March 01, 2015

Let’s Get Personal: Branding in the Digital Age

Heather Riggs

There’s a woman I know, a business owner and respected networker, who always wears a hat. Now, it bears mentioning that she is not a lawyer and that her industry supports a flamboyant accessory, but it’s also worth noting that, wherever she goes, everyone remembers her and that hat. More importantly, everyone remembers what she does for a living, particularly when it comes time to make a referral. She has mastered personal branding.

Attorneys notoriously struggle with the concept of branding, and many believe that branding is not relevant to them at all. Fair point. Really, it’s only important if you ever want to make partner in your firm or open your own solo practice.

In other words, it’s relevant. Even if you’re convinced you should be working on personal branding, the age-old question of “how?” can be frustrating and confusing. Start by setting a branding strategy and use these three questions to set the framework.

  1. How does your industry or practice area add value?
  2. How does your firm or company add value?
  3. How do you as an individual practitioner add value?

As you develop your message and the parameters of your brand, answering those three questions in a sentence or two will give you the framework you need. Best of all, this trick works across contexts with potential clients, referral sources, and even professional leadership opportunities.

Personal branding starts with what you say. If executed correctly, it will be what you say over and over and over again. Consistency is the name of the game here. Does your firm have a catch phrase or slogan? Work it into each new professional encounter, as naturally as possible, of course, to help connect you with your firm while also answering the value question.

Here’s an example: An attorney’s firm touts “ferocious compassion” as the quality that sets it apart. When faced with “so, what do you do?” at an event, the attorney explains that she is a ferocious advocate for her clients in court, while offering compassion for them in their time of need. At the end of the conversation, she hands the contact her card with “ferocious compassion” in bold letters under her name. Days later, when the contact sees her card, they will remember the interaction much more strongly than ones they had with others. She has branded herself by being consistent in what she says and the messages she uses in her marketing.

What you do can also have an impact on your personal brand. Remember the professional with the hat? What she wears helps her contacts remember her in the moment, but also from event to event and much later when a referral opportunity comes along. I’m not suggesting you turn into the mad hatter, but wardrobe can go a long way in defining a brand, even for guys. If you’re with a firm, always remember to stay within the bounds of the official dress code, if one exists. If you have your own firm, it’s best to follow the dress code of the court where you’ll be appearing. Going against the rules means not being on brand, and that’s the opposite of what we’re trying to achieve. This technique can be as simple as wearing the color red in some way at every event, or maybe it’s a signature bow tie or pocket square, perhaps even a broach or lapel pin. Subtle and memorable don’t have to be mutually exclusive. In a sea of black suits and white shirts, a little bit goes a long way.

Branding doesn’t just happen live and in person, but it exists everywhere you are, including on the internet. Most attorneys now have a social media presence or blog, and almost every firm has a website. To make the most of those tools, it’s important that they also reflect your brand. Wear your signature color in your headshot and create blog articles and social media content that communicate the value you bring to the table. If you’re an associate or otherwise unable to contribute online content within your firm, you should devour opportunities to write for independent publications or bar association newsletters. Develop a strong LinkedIn profile to leverage when you make new contacts. The Internet is vast and so are your options.

Personal branding defines who you are as professional and as a practitioner. The good news is that you have complete control over that definition. Start by creating your personal branding strategy, tightly hone your message, be sure to dress the part, and then shout it from the rooftops of the internet. If you’re still not sure how to pull it off, watch other attorneys or professionals you admire next time you’re networking together, like the hat lady. Find the person that stands out the most, figure out why, and then do what they do in your own way. Remember to explain your value as a lawyer in your practice area, as a member of your firm, and as an individual. Then, just like that, you’re branded.

Heather Riggs

Heather Riggs is director of marketing at MindMeld Marketing in Atlanta, GA.