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July 01, 2020 The Big Ideas Issue

Building Your Lawyer Brand: Professional Identities in the Netflix Era of Law

In today’s tech-savvy environment, establishing a professional brand can set you apart from the competition.

Juda Strawczynski
A composite image of Atticus Finch, Alicia Florrick, and Elle Woods standing together with a color block effect applied.

A composite image of Atticus Finch, Alicia Florrick, and Elle Woods standing together with a color block effect applied.

Atticus Finch via Picturelux / The Hollywood Archive / Alamy Stock Photo; Alicia Florrick courtesy of CBS Television; Elle Woods via Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

Picture a lawyer. What do you see? Pop culture will be the starting point for many members of the general public, with visions of Perry Mason, Atticus Finch (To Kill a Mockingbird), Alicia Florrick (The Good Wife), Harvey Specter (Suits) or Elle Woods (Legally Blonde) having winning courtroom moments. Historians and political scientists might rewind to the founding of America. When the Declaration of Independence was signed, 25 of the 56 signatories were lawyers. At the constitutional convention that drafted the U.S. Constitution, more than half of the 55 delegates were lawyers. John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton were among other Founding Fathers who practiced law or received legal training. For people who needed a lawyer to help them in times of trouble—a crumbling marriage, a horrific car accident, a refugee application—perhaps they will think of the lawyer who helped them.

There are different lawyer professional identities, or “brands,” because there are many kinds of lawyers serving different types of clients with incredibly divergent needs. The legal profession is not monolithic; there is no one way to be a lawyer. In our age of rapid change, new lawyer brands are rapidly emerging. What are these new lawyer roles? What kind of professional identities are being forged to embrace the future of legal services? And in a multiverse of lawyers, what lies at the core of the lawyer professional identity? Or as Stephen A. Greyser and Mats Urde ask in their 2019 Harvard Business Review article “What Does Your Corporate Brand Stand For?”: What is it about your brand that is your “north star, providing direction and purpose?”

Lawyer Brands: The Good

There are already many well-established lawyer identities, or brands. Some are based on the practice setting such as:

  • The Main Street Lawyer. The lawyer who helps people and small businesses, practicing in a solo or small-firm environment.
  • The Wall Street Lawyer. The BigLaw lawyer serves mostly large institutional clients in a full-service setting.
  • The General Counsel. The company lawyer; the C-suite professional who bridges legal expertise with a deep understanding of the company’s purpose, culture and processes.

Certain brands are based on either the barrister or solicitor role:

  • The Zealous Advocate. TV lawyers are often litigators, resolutely defending their clients’ interests, regardless of the client’s cause. There is no shortage of real-life examples, such as Clarence Darrow and Alan Dershowitz.
  • The Dealmaker. The corporate lawyer who combines legal acumen and business savvy to help clients get the deal done.

There are also brands based on lawyer leadership roles in society:

  • The Lawyer-Statesman. The lawyer turned politician is a familiar role. At its highest, the lawyer-statesman role exemplifies the lawyer as political leader.
  • The Rights Defender. These lawyers advance human rights and protect human dignity. Legal titans such as Thurgood Marshall and Ruth Bader Ginsburg provide powerful examples of Rights Defenders who advanced equality rights using litigation for social change.

For lawyers, much of the lawyer identity has focused on the attributes of professionalism. Elements such as honesty, integrity, the four Cs (competency, confidentiality, client privilege and avoiding conflicts) are core to the lawyer brand. Subject matter expertise is another universal attribute, although the area of expertise will vary by area of practice. These strong lawyer brands are mere examples. They are also fluid and can overlap. A Zealous Advocate might also serve clients on Wall Street. A Main Street Lawyer might take on human rights cases. There are many lawyer archetypes.

Lawyer Brands: The Bad

It’s an understatement that not all lawyer brand recognition is good. Lawyers often remain at or near the bottom of surveys asking which professionals contribute to society’s well-being. From the comically incompetent Lionel Hutz (The Simpsons) to the endless number of lawyer jokes available online, lawyers take their licks.

