Build a career as a thought-leading lawyer - in 7 steps
The legal profession is becoming more and more competitive. To avoid competing on price it is imperative to differentiate yourself and your firm from others in your category.
An effective way to do this is to engage in “thought leadership”, to position yourself as the “go-to” expert in your field.
Here are seven steps towards developing a career as a thought-leading lawyer:
1. Explore the Law
Not all lawyers have the opportunity to experience a range of areas early in their career. When jobs are scarce, graduates take whatever they can get, and often end up staying in the area in which they managed to find work. Lawyers can easily and quickly become pigeonholed into one area, and then they have trouble getting employed outside that field.
Exploration serves two purposes; firstly, to help you find out what kind of law you want to practice, and secondly, to create a mental “map” of how the different areas fit together.
To become a thought leader you need a wider perspective than just one narrow technical field. Thought leadership involves offering wisdom to your clients, not just technical knowledge and skill.
2. Go deeper
The next step is to immerse yourself in your area of choice, to become very good at what you do. Before you can be a thought-leading lawyer, you’ll need to be a good lawyer.
Choose this area carefully and purposefully. To be a thought leader, you’ll need to enjoy the work you do. It’s going to take some energy to do what’s required to achieve the positioning you seek.
Find an area where you have a passion for what you do, where coming to work will be a joy and not a chore.
3. Learn the skills of thought leadership
You’ll need public speaking skills, so you can speak at industry seminars in order to demonstrate your expertise to clients and prospective clients. If you can speak with impact, you’ll stand out from all the other boring speakers.
You’ll also need the skills of writing for a non-legal audience. Business people are busy. They don’t want to comb through a 15-page article searching for a relevant conclusion or point. They are looking for something punchy and effective that solves an immediate problem for them.
And you’ll need to shift your perspective from the present to the future – learn to look for trends that indicate issues which may affect your clients in the future.
4. Build relationships
Work towards understanding the issues and problems that your clients are facing. This requires having high-quality conversations with clients that are not necessarily connected with the current matter, and asking questions that you don’t necessarily know the answers to.
Lawyers tend to feel under pressure to know all the answers. We spend a lot of time “telling” and not so much time “asking”, unless we are seeking specific information required for a current matter. Invest time in getting to know the clients better and the industry they work in, and the issues that are keeping them up at night.
The responses to your questions may provide inspiration and topics for your thought leadership.
5. Be original
Find topics that no one else is writing or speaking about. Don’t confine yourself to recent developments in the law. Draw on your unique experience to find something interesting to say.
Express an opinion. This does not always come naturally to lawyers. We are taught to stick to facts which can be verified; to say “I submit”, not “I think”. A legal “opinion” is based on an examination of prior decisions.
Clients of professional services firms are looking for leadership and for thought leadership. They want to know that you have thought about things from their perspective and that you have advice and wisdom to offer them.
6. Capture your content
When you have that elusive half-hour to write an article or prepare a presentation, you don’t want to spend it wondering what to write or speak about.
The solution is to create and maintain a “catalogue” of issues or topics in which you have some in-depth knowledge, that you could write or speak about.
The challenge is to “know what you know”. We tend to take our knowledge for granted. We’re so close to it that we assume no one could be interested in what we think or what we know.
7. Be prolific
To be perceived as a thought leader, it’s not enough to give one presentation a year or publish one article. People will miss it. You won’t reach a wide enough audience.
You need to leverage your efforts. Convert an article into a talk, or a talk into an article. Or break a long article into smaller pieces. Or create audio or video versions using the same content.
Publish your work as many places as possible:
Through social media – the Internet enables your work to be seen by many more people than you could personally present or send it to.
In printed copy
Through your newsletter
On your web site.
Stand out! Be the go-to expert
Thought leadership is a great way to build your profile and build your practice. It makes you more valuable to your clients. It helps you to design your career by attracting the work you want to do and clients you want to work with. It provides a path to greater career fulfillment.
Law firms - consider how you can best support your lawyers at each step! A lawyer who aspires to be a thought leader is driven, ambitious and keen to succeed – exactly the sort of lawyer that you want to attract and retain.