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Using Thought Leadership to Build Your Personal Brand

Attorneys have lots of questions about “thought leadership” - a buzzword making the rounds in legal marketing circles.  Fortunately, we have lots of answers.

Q: We hear the term “thought leadership” being used in conversations about marketing and business development. What does it really mean?

A: Essentially, it means being smart – and letting people know how smart you are.  But it’s “smart” in a very specific way.  When I talk to a client about positioning herself as a “thought leader,” what I’m really saying is, “Let’s show people that you’re not just a legal technician, someone who is competent at doing the tasks you’re asked to perform.  Instead, let’s demonstrate that you are someone who has such a deep understanding of your area of work that you can offer new strategies and unique insights.”  So we’re saying to your clients and potential clients that a relationship with you can go beyond just calling for legal help when they need it, but that your insights are so valuable that they can benefit from having you as an advisor and a trusted counselor.  Lawyers handle transactions or matters.  Thought leaders are people with whom you want to have an ongoing relationship because their perspective is helpful and valuable.

Q: So it sounds like being a thought leader requires some very deep, special expertise.

A: Yes, in a sense that’s true.  You can’t just call yourself a thought leader and hope to get any particular business development value out of the term.  But the good news is that it’s relatively easy to develop that expertise.  You definitely don’t have to be a genius.  You just have to use technology – and your time – effectively.

Q:  How does that work?  How do you start making yourself into a thought leader?

A:  The first step is to start thinking about the expertise you do have in a very focused way.  A lot of my clients are “commercial litigators” or “business attorneys.”  Those are incredibly broad areas of work.  And their thinking is often that it’s good to be broad – that means, for example, that, as a business attorney, someone doing a range of corporate and transactional work, you can take on an employment law issue and a real estate deal and the sale of a business.  More work, more clients, more money.

Taking a thought leadership approach to how you market yourself is very different from that.  There is a certain leap of faith required: you have be confident enough to say that you’re going to be okay, financially, even if you don’t chase every single possible piece of work.  You’re committing yourself to putting more time and effort into positioning yourself into what might be fewer clients or fewer matters, but ultimately far more lucrative.  Because you’re selling expertise and perspective not just the commodity of pieces of work.

So the first step to re-inventing yourself as a thought leader is to consider what your expertise really is.  Maybe it’s that you’ve worked with a number of clients in the same industry.  So you’ve handled a wide range of issues for restaurant owners or sporting goods manufacturers or whiskey distillers.  Or perhaps there’s a certain type of case that really feels like your sweet spot.  So every time you’ve had to dive into a really complicated matter with the Illinois Department of Professional and Financial Regulation and wade through a ton of red tape, it’s gone really well.  Those are areas in which you can be a thought leader.

Q. OK, so let’s say you look at your past business and you can see a pattern like this: you’ve done a ton of great work for a particular kind of client.  How do you build on that?

A. There’s a traditional marketing approach to that, of course, which would say that if you’ve done business with a lot of orthodontist offices, let’s say, then you should try to build on that success.  So maybe you pay to take out an ad in an orthodontistry journal or you rent a mailing list of orthodontists in Illinois and send them your brochure.

You also, of course, want to make sure that your webpage – and specifically your bio or profile within the firm website – precisely reflects the vision of you as a thought leader in a particular area.  Attorney bios are an underrated marketing tool, in my experience, but they are a huge driver of potential business.  It’s where prospective clients are likely to spend the most time if they visit your site.  Spend time making sure the language in your bio reflects your expertise.  Add brief summaries of relevant matters.  Check that you used key words and potential search terms that would be recognizable to your target clients and set you apart as someone who “speaks their language.”  Make sure it’s easy for them to grab your contact info and click to send you a direct email.  Also, if you’re blogging or tweeting regularly, you can embed a widget in your bio that includes your most recent post so potential clients can see that you are part of the conversation in their area of interest.

That’s all pretty basic marketing stuff.  The thought leadership approach takes that to the next level.  As a thought leader, you need to be creating your own content and maybe even your own platform or channel (like a blog) to be getting that content out to your target market.

