If you’re an established lawyer, then you may already have a good sense of where you want to be in five, 10, or 20 years. If you’re a current law student, then you may not have even decided what type of law you want to practice. Regardless of your category—or whether you’re somewhere in between—now is the time for you to be thinking about your long-term career development.
To reach the top of the legal sector, you have to be more than a technically excellent lawyer. You also have to be an entrepreneur running a business called “You.” Like any entrepreneur, you’ll need to invest in that business. Give your investment time to grow so it will be ready when you need to draw on it. It’s never too late to start, but the sooner the better. And, ideally, as you rise in seniority, you’ll be able live off the interest of your investment.
This article is an adaption of two of six topics from “Eye on the C-Suite: A Crash Course for Your Future.” We were asked to give the presentation in June 2015 to the Harvard Club of Washington, DC, which serves more than 20,000 Harvard alumni from all divisions, including Harvard Law School and Harvard Business School.
You’ve probably heard the term, but what is a personal brand?
Your personal brand is what you stand for. If we say “Steve Jobs,” “Oprah Winfrey,” or “Tesla,” you immediately think of what they stand for and aspects in which they excel. That is what we mean by personal brand. Brands can be good or bad, and they differ among audiences.
It’s easy to see why a celebrity needs a brand or why a company has a branding statement, but it can be less clear why an attorney needs one. That reason is to define yourself in the market.
Think of it this way: When a hiring attorney is sifting through 300 résumés looking for a lateral hire for a growing law firm or corporate legal department, what reason does she have to pick up yours? When another lawyer needs to refer out a high value client, what reason does she have to call you instead one of the dozen (or dozens) of other attorneys who could handle the matter?
That reason is likely your strong personal brand. Your brand is also explicitly and implicitly incorporated in your career documents portfolio like your LinkedIn profile, bio, byline, or deal sheet—in addition to your legal résumé or CV.
How do you identify your personal brand?
First, recognize two things: objective self-assessment is difficult, and you cannot be all things to all people.
To transcend these common roadblocks, answer these questions:
- What are the top three things you want an employer or client to know about you?
- Why should someone hire you or work with you? What do you bring to the table? What value do you add?
- Who is your ideal client, internally or externally? (Stumped? Start by listing who your ideal client isn’t, and you’ll eventually pivot to who is.)
- What types of problems do you solve for those ideal clients? And how do you do it? (Need inspiration? Begin the exercise by listing projects you never want to do again. With those out of the way, you can dovetail into the problems you solve, and how you do it.)
- What are five words supervisors, clients, and other people use to describe you?
- What do supervisors focus on in performance evaluations and letters of recommendation?
It’s important to recognize that “bad” answers can be as important as positive ones. Negative feedback is critical because it lets you know what you need to work on to turn your brand around. Real or perceived failures can also be helpful because they let you know where you can fix vulnerabilities. Also, take comfort in knowing that your brand will change over time because the things that employers and clients look for also change over time:
- As a junior lawyer, decision-makers tend to focus on your potential.
- As a mid-level lawyer, decision-makers tend to focus on your technical skill.
- As a senior-level lawyer, decision-makers increasingly focus your leadership style or philosophy, values, exposure to particular types of business or legal problems, and how you’ll fit into an executive team.
Your brand will necessarily shift as well.
Networking is the number one way to find new jobs and career opportunities. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 70 percent of all jobs are found through networking rather than job listings or postings. So plan to allocate less than ten to fifteen percent of your job search efforts on job listing and posting responses. Some liken over reliance on job boards to playing the lottery, with only marginally better outcomes.
Still, networking can be intimidating, and one reason is that we tend only to think about it when we’re looking for a new job. Networking is, in fact, a long-term and continuous effort of building contacts, friends, allies, and others who help each other reach their goals. It’s a combination of quantity and quality, an effort to stay top of mind, and about “who you know.” But networking is also about who knows you, and who thinks about you when opportunities open up—before those opportunities are publicly posted.
Ideally, your network grows and expands to include not just lawyers, but board members, C-suite executives, and others of all levels who might influence the hiring process. Over time, you may have hundreds of professionals who understand your brand and who think of you when the perfect opportunity comes along.
