The pathological way in which some firms put the brakes on any form of creative expression in the name of “keeping it professional” is ultimately destructive.
Yes I said it – destructive.
As in – ka-boom.
I'm Not Against Being Professional
Let's start with the obvious: I'm a lawyer, and I understand what that entails.
I'm not against wearing a suit (except in Brisbane mid-summer – crikey!)
I'm not against impressing clients.
And I'm not in favour of total insanity reigning throughout the office, with everyone live streaming drunken antics while hanging upside down from your carefully branded lobby decorations.
But with those things in mind, the “professional image” lie that your firm continues to insist on telling is doing you massive harm.
#1 – Your Image is a Lie
There's this funny thing that happens with the “internet lawyer” versus the “real life lawyer”.
The “real life” lawyer is encouraged to be friendly, approachable and colloquial. Creating connections in real life requires these things, and law is mostly about human connection. Relationships are formed and clients secured over lunch, coffee, drinks and personal connection. They are rarely secured by determining who wore the best looking suit or the least appealing tie.
Confusingly though, as soon as we hit the internets, the “keep it professional” policy requires that we adjust ourselves to fit the firm image and brand.
All of a sudden we become a boring, wooden parody of ourselves. A bland grey version of ourselves with smoothed out edges, which sharply contrasts the colourful array that we really are.
It's a pretence.
And people can spot a pretence a mile off. They usually don't like it.
#2 – It's Boring as All Getout
For many firms, the phrase “professional image” actually just means “boring and inoffensive to everyone”.
In a world of a trillion websites and a billion billion blog posts* and articles, “boring and inoffensive” is invisible.
Why would I bother spending my precious time on boring? Even if I'm after information, I want you to present it in a way that's both informative and interesting.
Yep – it's usually possible.
Sure, I've written plenty of boring articles in my time, and I've done a bunch of boring videos too. But I like to think that's not because I did it on purpose, but because I was still practising.
*the accuracy of these numbers is not guaranteed
#3 – It Stifles Activity
Here's a little skit for you:
Person 1: “What's the best way to get our lawyers marketing regularly?”
Person 2: “I know – let's make a bunch of policies telling them what they can't do – that will make it clear and they'll be good to go“.
This is a common and sure fire way to get every one of your employees to throw their marketing efforts straight in the too hard basket, and then claim that they're too busy to do anything.
Hot tip: they're not too busy – they just can't be stuffed wading through all the rules and hoop jumping before posting a couple of lines on LinkedIn.
#4 – It Ignores the True Depth of your Firm
I understand that your firm might have a long and illustrious history, and I respect that.
But the power of your firm doesn't lie in its history: it lies in its people. It's current people.
Your firm doesn't have a single brand anymore, and nobody expects it to.
Your firm has as many brands as it has people that are prepared to speak. The way your receptionist addresses visitors, the way your personal injuries practitioners track down work, and even that one person who insists on wearing odd socks.
Each of these mini-brands is an opportunity – to connect with more people in different ways, to show depth and complexity, and to display that your firm is truly unique.
The professional image mantra kills these opportunities stone dead. It trends your firm towards to middle. The safe, but ultimately same-ish, middle.
#5 – It's a Morale Killer
Lawyering is a pretty tough job across the board.
If you add into it this strange situation where lawyers are expected to be Person A in the office, Person B out of the office, Person C for the “professional online image” and Person D for the “personal online image” – it gets both confusing and frustrating.
If you've hired people of quality that you trust with million dollar transactions, client disputes and drafting of important documents – then why can't you just trust that expressing their personality in their articles, profiles and online presence is not likely to cause a huge drama?
Your lawyers know when you don't trust them. It's not a nice feeling.
#6 – It Makes for Poor Content
Any successful web marketing strategy is going to be driven by content to some extent.
And if your content is always boring then your efforts are almost certainly going to fail.
It doesn't mean you should be less informative – it means you should let your writers' personalities leak through a bit. Even boring practice areas have hope here.
Take how you'd explain something in real life, and throw it onto the paper – warts, anecdotes and all. You'd be amazed how much more personable you seem when you're not writing law school case notes in the form of “timely updates“.
#7 – It Hides your Firm Among the Masses
Your marketing efforts are supposed to distinguish you from the competition, right?
And yet, if I go to your firm's website and replace a couple of words and a logo here and there, I'm going to bet that the vast majority of firms are totally indistinguishable from each other.
- Colour: blue, green, black, white, bluey-green, greeny-blue or some combination of these
- Logo: Stylised letters of some kind or an abstract shape that looks sophisticated
- Blog page: updates on recent legislation or cases (complete with citations)
- Lawyer profiles: our lawyers are practical, commercial trusted advisors in [field] who work with [industry]. Their recent matters include [something fancy sounding].
Take a look around.
Some firms don't fall afoul of the bland trap.
But most of us are afraid. Afraid to be ourselves in case we scare people away.
Which leads to this…
Redefining What's Professional
The issues here aren't actually about what's professional.
They're about what's safe.
We use language like “professional image” but in reality we're just afraid that somebody might think less of us if they saw us as we really were.
I think it's time we redefined what's professional or not. It's time we let our hard working lawyers decide who they want to be, rather than dictating it to them.
It might be scary at first.
But it's worth it.