your present-day brand is important. Forecasting the brand you want to become is equally so. You’re a work in progress and will continue to be one far into your career.
For example, in your first semester of law school, you can’t sell your prowess for spot-on legal analysis and thorough research. You need markers of these skills like a top-quality writing sample, membership on a law journal, and a publication credit. Toward this end, consider meeting with your writing professor for guidance on how to polish an assignment and drafting a memorandum that you can use as a writing sample during a summer internship.
As you continue through your studies and practice, your branding can and should become more targeted. Focused branding can help you control and direct your career. A partner at a large law firm branded herself effectively as the in-house lawyer on electronic discovery. As such, she became known and valuable to every major litigation client. When this lawyer decided to leave her practice and start an e-discovery consulting firm, clients followed.
An associate working with a small plaintiff’s litigation firm branded herself as a superior writer and researcher beginning back in her days as a law clerk. She’s now been christened the firm’s “brief writer.” She doesn’t travel or appear in court, which is her ideal as she tries to avoid the unpredictability of a litigator’s schedule while she has young children at home.
Package. Consistency of messaging is essential to your professional reputation. Brand uniformity is important in every situation, whether academic, business, or social. The debacle of the brand that was Tiger Woods provides a perfect example of how not to present your message.
From the legal résumé you willingly hand to employers to your social résumé that lives online, you need to be consistent. If you are selling good judgment as one of your assets in
interviews, you can’t demonstrate lack of it by the photos and comments you share in cyberspace. Similarly, it’s hard to convince an employer that you’re meticulous in your work when your cover letter is peppered with typos.
Most students are prudent enough to present a polished image during interviews. Uniform packaging tends to break down in classrooms, social settings, and everyday work performance. During a fall recruitment season, one student unknowingly lost an opportunity for a second interview while hanging out with friends after his screening interview. The lawyer who was interviewing on campus stopped in the student lounge. He overheard a student he’d met with earlier making offensive remarks about a professor and classmates. The lawyer concluded that the “real” person was likely the one in the student lounge, not the one he interviewed. He took the student off his callback list.
Members of the legal profession are held to high expectations by those inside and outside the community. And there are relatively few degrees of separation between how people judge you professionally and personally. You can’t get drunk at every law school function and expect your classmates to recommend you for a position with their current employer, vote for you for graduation speaker, or refer a client to you in the future.
Promote. If you’re uncomfortable with self-promotion, get over it. People need to know you and like you to recommend you and hire you. Self-promotion can be as easy as just showing up. Attend events and conferences sponsored by your law school and local, state, and national bar associations. Make sure that you introduce lawyers through casual conversation and mingling. Take interest in the people you meet by inquiring about their careers and experiences and follow up with e-mails or thank you notes.
Marketing yourself positively among classmates and with professors can be achieved by paying attention during class (this means not using class time to update your Facebook profile), and showing up for study sessions prepared. Being polite doesn’t require much of an effort. At the very least, your e-mails to professors, law school administrators, and lawyers should include such niceties as salutations (with titles). Above all, ask for assistance rather than make demands on the recipient’s time.
Informational interviews and more formal networking activities are also important as you seek to become a recognized brand. Your CSO staff is again a good resource and can provide you with direction on how to reach out effectively to alumni and lawyers.
Too many law students give short shrift to professional branding and image control. Avoid this gaffe. Be astute in defining, protecting, and advancing your professional reputation.