Q. What do you mean by “creating your own content”?

A.  For lawyers, writing is going to be a big part of that.  Luckily, a lot of lawyers are great writers and they enjoy the process.  For others, who either don’t have that inclination or just don’t have the time, they can outsource that work to writers or marketing folks or an agency like mine.  It’s relatively easy to find folks who can do that work. In-house, you might have admins or clerks who want to do it.  Externally, you can google ghostwriters or content writers or find freelancers through sites like LinkedIn or special networks like Upwork, WriterAccess, and TextBroker. 

Q. How do you figure out what to write about?

Here’s where the technology and time management really come into play.  You figure out what your thought leadership niche is going to be: legal issues for mircobreweries, or representing stay at home moms in divorce cases or helping people sort out their aging parents’ complicated tax issues.

Start and maintain a list of frequently asked questions from clients in this area so you can identify trends or repetitive questions that should be addressed.

Then, set up Google alerts for related keywords to keep you up to date on news in that area.  There are also some paid services that will do this, but Google is a good place to start.  You’ll start getting items to read in your email inbox each day.

You’ll also want to find and subscribe to relevant newsletters, trade publications and blogs.  There might be membership organizations that folks tend to join – those will have websites with lots of great content for you to read. 

Social media is going to be key as well.  Find the important industry leaders in your area of focus and see what they’re posting about.

Q. I knew we’d get to social media!  How does social media tie into this notion of thought leadership?

A. Social media is what’s given us the ability to create ourselves as thought leaders.  Without it, we relied on traditional media to define for us who the experts in a particular field were.  If someone was quoted on a topic in the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal or the National Law Journal, they must be the expert.

Now, in creating our own content and pushing it out through different channels, including social media, we can create the market’s perception of our expertise.  And, quite often, the traditional is actually following that, so now they’re deciding who to interview and quote, based on who’s blogging on a topic or tweeting about it.

Q. So we’ve talked about identifying an area in which you can make yourself into a thought leader.  And we’ve talked about the process for educating yourself further in that area – basically, a lot of online research.  How do we move from there to actually marketing yourself as a thought leader.  Obviously, getting out there on social media is going to be part of that, right?

A.  Both social media and traditional media play a part in promoting yourself as a thought leader, as does traditional marketing.  They really all work together.

I recently worked with a client, an attorney with a practice out in the northwest suburbs, who’s done a lot of work, through the years, for many of the manufacturing companies located just outside Chicago.  Increasingly commonly, her clients – the owners of those privately-held, family-owned companies – were coming to her to help with their succession planning issues.  Either they were passing the business on to the next generation or, if there was no one to take over, they needed to sell it or maybe find a way for a trusted employee to purchase it over time.  So as she did more and more of this work, she started writing about it on her law firm’s blog.  And the firm pushed those posts out through their Twitter account and their LinkedIn page, making sure they were using hashtags and tagging key folks so that the posts were getting maximum visibility with the right people.  The attorney personally worked her network, too, interacting with those posts using her personal LinkedIn account, including links to her posts in her email signature, even directly emailing them to key contacts who might refer her similar business or be in a position to need help with their own succession planning.  Supplementing this, my team sent her blog posts and background information to key business and trade journalists who cover the manufacturing industry in Illinois to make sure she was on their radar.  Then we pitched a story about an even more specific aspect of this niche area: the fact that adult daughters were taking over some of these industrial concerns for their fathers.  Crains Chicago Business ran a story about that, quoting this attorney as an expert on the trend.  And then we all repeated the cycle: amplifying that traditional media story on social media, sharing it in lots of ways, and, lo and behold, it was in the hands of a writer for Fortune Magazine.  So now an attorney with a relatively small suburban practice is being quoted in this top national business publication as an authority on succession planning in manufacturing companies.  And this is a clip we can share with a group like, say, the Illinois Manufacturers Association because wouldn’t she be a great speaker at their convention?  And think about the business development possibilities about being a lawyer with a great service to offer in a giant gathering of people who might very well need exactly that service.

Q. That’s a great example.  It sounds like there had to be a lot of ground work in place, though, for that to work out as it did.

A.  Sure.  First and foremost, this is a smart and talented lawyer who does great work for her clients.  Being excellent at what you do is the best possible form of marketing.

Moreover, she and her staff had the necessary infrastructure. Their website had a blog.  She had a great profile page on the firm website, with links to the blog posts she was doing.  They had accounts on Twitter and LinkedIn.  They were diligent about keeping up with those things in simple but fundamental ways: connecting with every client on LinkedIn, following the journalists who write about their clients’ businesses on Twitter, keeping contact information in their CRM database so they could send out newsletters and eblasts.

