Vol. 39 No. 5
By L.J. Jackson
Standing out in a cluttered job market means more than submitting a stellar résumé and enthusiastic cover letter. With law firms doing limited recruiting, and even less hiring, it’s important to build your own personal brand and your “unique selling proposition.”
But how do you begin building your brand, and what does that mean exactly? Corporations spend big bucks on consultants and experts to help develop product branding that will catch the attention of consumers. But for students on a budget, there are simple ways to identify your strengths and assets that form the basis of your brand. And once you have developed your brand, there’s no hiding your light under a bushel. It takes additional work to market yourself like a company markets a product, to let your target audience know you are out there and that you’re someone they can’t live without.
“You have to let people know what it is about you that’s worth making an investment in,” says Jasmin French, a Chicago branding specialist and lawyer. “Branding is about perception. The message you’re putting out into the atmosphere needs to convey exactly how you want to be perceived.”
French knows from personal experience. She started her branding business in 2009 after being laid off from DLA Piper’s corporate security practice. The 2007 Vanderbilt University Law School graduate found herself out of a job when the recession hit, along with 40 percent of her entering class. French had to decide what to do next.
“It would have been foolish to run back to an Am Law top 50 firm in this economic climate,” French says.
So for French, branding meant branching out on her own and harnessing her core strengths. As a member of DLA Piper’s associates committee, she was used to advising others on topics such as making a great first impression in an interview and getting more work from partners. She quickly realized her unique selling proposition was her ability to help others find theirs, and J French Branding was born.
French lectures and conducts workshops for law firms, for schools, and at conferences. She helps associates and professionals who want to raise their profiles, learn public speaking, develop new business, get hired, get promoted or those “who are simply tired of disappearing among the masses.”
“I help people tell their stories and more importantly, help people tell their stories to someone new,” French says.
Brand Building How-To
When French gives presentations on brand building for legal professionals, she offers a number of strategies to get started, based on the realities of the current market.
“Now more than ever employers no longer have ‘want’ money, they have ‘need’ money,” French explains. “They hire employees they need and they keep employees they need, and you need to be able to explain clearly how you can fill that need.”
French has three top tips for self-assessment and standing out:
1. Identify what attributes you can offer consistently that would prove a benefit to an employer. Do this by having a personal board of directors—people not related to you who can speak to your traits as an individual:
Ask someone you can rely on: “You’ve known me for a number of years, what would you describe about my work style that hasn’t changed?” French says.
2. A résumé only gives a snapshot of points in time. Break down previous experience and projects to explain what value they’ll have to your target audience:
“How do your past experiences have transferable value to your target market?” French asks. “Your résumé may show you did ‘research,’ but what does this say about your ability to work with a partner in the future? Break down your previous experience and project what value it will have to who you’re targeting.”
3. Even if you’re just starting out in law school and have limited experience, figure out your top leadership skills and be able to talk about them confidently:
“Leadership skills are separate from legal skills,” French says. “You need to be able to say, ‘Even though I have never worked for a firm, I have leadership skills and this is how they can bring value.’”
French says law students can point to situations where they’ve interviewed candidates for a position on a journal, campaigned for elected office, or volunteered in a school clinic—all of which involve some form of leadership. “Leadership and consensus building requires strong verbal skills, empathy and the ability to zero in on the essential things that are most important among a diverse constituency,” French says. “And associates do each of these things every day.”
Put Yourself Out There
The idea came to third-year Georgetown Law student Mike Sacks when he couldn’t sleep one night—he would start his own blog covering the U.S. Supreme Court, but first he had to find a way to get people to read what he wrote.
“There are so many people shouting on the internet, and if you want to get recognized, you need some sort of hook,” Sacks says. “For me the hook was getting first in line for the general admission to the Supreme Court—treating it like a rock concert.”
