Lawyers competing for clients in today’s cut-throat market know this to be true: It’s noisy out there. Competitors are thumping their chests and shouting “I’m an expert” to anyone who will listen across the internet and social media. At the same time, and likely as a result of all the bravado, clients are becoming increasingly discerning. They’re seeking out real experts, not self-proclaimed ones.
For lawyers willing to put in the work, this set of circumstances shouldn’t raise an alarm — it should be seen as a massive opportunity. Today’s landscape is ripe for thought leadership marketing that can help you stand out amid all the noise.
What Is a Thought Leader?
A lawyer who is a thought leader is an industry expert who shares his or her expertise with a target market (often members of an industry vertical) for the purpose of educating, inspiring and increasing business performance. Thought leaders immerse themselves in industries and learn everything there is to know about how legal solutions align with business challenges. They stay on top of what members of their industry are focused on and, more importantly, they see what’s coming next.
Here’s an important reason to become a thought leader: Clients are looking for them. The first stop for any prospective client in search of an answer to a legal question is online. If you can inject yourself into the conversation with answers to difficult questions, you are more likely to be top of mind when the client’s search for answers turns into a search for counsel.
Positioning Yourself as a Thought Leader
By writing, speaking and otherwise sharing insights that are tailored and contextualized for a particular audience, you can build authority and influence, and position yourself as someone worth paying attention to.
The alternative is to remain quiet and hope to be picked like the proverbial needle in a haystack. A far better approach is to craft a reputation as the go-to expert in your domain.
But … It’s Not Up to You to Decide
If you spend any time online, you’ve undoubtedly noticed that more and more people are claiming the mantle of “thought leader” or “expert” in this or that. These terms have become the new “hero” or “brilliant” or “genius” — overused and increasingly irrelevant epithets that are easy to ignore, especially when they’re self-proclaimed. But that’s OK. Again, when there’s noise and overreach there’s greater opportunity for those who do the hard work to stand out for the right reasons. Accordingly, it’s more important than ever to actually be an expert and to show — not tell — how your expertise solves the problems of those you hope to serve.
Mark Herrmann (who I profile in my new book for his prolific content marketing prowess) puts it well in his article “3 Thoughts on Thought Leadership“:
“You’re a thought leader only when people follow you. When your articles are cited by others, when your proposals become federal regulations, when what you’ve written has had impact, then you’re a thought leader. Until then, you’re just another guy who has occasionally gotten his name in print. The difference between publishing something and being a thought leader is the difference between trying (which is better than nothing) and succeeding.”
Five Steps to Thought Leadership
So you want to be a thought leader-lawyer? Here are steps to get started:
Define your audience. Thought leaders don’t try to communicate with everyone. They choose a small audience with common interests and concerns and speak directly to its members. They define a nichenot only for their practice but also for their thought leadership efforts, and over time come to be seen as a valuable resource. Instead of being perceived as an outsider who’s looking to crash the party, a thought leader is welcomed as a trusted advisor who’s looking to add value to the conversation happening within an industry.
Share your wisdom. Don’t just report what is happening — shape the narrative. Take the time to think deeply about the issues and go beyond the case summaries, statutory updates and surface-level analyses others are producing. Don’t describe what happened, explain its implications to your target market. Many lawyers are fearful of freely giving away their best stuff. Like George Costanza in a classic “Seinfeld” episode, do the opposite and put it all out there. Prospective clients aren’t looking to do the work themselves. They’re looking to hire the most qualified expert for the job.
Find your voice. Loosen up. Be lively. Write in the first person. Show some personality. Just because the law tends to be a dry subject doesn’t mean you need to be. The “noise” is full of boring, technical, jargon-filled, personality-lacking prose. You’ll stand out by breaking free of conventional restraints and injecting your writing with a bit of punch and pizazz.
Be consistent. Thought leadership never ends. It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon. Thought leadership requires consistency. Don’t aim for big hits. Big hits rarely happen, and even when they do, their impact can quickly fade. Publishing one article on a big platform may get you lots of “likes” on social media but that’s about it. Thought leaders continue to show up. As Seth Godin says, it’s the constant “drip, drip, drip” that matters.
Be generous and cultivate a following. No one becomes a thought leader on their own. As Mark Herrmann explained, “You’re only a thought leader when people follow you.” And as with any leader, people will only willingly follow you if you’re a generous (thought) leader. Build connections on social media and engage. Share, like and comment on other people’s content. Share your wisdom freely. Be helpful. Be responsive. Do these things consistently and people will follow … and then work will follow.