Some of the criticism is unfair. Lawyers are tarred for the sins of their clients. But, and here’s the hard part, some of the negative brand recognition has some truth to it. Lawyers are expensive for most people. And often, we simply don’t or can’t provide what clients are looking for, leading to ethics complaints and malpractice claims—another example of bad branding for lawyers.

The Lawyer Brand Disconnect

In our rapidly evolving legal services markets, significant forces have distanced lawyer brands from client needs, to the point that clients are going elsewhere to have their legal problems solved or not taking any steps at all to address their legal problems.

Professor Gillian Hadfield frequently notes that we live in a “law-thick” world. In her book Rules for a Flat World, she describes how our legal systems are more complex than ever. Corporations and individuals face a maze of laws and regulations but may not have the resources to obtain expert services or have their legal problems solved by lawyers billing by the hour. In addition, the offered legal services may not meet their specific needs.

Globalization, Technology and the Re-sourcing of Legal Services

Technology and globalization have fueled a shift to what Richard Susskind describes as the “re-sourcing” of work. In 2008, in The End of Lawyers? Rethinking the Nature of Legal Services, Susskind described how legal services, once virtually the exclusive domain of lawyers, could be broken down into its constituent parts and re-sourced. He provided a dozen examples of tools that could be used to re-source legal services. Globalization facilitated efforts such as offshoring, outsourcing, subcontracting and co-sourcing, which are chipping away at legal work traditionally performed by lawyers in private practice.

Technology is being used to systematize, package and commoditize certain legal work. It is replacing certain lawyer tasks in areas such as document review and due diligence. E-discovery and contract and document review technologies and services have fundamentally changed how complex litigation and corporate transactions can be managed. These trends continue today.

Technology has also given prospective clients more power to access legal information, compare lawyers and consider options.

De-lawyering, handing certain legal tasks to others such as a paralegal or other person, is also a continuing trend. The Law Society of Ontario regulates over 8,000 paralegals who may appear in small claims court, various administrative tribunals and for certain criminal matters. Washington state recently introduced Limited License Legal Technicians. North American legal regulators are increasingly considering new categories of legal service providers.

Finally, sometimes, we see “no-sourcing,” where clients are simply doing nothing. Sometimes this is because clients are willing to accept the associated risks. Other times, however, it may be because the client has not recognized the legal issue, has not understood the risk, does not see sufficient value in the legal services on offer to obtain them or simply cannot afford the services.

The re-sourcing of legal services continues to be part of the corporate client tool kit for obtaining “right size” legal services. Perhaps the most significant re-sourcing longer-term trend has been the significant increase in in-house legal departments, bringing corporate work from costly large law firms in-house.

In recent years, globalization and technology have enabled new re-sourcing models, hastening the rise of legal operations professionals and alternative legal service providers (ALSPs). These all compete with the traditional model of delivering legal services.

The Access to Justice Crisis

The lack of access to justice for everyday people continues to present an existential challenge to our current legal system and the role of lawyers working within it. As Malcolm Mercer noted in this magazine in his 2015 article “So Many Lawyers, So Many Unmet Legal Needs,” “the legal profession faces a terrible paradox” of having so many lawyers looking for work (or in marginal practices) while there are so many with unmet legal needs.

There is a clear disconnect between lawyers and legal services markets. In his July 2018 Legal Market Landscape Report commissioned by the California State Bar, professor William D. Henderson describes how the legal profession is generally divided into two spheres, one serving everyday individuals, which he calls “PeopleLaw,” and one serving corporations, which he calls “Organizational Clients.”

Henderson’s report confirms that Organizational Clients are continuing to shift work away from traditional law firms in-house and to ALSPs. He reports that the PeopleLaw sector “shrank by nearly $7 billion (10.1 percent) between 2007 and 2012.” Yet the number of self-represented parties continued to increase. Simply put, clients aren’t buying what lawyers are selling.