Sacks started his blog, First One @ One First (the address of the U.S. Supreme Court), in September 2009, and he quickly got noticed. Through a combination of networking with other Supreme Court reporters, and building his personal brand. Sacks has found a way to set himself apart from other law students.
“It helps to have this going on given the economy,” Sacks says. “The blog has helped to get in the door for interviews at firms that right now are more picky and aren’t hiring the way they used to.”
Sacks says he took a holistic approach to branding to see how it could help his career in law, journalism, or just get his name on the map. “I wanted to make an impact and my mind is always open for the next thing that could make a splash,” Sacks says.
Sacks’ blog was a natural extension of his interest in the High Court, and so was his success.
“Entrepreneurs are most successful when pursuing things they are intrinsically predestined to do,” notes French.
As a result of his creative efforts, and branding as a law-student-Supreme-Court-watcher-extraordinaire, Sacks has not only opened doors at law firms but has written for the Christian Science Monitor and has been quoted in the New York Times.
Sacks’ advice to others seeking to make that “splash” and build a brand?
“Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there,” Sacks says. “The hardest part is getting out in front of everyone else who’s interested. Find an angle no one else can get, find that perspective, and run with it.”
Sacks is currently running with his blog concept and plans to take it as far as he can. Right now, he’s still in school, interviewing for jobs, and trying to decide whether he’ll pursue a career in law or journalism.
Leveraging Your Brand
As a speaker, coach, and author of The Opportunity Maker: Strategies for Inspiring Your Legal Career Through Creative Networking and Business Development, Ari Kaplan has a bird’s-eye view of what’s going on in the market. He has spoken at 34 law schools across the country, and as a big firm alum, Kaplan has plenty of advice.
“I’m always suggesting students go out and interview lawyers they want to meet and learn what those lawyers are most in need of in terms of support,” Kaplan says. “Then be a resource for those lawyers, and it’s a perfect way to create a long-term relationship.”
Start by identifying professionals you want to meet and consider offering to write for their website or profile their work for the school newspaper, a student association’s website, or the alumni magazine, Kaplan suggests. As you get to know the practice preferences and goals of those individuals, consider contacting them when you see press leads, writing opportunities, or teaching positions. Kaplan says free resources like editorial calendars and chronicle.com can be very helpful in this regard.
Kaplan points out the statistical truth: 90 percent of law school grads will not be in the top 10 percent of their class, which means there are a lot of students who will have to find creative ways to distinguish themselves in a down economy. Kaplan encourages law students to focus on the needs of others, rather than themselves, to gain value.
One way to do this is to find ways to introduce lawyers you meet to others you know, such as professors, or even the dean. As you connect with business professionals and experts in other fields, continue to make those introductions as it will demonstrate the depth of your character and your interest in creating opportunity for those with whom you are interacting, Kaplan says.
“Students need to listen to practitioners and ask, ‘What do you need help with?’ And then help them with that,” Kaplan says. “When you do this, you are immediately creating an opportunity for yourself.”
Kaplan also suggests harnessing the Internet through guest blogging, targeted social networking, and gaining technical skills. Kaplan found success post-law firm by targeting clients who would be interested in what he had to offer. Kaplan’s experience at top-tier firms proved valuable to businesses looking to outsource legal writing and research, from ghostwriting articles to conducting industry research.
“You have to know what you do, and who you can do it for in order to effectively create a game plan,” Kaplan says.
French agrees that social networking isn’t just for collecting Twitter followers and Facebook friends. The economy has created a word-of-mouth hiring system that can be leveraged through the proper use of technology.
“People go with candidates referred to them personally,” French notes. “Social media is a good way to let people know how great you are.”
It takes time and effort to lay the groundwork, but once you’ve figured out what your unique selling proposition is, and how you can add value to an employer or potential clients, you will be able to identify your personal brand. And that is the first step to self-marketing success.
L.J. Jackson is a freelance writer and attorney who specializes in law and business reporting. She is based in Chicago.