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September 19, 2018 Articles

Four Ways Lawyers Can Build Their Personal Brand in Today’s Digital World

Advice to demystify the process of marketing yourself.

By Jay Harrington

Building a personal brand and digitally marketing oneself aren’t things they taught us in law school! Here are four expert tips to demystify the process and help you get your personal brand online in an effective way.

In 2010, 24-year-old violinist Lindsey Stirling appeared on America’s Got Talent. She was eliminated in the quarter finals. According to Wikipedia, judge Piers Morgan told her: “You’re not untalented, but you’re not good enough to get away with flying through the air and trying to play the violin at the same time.”

Stirling later wrote on her blog: “I was devastated at the results. . . . It was painful, and a bit humiliating; however, I had to relearn where it was that I drew my strength.”

Never heard of Lindsey Stirling? Perhaps choreographed violin performances aren’t your thing, but she has crafted a big and profitable niche in the ensuing years since America’s Got Talent judge Sharon Osbourne told her: “What you’re doing is not enough to fill a theater in Vegas.”

Eight years later, Stirling is a successful touring artist and has sold millions of singles worldwide. In 2015, she was named in Forbes magazine’s “30 Under 30 in Music.”

How did she break through despite being told she didn’t have the talent to make it? She went direct to consumer. She started posting her music on YouTube and built up a big fan base. She didn’t wait to be chosen by the publishing gatekeepers—she chose herself, and fans followed. Today, her YouTube channel has nearly 11 million subscribers and more than 2 billion views. 

What can lawyers learn from Lindsey Sterling and from thousands of other musicians, comedians, writers, and actors like her?

In today’s world, in which worldwide distribution of content across the Internet is largely free, the biggest personal brands are being built by going directly to the people. You can share your talent with the world with no one there to stop you, edit you, or tell you that it’s not good enough.

And therein lies the rub: When there are no more barriers to entry, the market gets flooded with content (some good, most bad). While it’s easier than ever to publish one’s work, it’s harder than ever to capture people’s attention because of the availability of content alternatives.

Accordingly, the democratization of content distribution poses challenges and opportunities to lawyers hoping to make an impact online. If you want to write a book, start a podcast, create a YouTube channel, or publish an article, all you need to do is put in the sweat equity to produce the content. At the click of a button, you can make your work available for the world to consume. But getting people to take notice? That’s a much more difficult proposition.

Why It’s Important to Build a Powerful Personal Brand Online
I am going to share a few ideas about how lawyers can break through online in a moment, but first let’s take a quick step back and consider why it’s important in the first place. 

There is no great dictionary definition of what a “personal brand” is or what it must be. One of the most often cited colloquial definitions of “brand” is attributed to Jeff Bezos, who said: “Your brand is what people say about you when you’re not in the room.”

For a busy lawyer, branding is important because you can’t be everywhere, all at once. You can’t be taking a deposition and also taking a prospective client to lunch. Indeed, before you ever have the opportunity to take a prospect to lunch, the client will have done a deep dive online, peering into every nook and cranny of the Internet to learn more about you both as a person and as a professional. In this sense, your personal brand is what sells you when you’re not there to sell yourself.

Accordingly, to position yourself for success in today’s digital world, it is imperative that you make a great first impression where first impressions are made: the Internet. You must meet prospective clients where they are, which is online, in control, with access to more information than ever, and searching for a story that resonates. A qualified alternative to your services is only a click away. Are you going to leave business development to chance, or are you going to seize the initiative and build a powerful personal brand online?

Four Rules That Lawyers Who Are Hoping to Build Personal Brands Should Follow

1. Focus on a niche. Your ideas and your services are not for everyone—at least they shouldn’t be. Whether you’re trying to build a practice or build a following online (in today’s world, these are often one and the same), a narrow focus helps you gain a laser-targeted audience that delivers more loyalty, interaction, and business. 

Having a niche allows you to position yourself as an expert on a narrow topic rather than as a generalist on a broad number of topics. In an environment in which consumers have access to more information than ever, they are searching for particular solutions to particular problems. To position yourself online for success as a legal professional, you should look to develop a deep body of work in a specific domain so that prospective clients (not to mention Google) perceive you as a trusted authority in your area of focus.

2. Build a platform. If you’re active online, the purpose should be to direct people who are interested in what you have to say to your digital “home.” Your home is your platform—be it a blog, a podcast, a YouTube channel, or simply your LinkedIn page. A platform is a place where people can consume more of your content and, ideally, subscribe or connect with you so that you can communicate with them in the future.

The purpose of building a personal brand is to gain loyal followers who will ultimately either become clients or refer clients to you. By maintaining a platform, you can stay in touch with your followers and be top of mind because you’re appearing at the top of their inboxes or social media feeds. It’s not enough to merely have an attorney bio page on your firm’s website.

Even if you have no plans to ever leave your current position (and if you do, you really need to build a platform ASAP), you need a way to cultivate and communicate with your prospects. Having a platform that allows you to communicate your thought leadership and unique value proposition with a niche audience is the best way to compete in the marketplace of ideas. And in a world in which information has become commoditized, ideas matter more than ever before.

3. Create compelling content. Remember the days when lawyers and law firms used to ask questions such as “Do we need a website?” and “Should we be on social media?” OK, some still ask these questions, but by and large, we’ve turned the page on whether it’s important to have a strong digital presence. Today, the more common question is “Now that we have these digital tools and platforms, what the heck should we be doing with them?” 

Because there’s no barrier to distribution, generating attention and compelling action online all comes down to creative execution. If you can create insightful, inspiring, educational, and entertaining content, you’ll be in the game. If not, you’ll be sidelined.

Content is the differentiator online, plain and simple. If Netflix just streamed other people’s content, it likely would have gone the way of Blockbuster by now. Instead, because it produces some of the best content available in all of media, it has millions of paying subscribers and a $170 billion valuation. 

For a lawyer trying to build a personal brand online, it’s not enough to “be on” social networks. You need to take advantage of the distribution channels that are made available to you to build a network full of members of your target market, and produce and distribute content that’s so good they can’t ignore it.

4. Connect with influencers. One of the biggest challenges you’ll face as a lawyer trying to build a personal brand online is getting people to take notice of your content. People are busy, they’re bombarded by information, and they jealously guard their attention. They pay attention to those they trust, and they ignore the rest. Accordingly, if you’re not already part of someone’s trusted inner circle of content producers, he or she will hold you, and your content, at arm’s length.

The solution to this dilemma is to make an end run around attention-defense measures by associating yourself with those who already hold sway with your target market. These “influencers” consist of people who are considered authoritative in your industry and whose publications or platforms are read and respected by members of your niche market (JD Supra is a good example of an influencer platform if you’re hoping to reach decision makers).

Seek opportunities to publish your content on platforms that your audience already trusts. This will help you to penetrate your target market with your insights.

Putting It All Together
Successful legal marketing and personal branding are all about consistency of effort and high-quality creative execution directed to a targeted audience. The primary way that powerful personal brands are built is through content marketing.

Producing and sharing great content is effective because it permits a respectful conversation to take place with your clients and prospects online. Over time, as you continue to provide valuable content to the marketplace, you can build a passionate audience, dynamic platform, and compelling personal brand that provides work and referrals for years to come.


Jay Harrington is an attorney and chief strategist at Harrington Communications in Traverse City, Michigan.

Copyright © 2018, American Bar Association. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or downloaded or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association. The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the American Bar Association, the Section of Litigation, this committee, or the employer(s) of the author(s).