Part of the cause of the disconnect is that while lawyers provide legal services, the focus, from the first day of law school and into practice, is on the legal part of lawyer professionalism. Law students study the law, and lawyers become legal experts; lawyers rarely are trained on the services aspects of legal services.

The professional ethic that focuses on legal expertise has at times repelled business considerations, including client service needs, from the lawyer brand. In his book Law Is a Buyer’s Market, noted legal futurist Jordan Furlong suggests that “many lawyers don’t really think in terms of a legal ‘market’ at all” and find applying market terms “unprofessional and kind of distasteful.” But, he points out, “Legal services buyers hate the way the legal market operates.”

Jack Newton, CEO of practice management software company Clio, makes a similar point in his book The Client-Centered Law Firm. He suggests that “most lawyers and law firms don’t prioritize product-market fit between their services and their clients.” Newton believes that lawyers should be unlocking the latent demand for legal services by focusing on the client experience and delivering what the client wants. He suggests that “by not only lowering prices, but also packaging legal services in a more client-centered way, law firms can unlock a total addressable market which is much larger than the market that exists today.”

Historically there has been little discussion of client service as part of the lawyer brand. But in an era of significant changes to the legal services market, where globalization and technology are disrupting certain areas of law, where clients have greater choice whether to retain counsel or find a different solution to their legal problems (be it by sourcing solutions elsewhere or going the DIY route), and where there is a tremendous latent market for legal services, there is an opportunity for lawyers to build new professional identities that are more closely aligned with client needs.

Building New Lawyer Brands for the New Legal Frontier

Lawyers have developed an overarching professional brand, or professional identity, based largely on competency factors internal to the profession—the elements such as the four Cs, integrity, honesty and so on.

But lawyer competencies alone do not create a fully formed lawyer identity or lawyer brand. In their Harvard Business Review paper, Greyser and Urde describe nine elements to a corporate brand, which are categorized as “external,” “internal” or “external/internal.” “Competences” is only one of the nine categories to create a brand.

To develop a personal brand, lawyers need to consider a host of additional factors. There is no one way to create a lawyer professional identity rooted in core competencies and building from there. However, as a starting point, lawyers seeking to develop a new practice or refine their brand can focus on:

  • Finding purpose.
  • Developing a philosophy of lawyering.
  • Choosing markets and clients.

There are different ways that lawyers can describe how they find their purpose. Furlong suggests the existential question for lawyers is: “What’s the purpose of your law firm?” The answer, he submits, is that it should exist “to serve the interests of clients in our chosen markets by addressing their legal challenges and opportunities, so that those clients can achieve their objectives.”

This client-centered approach still leaves the lawyer with incredible levels of autonomy. Lawyers can work toward developing their own philosophy of lawyering, which would support the development of the purpose of the firm. Nathan Crystal is a leading writer on the need for lawyers to each adopt a philosophy of lawyering. In his article “Developing a Philosophy of Lawyers,” he notes that there is no single standard accepted philosophy of lawyering. This is a problem because lawyers must make a wide range of discretionary decisions when they represent clients. A clear philosophy of lawyering can assist them in making such decisions. It can also be provided to prospective and actual clients so they understand the approach that their lawyer will bring to their legal matter. This could help reduce the lawyer-client brand disconnect and assist clients in meeting expectations.

Crystal provides the following sample questions to help lawyers develop their philosophy of lawyering:

  • What type of practice do I see myself going into: civil litigation, corporate law, prosecution or defense of criminal cases, legal services? Large or small organization? What area of the country or the world?
  • What types of ethical problems am I likely to encounter in this type of practice?
  • What level of income do I aspire to have? Will the practice that I plan to undertake meet my economic aspirations?
  • What kind of personal life do I wish to have? Will the demands of the type of practice that I envision allow me to have the kind of personal life I desire?
  • Do I have enough information about the type of practice that I envision to answer these questions? If not, how am I going to get this information? If the type of practice that I contemplate will not allow me to meet either my income or personal desires, are there alternatives I should consider?

