Jeff Bezos says, “Your brand is what other people say about you when you’re not in the room.” Unfortunately for the Amazon and Blue Origin founder, people are saying some pretty nasty things about him. Employees report that he uses abusive language and Amazon workers say they have to urinate in bottles because they don’t get enough toilet breaks.
Amazon gets away mostly unscathed by this unsavory behavior (let’s be honest, who else is going to save you with same-day delivery when you run out of dog food or forget your anniversary?) but the toxic elements of Bezos’ personal brand have contributed to consumer boycotts and some serious pop culture blowback. Comedian Bo Burnham went so far as to write a song about Bezos where he sarcastically encourages the entrepreneur to drink the blood of fellow billionaires Zuckerberg and Gates.
Few of us have the reputational impact of Bezos but our professional brand can nonetheless have a major impact on our careers, companies, communities, and even the broader legal industry. In this deep dive, we unpack the what, why, and how of cultivating a personal brand.
What is a personal brand?
The way you are perceived by others in a professional setting is made up of a range of tangible and intangible factors. Just as a company’s brand is much more than the products or services it sells, a personal brand is much more than your professional skills and experience. Your personality, values, appearance, and communication style all contribute to the impression you make on clients, colleagues, potential employers, and your wider network.
Why does it matter?
Let’s be honest, self-promotion and active social media posting are not for everyone. In fact, I’m sure most users of LinkedIn have seen virtue-signaling, inauthentic, or oversharing posts that kinda annoy them. If you’re happy in your current role, you might think it’s a waste of time to spend ages crafting share-worthy content or showing your face at a load of dull conferences.
But the truth is, whether you realize it or not, you're already cultivating a personal brand. In fact, as a legal professional, you’ve spent your whole career doing just that. Every time you interact with a client, attend a webinar, or even work with another department you’re projecting an image of yourself, your team, and the firm or company you work for.
If there’s already a story out there about who you are and what you represent, it makes sense that you should take control of that story because it's likely to affect you in a number of ways.
Here are several areas where a strong personal brand can have an impact:
Building a good brand takes a lot longer than writing a good cover letter but, when it comes to applying for a job, it will serve you well. Headhunting has become easier than ever with tools like LinkedIn. Potential employers have access to everything you’ve ever posted before you’re even aware that there is a vacancy. In fact, employers often prefer to headhunt ‘passive’ candidates (people who are employed and not actively seeking work) because it indicates a strong employment record. Good recruiters or hiring managers will also spend time talking to your colleagues and clients, seeking out detailed information about how you behave at work.
In other words, if you want to land your dream job, you should treat every day at work and every post online as if it’s part of a job interview.
Supporting the company brand
Mike Gooley, the founder of UK travel agency Trailfinders, likes to brag about being rich but penny-pinching. These are personal traits but they serve to inform customers that their money is in safe hands and the agency can afford to bail them out if say (this is off the top of my head) a highly contagious killer virus suddenly broke out and disrupted their holiday.
We aren’t all synonymous with the companies we represent but whether you Tweet about Mental Health Awareness Week, attend a conference on sustainability in your industry, or share a photo of yourself with your vaccine card, you are having an impact on your company’s brand.
It's a tricky line to walk but sometimes you can represent your company by promoting values that the company supports but can't publicly promote. It may not always be appropriate for the company to comment on political events (like the invasion of Ukraine or the storming of the Capitol) or it may take time for the PR team to get an official stance prepared and signed off. In the meantime, you can let your employees know how the company feels by posting in your personal capacity.
Even before the pandemic, social isolation was a growing epidemic. In a recent survey, 36% of Americans reported feeling lonely frequently or all the time. The movement towards remote work does nothing to improve this problem. Research suggests that fully remote work increases loneliness by 67% compared to in-office work. This is particularly concerning because social isolation is linked to an increased risk of chronic illness, substance abuse, and domestic violence.
You can use your personal brand to foster a sense of community and help others feel that they belong. That could involve messages of support, acting as a role model, or light-hearted relatable content that makes people feel like they are not alone.
Leading your team
Personal branding can be a form of leadership. The way you interact with employees can inform the culture of the team— whether that’s being prompt for meetings, celebrating a new recruit on social media, or sharing content about workplace mental health. Sharing your team’s achievements can also help to foster camaraderie and give clients a positive impression of your relationship-building skills.
Law can be a bit of an old boys’ club. Whether you’re BIPOC, a white woman, or have an accent that stands out, you can face negative stereotypes at work and in the hiring process. To name just one example, a study found that 57% of female lawyers of color had been mistaken for non-legal staff, such as caretakers. Being good at your job should be enough to prove yourself but sadly sometimes that’s just not the case. If you’re in an environment where you’re not automatically assumed to be capable and insightful, building a personal brand can help you to prove and promote yourself— even if you shouldn’t have to. You can also use your personal brand to promote those in your community who are crushing stereotypes.
