New Lawyers (and Law Students) Need to Define Their Personal Brand

Kevin O’Keefe hit the nail on the head in his recent post emphasizing the tough job market and new law graduates’ need for an edge. What’s a good way to get that edge in perhaps the toughest legal market in decades? Develop a personal brand.

Says O’Keefe:

A brand in the professional service business is not a logo, a font on letterhead, a fancy website, or a tag line. A lawyer’s brand is their expertise, usually in a niche area of the law.

When we know that our career services office is doing everything it can, law students need to step up and take responsibility for making themselves noticeable and noticed in these increasingly-competitive times. O’Keefe is a fantastic advocate for blogging as part of one’s a personal brand. We’ve also recommended LinkedIn for law students here before. And for a shamelessly self-promoting example of how I’ve tried to brand myself as someone with social media policy expertise, see my additional advice for law students.

What are other ways a law student can define his or her brand?

(photo: cohdra)


  1. Avatar mark says:

    Laura, while branding makes sense for a lawyer, I would tell students that it’s a grave disservice to ‘brand’ this early. Here is why:

    You wrote: “When we know that our career services office is doing everything it can, law students need to step up and take responsibility for making themselves noticeable and noticed in these increasingly-competitive times.”

    In my career, I have ALWAYS been the guy in charge of hiring both summer law clerks and newly minted lawyers. 1 thing has remained constant in the past 17 years: GRADES. Next, relevant resume items – from Moot Court to internships. I get all kinds of student resumes which show tons and tons of sh*t that does not matter. Grades still matter. If I see a resume of a law student with 2L Class President this, or volunteer that, but with mid 50% grades, my first thought is – spend more studying, less time on activities.

    So, that being said, my solid advice to law student (with a nod to the first post by a law student):

    1.Grades- You have to focus on top 1/3 of the class ranking. If you are 50% or lower, I would consider real world experience as a weighted factor (10 years in national company, Management before being downsized, etc.)

    2.Writing samples – In my area of the law – litigation – you must write to convince. I give some leeway to students are the 1/3-40% grouping provided there is a good to better than average writing sample. Without grades or a writing sample of high worth, forget it.

    3.School activities- Again, with litigation I look at trial competitions, moot court, etc. This is part of the bigger picture.

    4.Brand? Well, year one out of school I wanted to handle commercial litigation. My 2nd job was with a firm that handles primarily insurance defense. Now, with my own firm, I’ve been PI only with a niche practice for nearly 12 years.

    I know that students – if they are setting up a brand – are naive to think that is where they will be in 5 years.

    BRANDING? Having as a law student means nothing to me at first glance. Instead, write and write and write some more. Do something – an internship, and externship – for free mind you if needed – to let me see what type of ‘brand’ there is to your writing. I worked for free for 8 weeks for a US District Court Judge. After he saw how hard I worked, he let me write an opinion, and that opinion was published in the F.R.D. That free effort surely helped me in landing my clerkship with a US Dist Court Judge (I know b/c he told me it did)

    Volunteer to offer your legal services – typically limited to 3L’s – to some project in the community, legal or otherwise. In Alabama, law students get a third year practice card to handle small legal matters in court – if you want to be a litigator, I don’t care how small the case was, I care that you took the initiative to get the card, not that you won or lost a case.

    If you love real estate law, offer to work for free in a setting that has work. If you love trial work, help out in the summer, or even in your law school city with a pro bono clinic. Anything – researching law, filing papers, anything.

    Remember though – GRADES first.

    • Aaron Street Aaron S. says:


      Respectfully, I think yours is terrible advice. There is no law student in the country that doesn’t start out trying to get top grades. By definition, 90% of law students will not be at the top of their class. For those 90% of students (and, frankly, even for students with top grades), understanding community leadership, marketing, professionalism AND branding, are the only way to succeed long-term in the legal profession.

