Branding and Reputation | Updated

Branding and reputation are different ways of making ourselves known to others; the difference between them is night and day.

To me:

Branding is what we tell others about ourselves.

Reputation is what others say about us.

Enough has been written and sold about branding so I don’t intend to deal with it. I will simply sum up branding as – all the ways we tell others about ourselves and what we do with the ultimate goal of selling ourself or our service. Branding, as it is practiced here and now, demands our face, our smiles, our firm logo, our firm motto, and everything to do with us, the organization and the work we do as grist for the marketing mill.

I never liked branding because I do not like talking myself up (not there is much to talk up), or touting whatever meagre success I think I achieved, or writing about myself in third person. I think it uncouth for a professional to be talking up and too often about themselves because their work should speak for them. I feel it beneath a professional’s dignity to hawk themselves like some seller would some cheap wares by the side of a busy but indifferent road – loud, gaudy, distasteful but certainly noticeable. Self-deprecation, however, is welcomed and encouraged.

As lawyers, I feel our work and presence, though critical, should remain inconspicuous and discreet like the client information we keep. As lawyers, our recommendations should pass from mouth to ear, not by an email blast to eyeballs or social media; a lawyer’s work is based on trust, so a recommendation about a lawyer should issue from a relationship of trust. Even though we have a plethora of examples to the contrary, lawyers are supposed to possess discernment, which is best paired with discretion.

As lawyers, we should aim to build a reputation, not create a brand. They may look the same from the outside – the heightening of one’s profile, but their underpinnings within differ radically; branding is about creating a commercial relationship whereas reputation is about building a trust relationship.

There are also three reasons why I think branding, as I have described it, is inappropriate for lawyers. Firstly, branding is advertisement or an endorsement of one’s self in some way. That is not allowed under the following rule:

An Advocate and Solicitor shall not advertise or endorse any product, goods or services in his/her capacity as an Advocate and Solicitor nor shall such Advocate and Solicitor appear in or be mentioned in any such advertisements or endorsements in his/her capacity as an Advocate and Solicitor or described as an Advocate and Solicitor.

Rule 5.16 of the Bar Council’s Rules and Rulings

Lawyers cannot endorse or advertise anything. A lawyer should not be endorsing themselves but there is nothing to stop clients endorsing their preferred lawyers. In fact, that is how reputation works – client’s endorsing their lawyers.

Secondly, and it flows from the first, the branding lawyer would be in a conflict of interest position; after all, he is endorsing himself! How credible is that? You might as well ask his mother for a recommendation. Be warned the lawyer (or anyone) that claims to be the best at whatever it is he claims to be able to do; the best do not need to make such crass claims because their work (and the accompanying bill) speaks for them.

Thirdly, as I have alluded to earlier, branding is incompatible with the dignity and high standing of the legal profession. We, Malaysian lawyers, are under a duty to uphold those two things under rule 31 of the Legal Profession (Practice and Etiquette) Rules 1978 (“the Rules”). Branding is incompatible with dignity and high standing of the profession.

Now I have made a difference between the two and how one should prefer building a reputation over branding, but what do I mean by that phrase?

Reputation begins with other people; their needs, their problems, their anxieties and completes with us finding a solution or a resolution to their problems and anxieties. The accumulation of what other people say is our reputation. And by reputation, I am referring to a good one.

It is from this scaffolding that our reputation is built. If we did a good job or piece of work, we have a foundation in place to build a relationship of trust, not simply a commercial-legal one; now they actually trust us from a credibility (the client trusts us) and competency (the client trusts us to do the work) perspective. Given their first hand experience of us and our performance, they are likelier to and be more confident about recommending us to their family, friends or colleagues should the need arise and come back to us when required.

So building a reputation means bringing the best version of our professional self for each case, but also for each unit of interaction whether it is with the client, a court staff, an interpreter, a police officer or a judge. We should bring the fullness of our experience, expertise, insight, and mindfulness to bear in all our interactions. That is simply what we should be doing as a professional anyway – giving our best for the case. The better we do our work, the likelier people will tell others about it.

