Individual attorney brand-building and law firm social media use have been frequent topics of conversation on this blog. Recently, I had the opportunity to co-write an article on “Enhance Personal Brand Equity With New Media,” with Acumen Solutions General Counsel Affie Ambrose and Computer Systems Center Inc. General Counsel/VP of Business and Corporate Affairs Brett Coffee. The following is an excerpt from that article, which initially ran in the July/August issue of the Association of Corporate Counsel’s ACC Docket magazine:

While the use (and potential abuse) of social media is widely discussed in in-house legal circles these days, not as much attention has been paid to the efficacy of social media as a personal branding tool for in-house counsel. This article addresses the emerging opportunity for in-house counsel to develop their professional reputations by establishing personal brands, and the new-media techniques that make it possible to quickly and efficiently enhance personal brand equity.

On the list of variables that lawyers like to control, professional reputation has always stood near the top. Some lawyers, particularly those in private practice, have gone beyond just guarding their reputations and have begun to actively promote them. This has not traditionally been the case with in-house lawyers, but with new expectations for them — the internal need to justify one’s position, to demonstrate business (and legal) acumen, to compete effectively with talented in-house and private-practice lawyers in a saturated legal marketplace, and to present oneself as a savvy business asset rather than a cost-center — it may be time to reconsider your market positioning. In short, you may want to consider creating and advancing a personal brand.

The concept of branding is familiar to all Americans. As Al Ries and Jack Trout point out in their book Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind, our nation has six percent of the world’s population, but we consume nearly 60 percent of the world’s advertising. We are sophisticated consumers, and companies know they can’t simply promulgate the features and benefits of their products — they need to capture our imaginations. As a result, branding has become not just product names, logos, taglines, designs, jingles, advertisements and so forth. Rather, branding has come to mean the promise, experience and feeling we will enjoy as a result of using a particular product or service. For example, think about your connotation of brands such as Volvo, Disney, Wal-Mart and Apple, to name just a few well-known companies with a clear and differentiated market position that engages the emotions and intellect of consumers.

A recent development in the world of branding is the emergence of personal brands. Just as companies use sophisticated tools to promote their brands, individuals have turned to the same tools to brand themselves. One needs only to reference names like “The Donald,” “Oprah” or “Lil Wayne” to understand how far individual branding concepts have progressed. While each of these individuals is a rare talent, it also is clear that they have invested heavily and intentionally in promoting a personal brand that has yielded them enormous equity, and all the rewards — psychological and financial — that come with it. An individual brand is, no doubt, a reflection of an individual’s reputation, style and appearance. But in each of the instances listed above, it is much more. Personal branding is the sophisticated and intentional use of communications tools to promote the promise, experience and feeling that we will derive from associating with the individual.

What does this have to do with lawyers? The expertise of commercial companies in branding has emerged over the last century and a half. Law firms have been replicating this for the last 15 years or so by aggressively pursuing institutional branding. Firms such as Orrick Herrington with its giant “O;” Morrison Foerster with its saucy MoFo nomenclature and spare website; and Womble Carlyle with its bulldog, Winston, all have pioneered institutional law-firm branding.

But, as most buyers of legal services attest, people buy individual lawyers, not law firms.

And so, while law firms have invested heavily in institutional branding to familiarize the broad market with name recognition, they have concurrently focused on the sub-brands that their individual lawyers represent. As John Hellerman phrased it in his March 21, 2011, Law360 article on individual branding, “Successful brand marketers, after all, build their campaigns around the products consumers buy, not the companies that own them. Eli Lilly doesn’t market Eli Lilly — it markets Cialis and Cymbalta. Kraft Foods doesn’t market Kraft Foods — it markets Chips Ahoy, A1 Steak Sauce and Crystal Light.”

Law firms are investing heavily in their lawyers’ personal brands because this is how individual reputations engage their target audience to influence buying decisions. In a parallel sense, in-house lawyers, who as part of their daily roles actively engage in furthering the institutional brands of their employers, also need to carve out some mind-share for themselves. After all, in-house counsel’s personal reputations influence their superiors, coworkers, customers, competitors, partners, and even the larger legal and business communities in which they are active. Developing and enhancing a personal brand will put the in-house lawyer in a position to better influence decision-making at all of these levels. Personal brands are reputations engaged, not stuck in a back office.

Reprinted with permission from the Association of Corporate Counsel 2011 All Rights Reserved