Branding, reputation, and compatibility with the legal profession — some quick thoughts

This is a compilation of a Twitter thread in which I shared my quick views in response to a post by my friend Fahri Azzat on his blog on branding, reputation, and lawyers: Branding and Reputation. I highly recommend you read his post and subscribe to his blog. You can also read my original thread by clicking here.

A delightful and thought-provoking read, eloquently expressed as always by my buddy Fahri / @LBminion1. And seemingly at odds with his earlier post about the future lawyer and embracing of technology. /1

As I read through it, I couldn’t help but be reminded of that divide that has always been there since I commenced my pupillage — the corporate/litigation divide. Or, more accurately, the litigation and non-litigation divide. /2

I remember my pupil master telling me (when I decided to remain in the corporate department instead of going through the usual rotation to the litigation department, having received an offer to be retained early in pupillage: “But if you don’t go to court, you’re not a proper lawyer”. /3

There’s always been this divide, and I think this also leads to this divide between how Fahri and I think of branding/reputation. Fahri also aligns with the English idea of what a lawyer should be — lawyers in the European/US traditions adopt a very different stance. /4

I’ve never identified with the romantic idea of the profession being “dignified” / “high-standing” (by inference “more dignified” / “better than” other professions). Many litigators hide behind this facade, but indulge in bullying and politicking. But that’s going off course. /5

This cute idea that lawyers are somehow more refined/dignified/ethical/etc than other professionals/laypersons has long outlived its time. And a majority of the Bar’s rules/rulings are so achingly outdated, it’s quite embarrassing. /6

Lawyers provide a legal service, and it’s no more special than most other services. I expect all professionals to act ethically/professionally. /7

Back to branding/reputation. It’s always been the case that litigators know each other (or know of each other), while not knowing much about non-litigators. And non-litigators don’t really know each other as much. This has a lot to do with how lawyers socialise. /8

Litigators have always socialised more with each other. In court/canteen, over drinks — and almost always talking about law (this case/judge), or other lawyers (zzz). It’s not uncommon for a very successful and well-respected corporate lawyer to be unknown to a litigator. /9

I can see how, in that litigation ecosystem, “reputation” works. After all, they like talking about cases, and about each other. But this totally doesn’t work in a non-litigation context. And the mistake many litigators make is assuming that litigation = legal practice. /10

Having said that, there is a line to be drawn. We’ve seen in recent years the rise of many dodgy law firm marketing tactics. Particularly offensive are the awards/recognitions which lawyers/firms simply pay to receive. /11

This practice of paying for awards has bled into the legal industry from the entrepreneurial space. But most clients can’t differentiate between the genuine and purely-paid ones, and may think that a small practice could genuinely be one of the “Best Law Firms in Asean”. /12

But I’m glad that there are more options available for lawyers to build their brand, and reputation. I believe there’s space for all sorts of lawyers to exist/thrive. I’ve heard litigators mock lawyers (particularly conveyancing lawyers) who have a poor command of English. /13

But these litigators don’t realise (or perhaps do, but enjoy mocking others anyway), that those lawyers don’t need to be good advocates. There are lots of different markets (work, clients) out there — and not all Malaysian clients require lawyers with impeccable English! /14

In terms of reputation-building, I’ve been told all sorts. As a pupil, partners told me: “How can you be a successful lawyer if you don’t golf? Deals are made on the golf course!”. And the same was said about not making a habit of entertaining clients over drinks/karaoke. /15

I’ve had the privilege of being asked by many lawyers (young and not-so) about my views on branding/marketing, and my advice has always been to do what comes most naturally. And don’t pay those dodgy awards/rankings sites. /16

But the priority of course should always be: Do good work. Hone your craft/service.

And I suppose in this way, Fahri and I are quite aligned after all: Focus on your craft, and the trust/reputation will follow. /17

But I do believe that there is still something (much) that can be done beyond honing your craft as a lawyer, and that Fahri’s conclusion that “branding is built primarily from a budget and our predisposition for narcissism” is a little outdated, or perhaps simply overstated. /18

There is, and should be, room in this world for varied approaches to building a good legal practice. Just because something isn’t for you, doesn’t mean that it’s wrong or objectionable. /19

I’ll end by saying that these are just some quick thoughts that came to mind and flowed out onto Twitter having read Fahri’s post. There has been no deep contemplation or refining/drafting of these views, and it’s not meant to be a comprehensive response to the post. /20

Conversations with Fahri (and, when unable to have conversations, reading his posts) are the best, as they are always thought-provoking.

He has provoked 21 tweets from me.

And, to quote Billie Eilish: “I think, therefore I am”. 😛


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