10 tips to build your reputation

July 2015 | Around the ABA

Name recognition in your field and a solid reputation for creating and maintaining trust and respect are requisites for long-term success. “Strategically Building Your Reputation,” a webinar offered by the ABA Free Career Advice Series, discusses setting goals to achieve the reputation you want, taking steps to launch and maintain your reputation and strategies for re-branding yourself if your practice changes.

Two experts lead this discussion: John Mitchell is an executive coach and an active leader in the ABA Law Practice Division. After practicing law as a litigation associate, Mitchell became executive director of Habitat for Humanity International and is involved in nonprofit work.

Karen Summerville is a legal career counselor and founder of Legal Career Management in Seattle. She has been a litigation partner and vice president of client relations for an outplacement and consulting firm.

Reputation is a commonly held opinion of a person’s character and competence, merit and achievement. Summerville says that whether you’re looking to make a big or small career change, start with a self-assessment. How do you define success? Look at past achievements and your values, remembering that we’re all born with talents and acquire skills.

Mitchell says he advises clients to look at the big picture. What type of lawyer do you want to be known as? He tells the story of a mass tort defense lawyer who’d go out of her way to meet with opposing lawyers in person, and she developed a reputation as someone who was tough as nails but very reasonable and approachable. As a result, her business benefited greatly from her reputation.

Summerville works with lawyers looking to build reputations on a smaller scale, maybe in the regional or local area of their practice. She tells a story about a group of 11 lawyers in Ketchikan, Alaska, who met for lunch once a week. Because they knew each other so well, they extended courtesies and made referrals to each other, which benefited everyone.

It’s a good idea to build your reputation with various stakeholders – clients, judges, prosecutors, opposing counsel – as tough but polite, so that when you have a request you’ll be more likely to get what you ask for, Mitchell says.

Once you’ve done some self-assessment and come up with your goals, the next step for junior lawyers is to:

  • Learn as much as possible about your chosen subject matter. An efficient way to do this is to partner with someone who’s well-respected in that legal area, Summerville says. Offer to help on a case with some writing or research. Make sure you’re known for producing excellent work, and reinforce that reputation with others. It takes seven to nine instances of reinforcing the idea in the minds of others to get your name and a new practice area linked in a positive way, she adds.

  • Do some public speaking. Speak to groups where you might find clients or at least build relationships, Mitchell said. You might also write an article for a trade publication that potential clients might read.

  • Stay current with best practices. For instance, clients increasingly value efficiency, so although perfectionists have many admirable qualities, firms likely would not seek out someone with a reputation as a perfectionist, Summerville says. 

  • Reaffirm or redefine your goals periodically. Mitchell advises writing, “Evaluate career goals” in your calendar, then “Reassess career goals” one year later. Or you might be one of the ones who would benefit from doing it more frequently, possibly quarterly. As you reassess your goals, make sure you’re networking with people in that circle that you want to be associated with. Be aware of competition, possibly finding a mentor outside of your area who would not be threatened by your practice.

  • Follow up after meeting people to build relationships. Conversations after an initial meeting will cement your reputation as someone who takes the time to follow up and schedule your next meeting.

  • Using social media to build your reputation is not always a good idea. “It can be,” Mitchell adds, but “a lot of lawyers use it to their detriment.” Casually answering questions on a social media site can hurt your reputation if your responses are not well thought out. Summerville says lawyers should have a strategy when using social media, setting up their profile carefully to reinforce reputation goals, for instance. She advises looking at the profiles of others to see what you should include in yours, using it as a tool to update and reassess your brand.

  • To protect your reputation after a work hiatus, plan for it. “Obviously if you get hit by a car and you’re recovering in a hospital bed you can’t plan for that, but anything else, within reason, plan for it,” Mitchell says. Before you leave, create a plan in-house for who’s going to do your work while you’re gone so everyone knows what to expect. After that, devise a plan that includes stakeholders outside of your firm to communicate with and reinforce your reputation while you’re gone. “Once you’re on hiatus, maintain all of those contacts and stay active in the bar association because that way you’ll be able to stay current on what the trends are in the profession,” Summerville says. A hiatus can be a good time to reflect and ask yourself if you want to have a different reputation, like going from elementary school to middle school, she says.

  • If your reputation has suffered damage, take steps to repair it. First, Summerville says, assess honestly if you or your firm deserves the criticism. “Ask yourself, is this a practice area I’m well suited for?” If it continues, then ask yourself what you can do to prevent a recurrence.

  • Conduct a 360-degree review of your reputation by asking colleagues and clients what they think of you and your firm. Feedback can be very eye-opening, Mitchell says. When addressing your weaker skills, such as public speaking, be open to improving, Summerville says.

  • Be enthusiastic about your law specialty. “My tax lawyer and my accountant are both people who love tax,” Mitchell says. “They find it fascinating, they love it.  … That’s why I want to hire them.”