Choosing Markets and Clients

When choosing markets, lawyers have significant autonomy and the ability to carve their own paths. Practice areas evolve over time, and new practice areas emerge. Some areas, such as property law and criminal law, have been with us for centuries; other areas, such as administrative law and environmental law, emerged only in the last few decades and continue to grow.

Our accelerated world is constantly birthing entire new industries and related new practice areas not contemplated just years ago. There are novel practice opportunities in such new areas as animal law, autonomous vehicles, bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, cannabis and cybersecurity (just to cover some of the new areas from A to C).

When seeking clients, lawyers can choose to proactively work to attract their “dream clients.” As a simple starting point, Furlong suggests developing a detailed list of client characteristics. Then give each firm member 100 points to assign to the characteristics they value most. Based on this exercise, you can then determine whether your existing clients display these criteria, determine based on your dream clients to date whether your weighed list requires further refining, and, once you have your dream client criteria, work to increase these clients at your firm.

Emerging Lawyer Brands

Legal services are having their “Netflix moment.” Just as in recent decades we saw a shift from network television to cable to TV streaming services, with greater consumer choice around what to watch, when to watch it and how, we are seeing a revolution in how legal services are being provided to consumers.

While lawyers are facing new forms of competition in the legal services marketplace, there is now an incredible opportunity for lawyers to provide new content for consumers of legal services and to attract new clients. Here are just a few emerging lawyer brands:

  • The Local Lawyer Concierge. The local lawyer who helps individuals and small businesses with their essential legal needs and provides clients with right-fit referrals for specific niche legal issues.
  • The Expert. For complex legal work, there is still a high need for high-end expertise. These experts will provide services at the top of the legal services pyramid. In Lawyer Forward: Finding Your Place in the Future of Law, Mike Whelan Jr. takes the concept a step further by suggesting that the Expert Freelancer can not only leverage expertise on a freelance basis to retained clients, but can also sell “captured expertise” through assets such as publishing books, giving talks or engaging in paid speaking engagements, offering training programs or other assets.
  • The Legal System Architect. Our court systems underwent a profound shift in the 1970s with the rise of administrative tribunals. The rise of online dispute resolution marks perhaps the most significant evolution in our civil justice system since then. (See “British Columbia’s Civil Resolution Tribunal” by David J. Bilinsky on page 48.) Our public legal information programs, dispute resolution and court systems will require legal architects. Lawyers, along with design thinkers, user experience designers and IT professionals, will be among these builders who bring these projects to scale.
  • The Lawyer Legal Ops Leader. Legal projects can be complex. Lawyers with expertise regarding the different re-sources can source and oversee complex projects. The rise of legal operations can bring new roles for lawyers, lawyers who combine legal expertise, client understanding and project management skills to help clients figure out how to best tackle their legal needs.
  • The Lawyer Technologist. The Lawyer Technologist will combine legal knowledge with systems and design thinking to develop new technology products that make the law more accessible and/or enhance legal processes.
  • The Lawyer Statesperson. The lawyer statesperson in public office remains an invaluable part of our political system, bringing knowledge of the law and client experiences to bear on advancing new legislation and justice.

In these areas, lawyers will need to work collaboratively with other professionals to provide the best legal services for their clients. They will need to be resilient and embrace change. Legal expertise coupled with excellent client service and soft skills will make these lawyers invaluable, enabling them to forge their own paths in the new legal services sector.

Law is at its inflection point. Prepare for an exponential growth of lawyer brands. Picture a lawyer. What do you see? Who do you want to be?

Juda Strawczynski


Juda Strawczynski is the director of practicePRO, which is LAWPRO’s innovative claims and risk management initiative. His work includes identifying emerging claims and risk, educating lawyers about managing risk and creating resources for the profession. He regularly speaks and writes about law practice management issues.