Branding Yourself and Your Business Through Community Service

Nathan A. Hartman is A managing attorney at Hartman Private Law LLC, in Atlanta, Georgia. He may be reached at nathan@hartmanprivatelaw.com.

When we hear “Just Do It” or see the shape of a Coke bottle, we know what kind of product to expect. And although lawyers and legal services do not sit on a shelf competing for eye space as casual shoppers peruse, lawyers’ services require the same care and attention to branding, but with some other considerations. We cannot rely solely on bright colors and sleek packaging to generate customers; our branding is about more than modern aesthetics and catchy slogans. Whether you are a new lawyer starting his or her own firm or a seasoned associate at a large law firm, branding is critical to your success. It is about the reputation that you cultivate in your community and the market you serve. As someone entering his sixth year as a small-firm owner, I can say with certainty that my business’s success in the estate planning field rests solidly on my reputation in my community.

Build Your Brand on Your Reputation

In the legal profession as in other service industries, a strong, positive reputation is absolutely critical to a brand—be it your personal brand or your firm’s brand. People come to lawyers when they have or anticipate a problem that needs solving. People often start their search for solutions to the problems by talking with friends and family—the people they trust and respect. Through positive experience, people will come to lawyers and firms they trust, either through past experience or on a recommendation from those around them. Just like good friends earn trust, so do good lawyers and law firms. Your reputation precedes you; your reputation often is you. In an oversaturated legal market, it is one of the very few things that sets you apart.

Branding through trust is especially pertinent in my area of law—estate planning—where I deal closely with clients who have assets that they have worked hard to acquire. Unlike many areas of the law, estate planning is not generally reactionary but rather preemptive. My job is to talk with clients, figure out their needs and wants, and implement those wishes. Because this often deals with passing assets on to family members or loved ones to ensure continued financial support, this work can be incredibly personal. This is where trust—a core component of a powerful brand—comes into play. Building that brand and that trust requires careful thought and planning, marshaled into action.

Ask Yourself the Important Questions

Consider why you are in business or entering the market and what you can offer others: the goals of your business, the benefits of your services, the quality of your services and how they differ from others in the market, how you and your brand are currently perceived, and what qualities you want to project with your business. On the most basic level, your brand is your logo. It is your tagline, your website, and the graphics on your business card. But, more importantly, as a start-up, your brand is a reflection of your personality, of your key business traits, of what you will deliver to clients. These are the kinds of questions most of us answer before launching a practice or firm.

Cultivate Your Particular Brand

Books abound on how to define and execute a brand strategy, but, on a base level, cultivating your own brand is accomplished through defining your mission or motto and visual branding—the use of logos, symbols, and taglines. While visual branding is important, the best visual branding is an outgrowth of a person or company’s motto. To help define your mission, I recommend you write down your motto so that from time to time you can remind yourself of what, fundamentally, your business is about. Mine is simple: In Service to the Community. My aesthetic choices relate to that motto and mission: green colors selected for growth and vitality and an image of an elk because it is noble and majestic—these are some of the qualities I use in approaching the community I serve. Once you’ve defined your business and your mission, you can create your visual branding elements.

Build Your Reputation in Your Community

Now that you’ve got your mission and branding elements identified, you should promote them, in a variety of ways, through involvement in your community. I always keep the idea of good service in the forefront of my mind. Consequently, I have focused considerable effort on cultivating a strong reputation in my community. I put a lot of time and energy into helping the neighborhood around the Emory University campus, where I lived and worked until quite recently, grow and develop. I led an effort to improve Emory Park in Emory Village, reached out to community service organizations to landscape a nearby park, and interacted with local artists to create a sculpture for the park. This personal activity reflected key characteristics of my practice. My main intention was to interact with the community, but a positive tangential benefit was that working on the park project generated clients for my practice. Other individuals in my neighborhood that had a similar passion for the park also, it turned out, had a need for estate planning services.

Make Your Business Known

It’s important for people to know what you do, but this will come up in casual conversation. Naturally, I wanted people to know what I did for a living. I made sure that the people I worked with knew I was a second-generation estate planner who worked to help families preserve wealth, all of which came up while performing these community services. Once that was accomplished, targeted, separate conversations were effective. Opportunities arose in so many different family situations: aging parents, marriage, divorce, the birth of a child, planning for retirement. Talking with clients allowed me to understand whether their lives could benefit from estate planning services and if I could offer my services. I never said “come in and get a will” but rather “I think you would benefit from estate planning, and I would like to have a preliminary meeting with you to discuss what we can do.” This approach to community service and personal interaction allowed me to turn the park project into a business opportunity, and it is not limited to estate planning.

Find Other Opportunities to Get Involved

Besides interacting with your neighbors, there are other opportunities to brand yourself in your community. As a lover of the arts, I was also involved with both the Georgia Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts and served on the board of directors for Actor’s Express, a community theater group. Both organizations allowed me to work with the arts community, provide legal services where needed, and network with persons who share the same values. At Georgia Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts, I met and befriended many great attorneys who shared my passion for the arts. Such friendships led to attending art openings and art walks, and ultimately have generated clients through both references and chance meetings at events I have attended. In addition to networking and branding yourself with potential clients, there is value in building your brand among your colleagues.

I invite you consider the strength of your brand—be it a personal or business brand—and how you will build it moving forward, through trust, community service, and providing exceptional personalized legal service. Your brand as an attorney is one of the few distinguishing characteristics that can set you apart from your peers and propel your career forward. Your brand encapsulates not only who you are and how your community perceives you but also how successful you will be as an attorney.

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