When we think of our reputation as lawyers, we focus on what others (clients, colleagues, judges) think of us. Concern about what others think about our credibility, knowledge, capacity, competence, and even intelligence can create loops of insecurity and distract us from what is important.
However, depending on other people’s opinions for building your reputation is just giving control away. Letting other people control what being a lawyer should look like, or how you should behave, leads to discontent for all involved. Perhaps being a reputable lawyer requires a different approach.
Since we cannot please all people all the time, building our reputation has to come from expressing ourselves from the inside. By being authentic and genuine about how you want to be seen, you can feel confident that your reputation is truly yours. Ultimately, your reputation is not about what others think of you, but what you think of yourself.
Here are three steps to build and maintain your reputation as a lawyer:
1. Set realistic expectations and meet them.
As over-achievers, lawyers want to go above and beyond. We want to help every client and win every case. We may want to instill confidence in our clients and have them trust us by touting our wins in dollar amounts. While describing your experience and competence, of course you can talk about similar cases. On the other hand, each case is unique and we can never ethically make promises of results.
I know you already know this – but what if you were honest from the beginning of the case? When you are vulnerable with your clients and lay out your realistic assessment of the case, you are building credibility. By setting clear realistic expectations for your clients, and then meeting (or exceeding) them, you develop credibility and elicit trust.
2. Admit (and fix) mistakes.
Lawyers don’t want to talk about making mistakes. It is the dirty secret of our profession – that we are not perfect! As a young lawyer, I suffered unnecessary pain of agonizing over mistakes I made due to inexperience. And then when I had staff and they made mistakes, I lived the horror over again.
Over time, I have come to accept that yes, even excellent lawyers make mistakes. The facts and law are constantly in flux, and we do our best to keep on top of it. Some lawyers live in fear of having to return legal fees or for being sued for such mistakes.
And, honestly, what all people want, especially your clients, is that you are honest with them. So admit your mistakes and fix them immediately. In the handful of times I was in this position, I apologized to my clients directly and told them about the issue and how I would fix it. In each situation, my reputation and trust with them was actually enhanced.
3. Be consistent.
Our profession is constantly changing and our job is to keep up the best that we can. It is tempting to want to reinvent yourself with each new shiny object. However, people crave consistency. Your clients want you to be you. That is what will make them come back and refer people to you. And lawyers want to have integrity. And the essence of integrity, which is fundamentally being whole, is to be you from the inside, regardless of outside pressures.
Building and maintaining a reputation as a credible and experienced lawyer with integrity requires that you search inside for those qualities and let others see them. After all, your reputation is not about others think of you, but what you allow them to see about you.