Making an impact
Successful personal branding can go beyond building a good professional reputation. Brand-builders who acquire a big enough audience can become thought leaders or influencers (or ‘lawfluencers’!). They can offer perspective on the state of the industry and identify or even set the trends that guide the industry into the future. They can use their influence to highlight social issues and lend credibility to causes. They can also be particularly good at creating a sense of shared community. Law firms are recognizing the power of lawfluencers and partnering with them to connect with young recruits.
While we’re on the topic of branding…join us for ‘Marketing Your Legal Team as a Team of Yes’! We’ll be speaking with industry leaders about why it's important to brand your legal team and how to do it successfully.
6 tips for building a personal brand:
1. Start with a story
Before you start sharing your brand with the world, you need to establish what you want that brand to be. One way to approach your brand is to think of it as a story. “Our understanding of the world is packaged in narrative form,” says Ian Macleod, narrative economist and founder of Investment Narrative. When we think of a company, he explains, we don’t really think of it as a group of people and assets formalized by legal documents. Rather, the human brain turns all the information we know about Tesla, Facebook, or Nike into a story.
“The very same goes for the professional's personal brand,” says Macleod. “Your unique and complex self exists in a client's head as a highly abbreviated hero's journey. You tell this story with everything you do. Everything you say. Even the clothes you wear. They accumulate to tell the tale of where you started, where you are now, and where you'll end up. As with any story, a beginning, a middle, and an end.”
Once you have your story you can use it to craft your social media profile, plan cover letters and write your elevator pitch. The best part about a story is that, if it’s a good one, other people will tell it for you.
2. Get back to basics
A personal brand is not just about what you put on the Internet. In fact, some aspects of cultivating a personal brand haven’t changed in generations. Be punctual, dress appropriately, and treat others with respect. Old-school charm and good manners can go a long way. Imagine, for example, receiving a handwritten thank you note from a client. Little details like that can have a big impact on how you are perceived. More modern basics include good email etiquette, avoiding contacting employees outside of work hours, and actively tackling unconscious discrimination.
3. Check your digital footprint
We don’t recommend you do it daily but it’s a good idea to Google yourself. As a legal professional, you need to maintain a stark, clean online image so you've probably already set your privacy settings to hide that photo of your bachelorette or the time you played a villain in your high school production of The Sound of Music. Nonetheless, it's a good idea to check what comes up in the search results to make sure it's all professional.
If you’ve got a website or a blog, test the user-friendliness of your site and evaluate whether you need to do more SEO. Next, evaluate your social media profiles. There is loads of good advice out there for choosing the right profile picture and showcasing your experience.
4. Choose a platform
There are lots of different ways to get your story out there. Play to your strengths. Find content creators that you admire and examine their work to inform your own. Twitter is great for sharing links and for concise, structured content. Check out examples from this content expert and from this legal thought leader Kenneth A. Grady.
For lengthier content, post to LinkedIn or start your own blog like Practice Tuesday, which offers advice on studying and practicing law. You can pitch articles to respected news outlets or contact journalists directly to make yourself available as their go-to source on a subject area. Collaborating with mentors or influencers is a great way to build your audience and gain credibility.
If writing isn’t your vibe, get creative in other ways. Legal thought leader Bob Ambrogi hosts a podcast. Father and daughter barristers Miriam and Jonathan Seitler QC host a Youtube series called ‘Carpool Caselaw’, inspired by James Cordon’s Carpool Karaoke. Getting on the speaking circuit is another option. Webinars, conferences, and roundtables are great opportunities to share your expertise and build credibility. You could even set up a Facebook Live Q&A to connect with your network and add value.
5. Be real
People are content savvy nowadays. They can smell an inauthentic social media post a mile away. Plus, people talk. Tools like Glassdoor mean that employees can give an honest review of what it is like to work for you while LinkedIn makes it easy to get in touch with your former colleagues and clients. If you post about #mentalhealthawareness but spend all day yelling at new recruits, don’t expect it to be a secret.
When cultivating your brand, you should think carefully about what values you genuinely, authentically care about, whether that’s driving more tech-based solutions in legal, supporting working moms, or providing legal support to small businesses. Once you’ve committed to a set of values, make sure you walk the talk.
6. Be useful
If you want people to pay attention to your content and see you as an expert, offer them something that they’ll want to save and refer back to. Pay attention to the challenges that people in your industry are facing and address those pain points in your speaking and writing.
There are lots of great personal branding role models out there. Sara Blakely is one of them. She has a story with a beginning, middle, and end: from a door-to-door fax machine salesperson, to a feisty entrepreneur with just $5000, to a mom, a billionaire, and a philanthropist. Her regular Instagram posts featuring mugs with cute slogans and photos of herself and her kids in pj's contribute to her consistent #girlboss image and make her seem authentic and down to earth. And she was labeled the best boss ever when she bought all her employees a first-class holiday to a destination of their choice.
You don’t need a global reputation or a billion dollars to have a strong personal brand. In fact, you don’t need anything you don’t already have at your disposal. All it takes is the intention, a bit of social media game and, to quote Oscar Wilde, to “Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.”