      In your example, let’s say a student does graduate in the top of her class from a top law school (it’s certain they didn’t need blog advice to figure this path out), how do their top grades make them good at client service, building a referral network, or being a rainmaker?

  2. Avatar Eric A. F. Grigg says:

    Laura, I read both yours and Kevin’s posts and I have to say that I agree entirely. My only problem, from a 1L’s perspective, is that I have no idea what niche I want to establish myself in!

    Perhaps that’s a question of focus, but I also don’t want to close any doors at this point on my rather diverse interests. The solution, I suppose, is to go for something practice area agnostic, such as social media, but I still find the whole personal branding thing rather difficult for the average (undecided) law student to achieve.

  3. Avatar mark says:

    Hi Aaron. I asked my current law clerk if suggesting that a student focus on grades is “terrible advice.” He just laughed and said “it’s the grades that always matter.”

    You asked, “how do their top grades make them good at client service, building a referral network, or being a rainmaker?”

    They don’t. But, I will tell you that a newly minted lawyer in practical terms knows almost nothing about client service. I – or a managing partner – teach the client about client service. OR, they follow some of my “terrible advice” and use real hands on volunteering to get a sense of what it’s like to handle a client. I worked for a firm for three years, for a high end insurer, and was not permitted to talk to senior adjusters until I knew what I was doing. Had I been loosed on that carrier too soon, I would have likely messed up a long standing biz relationship built with trust and results.

    On being a rainmaker and on building a referral network – you have to IMHO – at least in my quaint little town of 5 million plus – have to have some level of results or expertise in order to build a referral network. Our practice is – be a better lawyer for the 1st year – then go out and make it rain. If you are a trial lawyer without any trials, does that instill confidence?

    You are the one mentioning top 10% not me. Read my very first numbered paragraph again.

    The simple reality is that for those under the top 50%, it is tough. For those at the bottom, there are many reasons they are there. Get me a top flight writing sample, coupled with real world experience, and I **may** look at someone in the 50-60% range. The brand? Hard work that shows in some type of real, concrete result.

  4. Sam Glover Sam G. says:

    Mark, your firm sounds very traditional, so I am not surprised at your hiring requirements. And, really, we all want competent graduates, but I also want graduates who are schemers, dreamers, and entrepreneurs. I want them to build their own thriving practice so that we all benefit, not impose my model on them.

    In order to find lawyers that meet my requirements, I all but ignore grades. Communication ability is paramount, but that includes blogging, legal writing, and the ability to explain a complex legal argument to a third grader (you know, just in case). I also look for people who seem like they understand how to build a network, and who have an idea how to turn that network into clients, conventionally (referrals) or—preferably—unconventionally.

    That is the brand a law student should strive for: excellent communication ability, out-of-the-box thinking (to borrow a dot-com cliche), and demonstrated networking ability.

  5. Avatar Todd Murray says:

    There’s no question that communication ability, creative thinking, and the ability to develop a network are valuable, if not essential, tools to building a practice. But is that really what traditional law firms are looking for in new associates? While I don’t agree with most of Mark’s points, I think the reality here is that many employers still use the same or similar criteria that Mark’s firm uses so his advice can’t be totally discounted.

  6. Avatar Steve M. says:

    The legal market is big and what works for one practice environment doesn’t always work for all. Mark’s perspective sounds the most traditional and that may be because his firm is organized more conventionally as to size, practice areas, structure, etc. For anyone wanting to work in a firm like his, I think his advice makes some sense. Particularly in a down hiring market, larger firms can afford to be as picky as they want to be.

    But that isn’t the end of the conversation. For lawyers and law students looking in less traditional environments (less traditional meaning not large or larger firm), there are many other ways to distinguish yourself outside of the traditional grades, law review, moot court criteria. That’s where being a personal entrepreneur comes in — and success requires that you leave your target market with a clear sense of who you are and what you bring to the table. Whatever you call it — brand, personal hallmark, professional reputation — has to be based on substance – real experience and a clear sense of how that translates to the needs of the hiring/practice market.

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