Avoid ethical traps while developing a personal brand to boost business

Developing a personal brand doesn’t come naturally to many lawyers because it’s a right-brain, intuitive activity, and most lawyers have spent their careers developing the analytical left brain. However, lawyers can learn to access that part of the brain to become better at marketing and presenting themselves, personal branding expert Katy Goshtasbi said during the American Bar Association webinar “Ethics and Personal Branding: The Dos and Don’ts of Effectively Standing Out.”

Goshtasbi, CEO of Puris Personal Brand Solutions, said developing a personal brand is important because the better you are at defining yourself and discovering your unique strengths, the easier it is to build your business — and avoid ethical traps.

Relevant ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct include Rule 1.1 on competence and Rule 4.1 on truthfulness in statements to others. Compliance with these rules requires lawyers to understand who they are as practitioners. “You need to know when you can and can’t do the work,” Goshtasbi said. “It all comes down to clarity of who you are as a brand.”

Goshtasbi urged lawyers to put energy behind the goal of becoming self-aware and to own what makes them different. She said doing so helps lawyers to better understand how to address their competition — “because no one brings the practice of law to life the way you do.”

“Be true to what you can and can’t do,” said panelist Patricia Gillette of Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP in San Francisco, referencing Rules 7.4 and 7.1 on lawyers’ communication of services. “Being able to say, ‘That is not my area of expertise, but here’s a recommendation of someone who can help,’ people love that.”

“If you try to be someone you are not and you try to sell something you are not good at, you will fail and that will be a terrible mark on your career,” Gillette added.

An additional consideration when defining a personal brand: stress. Panelists asked lawyers to think about how their stress affects others. Some lawyers externalize stress and can come across to colleagues as being haphazard — and possibly incompetent.

Goshtasbi said a main stressor for most lawyers is a lack of time for all of their substantive work, and one of clients’ biggest complaints is that lawyers are not responsive and prompt enough. “When you don’t have enough time, it looks like you are violating 1.3 because you are not being prompt,” she said. “Your brand quality is low because people don’t hear from you and either think you are not credible or not competent.”

Moderator John Mitchell of KM Advisors in Chicago said adherence to the ABA Model Rules is all about effective communication, with the goals of clarity and consistency — clarity regarding who you are as a lawyer and what you can do, and consistency in communicating that to your clients.

Bottom line: Own your best qualities and package them in a way to attract the types of clients you seek. Developing such a personal brand will not only help your business, but will also help you avoid some of the most common ethical traps.

The webinar, “Ethics and Personal Branding: The Dos and Don’ts of Effectively Standing Out,” was sponsored by the ABA’s Law Practice and Solo, Small Firm and General Practice divisions.