Sometimes reputation is built from declining a piece of work or job. For example, if we are not competent in a particular area of law, we should say so to the prospective client. More often than not they will appreciate our candour. We may have to refer the work out but we would have built a little bit of reputation from that instance of honesty.

I like to think of reputation as a canvas where each brushstroke is each and every interaction, action, inaction, every letter, Whatsapp and email read and responded to, every shared emotion, every gesture made and reciprocated, each and every case, application or trial we win or lose, and so on. Each interaction with another in our professional life is a brushstroke; each one a tiny fraction of our reputation. If we have a good idea what the image on the canvas is, that will purposefully direct each brushstroke.

All those brushstrokes are not simply to manifest the best version of ourselves, it is hoped that it would, more importantly, build and maintain all those trust based relationships formed whilst the canvas was painted. As lawyers, trust is built with the twin pillars of credibility and competency; if that is demonstrated then trustworthiness is built. Trustworthiness is the frame for the canvas of our reputation.

That is why, in the creating a brand is short term but establishing a reputation is long term and reputation emanates from others from a trust position. Building a reputation is more sustainable and lasting in the long run compared to branding because it simply requires us to do the job as well as we can each and every time instead of promoting ourselves at each and every turn, instead of relying on loose talk and empty boasts.

Some may criticize such an approach as passive and unlikely to generate enough income (whatever that amount is), but that is the role of  lawyer – to be called upon, not otherwise. This is reflected in the following rule:

Rule 2. Obligation of advocate and solicitor to give advice on or accept any brief.

An advocate and solicitor shall give advice on or accept any brief in the Courts in which he professes to practise at the proper professional fee dependent on the length and difficulty of the case, but special circumstances may justify his refusal, at his discretion, to accept a particular brief.

Rule 2 of the Legal Profession (Practice and Etiquette) Rules 1978

This is a general rule that a lawyer must accept any case or give advice for an appropriate fee to anyone that appoints them unless there are special circumstances that justify him declining. Those  special circumstances are set out in Rules 3 to 6 of the Rules.

This rule makes statutory with modifications to the cab rank rule, which is a practice amongst barristers in England. That rule states that a barrister is like a cab in a rank that must take whomever steps into his cab. And like a cab in a rank, a lawyer is called upon to work; it is not a lawyer’s place to demand legal work from the general public.

What is the advantage of building a reputation over branding?

There are five reasons. Firstly, what others say of us has more credibility compared to what we insist about ourselves. Secondly, it is cheaper in the long run – instead of constantly telling others about ourselves, we have others doing that for us, for free. Thirdly, it provides an incentive to ensure we constantly keep the quality of our work and interactions at an optimum professional level. Fourthly, building a reputation is less personally intrusive compared to building a brand. Finally, a reputation is built primarily from our personal efforts and engagements with others, which does not require a lot of money; but it requires a lot of heart. Branding is built primarily from a budget and our predisposition for narcissism.

Lawyers and law firms should build reputations, not brands.

Postscript: Soon after posting the piece, Izral Khairy, a long time friend and lawyer, told me he disagreed with my view and explained why in his Whatsapp to me. I thought his perspective interesting and worth posting up to give a perspective from someone who runs a medium sized firm (16 lawyers strong).

“I must apologise but I differ from your view. Because the creation of a branding is for the law firm and not the individual lawyer. So that all the lawyers in that firm would enjoy the branding attached to that brand. Branding is not at all important to the figureheads and leaders of the firm – that’s reputation. However, for the perception to the clients when dealing with juniors – because that would happen from time to time. I am of the view that branding would be important. Hence your article is correct and true for smaller practices but it would not apply to large firms. And I would not like your article to be discounted just because it does not take into account the size of the practice. [Your article] would still not apply for the small practices who are introduced to a potential large dispute when the client is shopping around. If the smaller firms are competing against the big boys, then branding becomes important.”

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