Law firms ask a lot from their lawyers: work hard for long hours, respond immediately to clients and colleagues, accept and promote the firm’s culture, support overall firm profitability, and so forth. But law firms give a lot back, too: steady income and predictable bonuses, centralized resources, shared overhead costs, exposure to clients, and general collegiality, to name a few.
But the most essential thing law firms do for their lawyers is to share their brand — to give their lawyers the boost in personal prestige and profile that comes with being associated with a respected name and identity. Set aside all the recruitment and retention pitches — the overriding reason why lawyers stay with a firm for the medium-term or beyond is that the firm’s brand evokes confidence, lends legitimacy, and enhances the lawyer’s personal brand. (For an example of what happens when a firm’s brand collapses, watch the unhappy tale unfolding at Heller Ehrman).
That, at least, has been the traditional way things have gone. More recently, though, in the age of the lateral hire, we’ve seen firms acquire lawyers in the hopes that the lawyer’s personal brand and reputation will reinforce or even enhance the firm’s brand. We’ve also seen the rise of lawyer free agency — rapid lateral movement among firms by lawyers at all career stages, such that it gets harder for firms to base their brands on individual lawyers or practice groups. Most importantly, the combination of associate fungibility, hard economic times and partners’ determination to protect PEP at all costs has resulted in recurring waves of lawyer layoffs, making an indelible impression on lawyers that loyalty to employees is not a law firm characteristic.
These and other phenomena mark the rising importance and influence over the last decade of the lawyer’s personal brand, something that was once foreign to all but a very few outstanding practitioners. Individual lawyers have less need to be associated with a law firm’s brand, at least beyond the first couple of years of practice, because they have become more adept at fashioning their own reputations and taking charge of their own careers.
Now, add two more recent phenomena to that mix: the arrival of millennial lawyers, who don’t stay in any one place very long and place high importance of personal definition and fulfillment; and the growth of the Web a personal brand platform through the use of blogs, podcasts, LinkedIn, Twitter and other forms of self-promotion and brand definition. The result, I think, is a fundamental power shift away from the collective firm brand and towards the individual lawyer brand.
Firms are going to have to cope with this, and in a longer essay later this month, I’ll go into some detail on that point. But for you, the individual lawyer, this means that starting now, you have both the responsibility and the requirement to take full control of your career and your personal brand. You need to assume that no other entity will make a long-term investment in your own success, and that you have to forge an identity and skill set independent of any firm or other legal employer.
If you need a model for that task, look at sole practitioners: this is the life they lead. From day one of their practice, they couldn’t content themselves with simply knowing the law and waiting for the cases to come up the elevator shaft. They had to learn everything about attracting clients, which meant marketing themselves, defining their niches, building their reputation, writing and speaking where clients could see them, and making client service the #1 priority. It also meant understanding the finances of a legal business: overhead costs, lease payments, cost identification, profitability calculations, accounts receivable, bill collection, tax and pension liabilities, and much more.
As all but a few law firm brands decline in importance, and as clients increasingly buy legal services based on the lawyer, not the firm, you’re going to have to add “full-time brand management” to your list of duties and skills. You have to be prominent and persuasive when showing up on Google searches, fully capable of running a small business, and able to keep one strategic eye on the short- and long-term evolution of your markets. Because you won’t be able to rely on law firms to do that kind of thing or share some of their brand power with you.
From now on, we all need to take charge of our brands and our careers. From now on, we are all solos.