Career and marketing coaches counsel lawyers to become thought leaders. Thought leaders are experts in their niche. They provide guidance to others through books, articles, and speeches usually sponsored by third parties. They also self-publicize through social media, podcasts, YouTube videos, and blogs. Once on this cycle, high-profile experts receive invitations to share their knowledge, which in turn magnify their reputation resulting in more invitations.
For lawyers, being perceived as an expert enhances their ability to attract clients and referrals. It may also accelerate promotion within a law firm. But expertise and thought leadership are not the same thing.
What is thought leadership? Let’s break it down.
The Thought Part
Maybe you go about your daily practice conceiving better ways to build the proverbial legal mousetrap. Thought leaders conceive innovative ways to resolve issues. They recognize new legal needs and are able to connect the dots between seemingly unrelated causes and effects before other people do. Thought leaders are among the first to inform others about and analyze new developments. We generally think of attorney thought leaders as communicating to an audience of other lawyers, or possibly to a well-defined corporate niche.
The Leadership Part
You may have the greatest ideas in the world for effective, efficient practice. But if nobody knows about your ideas, it’s as if you didn’t have them in the first place. Leaders have followers.
Leading means that other people can learn from you. The difference between a thought leader and another attorney is the leader’s ability to attract notice to their ideas. That takes a significant amount of time and effort. It requires a plan.
The Business Issue
Who do you want to communicate to? Prospects such as would-be personal injury plaintiffs, middle-class divorcing spouses, and wrongfully terminated employees do want to hire an expert. But they don’t base their choice on who published a scholarly article about tax ramifications. They are more likely to choose representation based on a YouTube video explaining basic legal concepts.
Theda “Teddy” Snyder mediates civil disputes, worker’s compensation, and insurance coverage cases. She has practiced in a variety of settings and frequently speaks and writes about settlements and the business of law. She was a Fellow of the College of Law Practice Management and is the author of four ABA books, including Women Rainmakers’ Best Marketing Tips, 4th Edition. This article was first published in AttorneyAtWork (July 2021).
The same holds true for most types of legal practice. Clients say they choose lawyers based on the lawyer’s experience in the practice area, ability to communicate with them, and fee structure. They don’t care whether the lawyer handled a precedent-setting appellate case. Rather, your daily work in the legal trenches handling this type of case is paramount.
Most lawyers want fulfilling work that provides income for their families and sufficient work-life balance. Some lawyers, particularly lawyers who serve a consumer client base, have little interest in writing scholarly articles, speaking at law conferences, or writing books. They might be interested in television advertising, Google ads, or Facebook posts.
Building a practice depends on word-of-mouth referrals from past clients. Professional referrals will likely come from attorneys with whom you have a relationship, such as having been law school classmates or having worked together (or as opponents!) in a case. While some attorneys may refer business to you based on seeing you speak at a conference, unless a matter turns on a difficult point of law you addressed, that speech will probably not produce referral of a garden-variety case.
Your Law Practice
Perhaps you enjoy the prestige of the limelight. Our profession needs people like you. But don’t feel bad about not taking that route. Providing quality representation to a steady stream of clients is an honorable, remunerative profession. You don’t need to justify being a follower instead of a leader.
» Cite this article: 94 Wis. Law. 53-54 (November 2021).