They didn’t have a huge marketing budget, but they did make this a priority.  An administrative assistant kept a calendar to track when new blog posts were going up and if too much time was passing, she’d remind the attorney to get something up there.  This same assistant also had a reading list and when she came across an article that mentioned certain management issues in manufacturing, she forwarded it to the attorney.  So the appearance was always there that the attorney was very much up-to-the-minute on industry developments.

Q. This sounds like a great way to build business for a certain kind of practitioner.  Can anyone to position themselves as a thought leader?

A. Certainly I believe that most attorneys can.  The ABA Journal just came out with its list of the Top 100 legal blogs of 2016 and a lot of them belong to individual attorneys who are writing about a single area of focus: golf-related legal issues, beer-related legal issues, legal issues around space exploration, intellectual property issues in pop culture, and on and on.

Even in this crowded marketplace, there is room to find an area of focus to attach yourself to.

Q. Is blogging necessary to promoting yourself as a thought leader?

A. It’s definitely helpful.  There’s no easier way to get your thoughts published than to do it yourself on your own site.

But I wouldn’t say it’s absolutely necessary and there’s definitely more than one way to go about it. 

If you don’t have a robust web site or you don’t want to get in to the technical side of hosting a blog, you can post from your LinkedIn account using their LinkedIn publishing tool.  Obviously, this is going to drive readers to your personal LinkedIn page rather than your firm website, so it makes it a little more difficult to contact you directly, but its an option.

There are also plenty of outlets – online and traditional – that will accept submitted articles for consideration.  You can write articles and send them to the publications that your clients and potential clients see.  I’d typically advise doing that in addition to your own blogging.  Placing articles for publication is time consuming, high effort work.  You need to know the editorial guidelines of each publication, find the right person to get it to, keep track of any deadlines or specific formatting requirements.  That’s work that a firm marketing department might be able to do or an outside PR firm; it would really be a lot for an attorney to try to manage himself.  There just aren’t enough hours in the day.

Q. Let’s say I’ve figured out my thought leadership niche and I’ve got all this infrastructure in place: the blog and the social media and CRM and other tools to promote it. Now, what do I actually write about?

A. Some guidelines we typically offer to clients:
a. Find your target audience (usually prospective clients). What does your audience what to read?
b. Don’t use postings to give legal advice; find the line between being helpful and informative and giving out free services
c. Posts should be concise and limited to a single issue with a direct, obvious headline
d. Post about relevant news within your field or ongoing public cases

Q. How often should I be posting/writing/tweeting?

A. Regular posts equal regular visitors and regular visitors drive engagement.  So, more than frequency, consistency and regularity is key. Once a week across all platforms is ideal, but if you can only manage twice a month, that’s better than doing it every day for a month and then dropping it entirely for two weeks because it got to be too much and you fell behind on your other work.

Q. Cultivating thought leadership sounds like a great way to build your brand and market yourself but it also sounds like a lot of work.

A. It can be.  But so is traditional relationship-driven marketing. 

One of the things I love about working with clients to position themselves as thought leaders is that it’s a strategy that is particularly effective for people for whom other approaches are really difficult.
If you’re not a person who is going to be out at an event every night, building your network in that way, you can be a person who is writing a great blog post or journal article or Op-Ed piece.  So maybe you’re the parent of young children and you want to be home for bedtime. You can skip some cocktail events and receptions but hop online at night and read up on your area of interest and be prepared to weigh in with a blog post or to engage via social media and see what people are tweeting about.

Also, because this is much more about content (what you have to say), rather than who you are, this is a marketing approach that can really level the playing field for women, minorities and others who don’t necessarily come into the legal profession with relationships and connections that automatically get them meetings and introductions with business owners or key executives or general counsel.

I go back to that example we talked about of my client who has been focusing her practice on succession planning.  As a woman coming from a smaller firm, she’s not necessarily someone you’d expect to see sitting down with a CEO, especially in the manufacturing sector.  But seeing her in Crains and Fortune and hearing her name in that context helps push you past any initial prejudice you might have in that regard.

For women especially, there’s a virtuous cycle in developing and promoting subject matter expertise to support our business development efforts.  We feel more confident about ourselves when we have that “expert” brand attached to our work.  And increased confidence improves the effectiveness of all our professional efforts.