Networking is critical whether you’re just starting out or whether you’re a lawyer with 10, 15, or 30 years of practice experience. The more senior you are, the more likely you are to be a candidate for roles emphasizing leadership, authority, and trust. In those cases, employers and clients are likely to hire a lawyer with whom they already have a direct relationship, or who is referred by someone with whom they have a relationship.
So how do you start networking?
Calling people you don’t know to ask them to help you get a job at their employer is not networking. That’s “calling people you don’t know to ask for a job.” Not surprisingly, people don’t like that! Instead, purposeful networking is reciprocal.
To build a robust professional network, start with your existing contacts and then build from there:
- Reconnect with existing relationships like past colleagues and classmates either through a social platform like LinkedIn or directly through email. Your efforts can range from lunch, to a chat on the telephone, to simply continuing the conversation via online.
- Branch out to people who are likely to respond positively and with whom you have an obvious connection, like fellow alumni (regardless of whether you knew them in school or whether they were in your class), fellow bar association members, lawyers in your geographical area, and lawyers in your practice area (regardless of geography). LinkedIn is a great networking platform for lawyers. Introduce yourself. Say hello. Don’t ask for assistance in your job search until you’ve built a relationship.
- Look for opportunities to promote your contacts, as well as people you want to meet. Congratulate them on their courtroom wins. Share their LinkedIn posts. Refer work their way. Recommend them for opportunities that seem like a good fit. Offer to introduce them to contacts that may be beneficial, including recruiters.
- Have something to offer. Again, your personal brand-building efforts will pay off. Understand the value you offer as a lawyer, and in other contexts. Find points of affinity with others. For example, are you a rock climber? World traveler? Pastry chef? Look for ways to be a thought-leader, mentor, volunteer, or simply to be of assistance.
- Keep your name top of mind by reaching out periodically. You need people to remember you when opportunities cross their paths. How often you need to reach out will depend upon your relationship with that person, along with your goals. Maybe an annual holiday card is all you need. But if you stumble across an article you know would be interesting to that person, send it along! This is a great, low risk reason to say hello.
Not everyone networks the same way. Some people can work a room and enjoy networking on a large scale. Some people network through golfing or charity events. Some network through one-on-one lunches. Others don’t. Some people need an excuse to network, especially when meeting people they don’t know. Writing an article lets you cold contact people, leading to quotes and publicity for your article, but also to interesting conversations that may have long-term benefits. If you need one, build a script as a basis for your call.
If you’re an introvert who wants to better work a room, then quality networking events are a great place to practice. By definition, everyone there wants to meet new people, so they will be receptive. Other shy or introverted attendees may be relieved that you’re taking the initiative! A 2014 Hubspot blog post offers several surprisingly natural conversation starters to help break the ice at networking events.
Networking events aren’t effective job search or career development tools per se, but they are solid training grounds for becoming a better conversationalist. They can help you become comfortable with talking about yourself and asking others about themselves.
What’s important is not the method you choose to build your network. It’s in choosing the method that’s natural for you. If you feel uncomfortable and forced, then you’re likely to come across as uncomfortable and forced. Likewise, if you’re comfortable and genuinely enthusiastic, then you’re going to come across that way.
Notice that when you effectively network, you simultaneously move forward on short-term goals (“I need a job in six months” or “I need to meet lawyers in my new geographical area”), mid-term goals (“I want to build expertise in this trending practice area” or “I want to build a portable book of business”) and long-term goals (“I want to be a nationally recognized subject matter expert” or “I want to be general counsel of a multinational biotech”).
Networks must be nurtured over time so they’re robust when the time comes to make an “ask.” Some kinds of asks—like introductions to a hiring attorney or for some other opportunity—require your contact to put his or her own reputation on the line on your behalf. Don’t wait until you’re next job search to build or nurture your network. To be effective, your network must be in place and ready to help when you need it.
This article is a modification of an article from Volume 100, Issue 4 of Women Lawyers Journal®, a publication of the National Association of Women Lawyers. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. All rights reserved.