In This Business, Your Reputation Is Everything

It is no secret that that there is often a negative stereotype when it comes to lawyers. Negative lawyer jokes abound and behind those jokes is the reality of the public perception of our profession.

In fact, the American Bar Association issued an all-inclusive report on the public perception of lawyers in America using surveys and focus groups (1). The results showed both positive and negative perceptions.

The positives included Americans sensing that attorneys are knowledgeable about the law and the majority felt they were represented well by lawyers. Many of those surveyed reported that the legal profession is considered a respectable career.

However, the study also revealed many negative perceptions about lawyers including beliefs that lawyers are often greedy, manipulative and corrupt. Those surveyed reported that the lawyers were not upfront about their fees, overcharged for their services, took too long to resolve cases and were unresponsive.

As lawyers, how does this negative stereotype play into building our businesses and our reputations?

Last week, my wife, who is a social worker and also handles my marketing, attended a seminar presented by a well-known psychologist whose practice focuses on counseling people going through high- conflict divorces. My wife felt that most of his statements relating to his clients’ attorneys were negative and bordered on lawyer bashing. She shared her observations with several of the other therapist attendees, and many seemed to agree with the speaker. From the therapists’ perspectives, the ethical attorneys and “good ones” are few and far between. These therapists stated that most are interested in keeping their cases going to earn higher fees and side with whoever is paying the bills.

This brings me to my own philosophy that my personal integrity and ethical reputation define me and are some of my biggest selling features. I convey to my clients that I am honest and aboveboard. From the start, I avoid making promises that I can’t keep. I don’t set up unrealistic expectations in order to be hired on a case. Although being honest can cost you clients, many hire an attorney because they believe they are being told the truth, not just what they want to hear.

All of us can exhibit the positive characteristics of attorneys, helping breakdown negative stereotypes. Below are some tips that can help you improve your client relationships while simultaneously growing your business and hopefully positively impacting our profession.

1. Make integrity a core value of your professional life. This means always doing the right thing whether or not it is profitable.

2. Surround yourself with good people. Your reputation is shaped by the people you associate yourself with. Do your partners and associates share your values?

3. Provide quality work. The details do matter.

4. Don’t give false hope or promises. Stay away from the “win at all cost” mentality. Be realistic when talking to clients.

5. Communicate with your clients and listen to them. Keep them informed of the status of their cases and the fees that have been incurred.

6. Build trust. The key to building relationships is building trust. Keep your word,do what you say you will do. Clients will continue to call you after their case is over if they trust you. And they also will refer their friends to you.

7. Have a sense of urgency. If your client has an emergency, make it your emergency. If it is only a perceived emergency, help defray your client’s anxieties.

We should all be proud of what we do and what lawyers have done for society. Lawyers have had a profoundly positive effect on the world we live in. We challenge the status quo, defend the unpopular, contribute to the rule of law and fight for justice. I could fill this publication and many others with examples of lawyers who changed the world, but I’ll only give a few examples.

One of the most important documents ever written for our country is the Declaration of Independence, primarily authored by Thomas Jefferson, a lawyer. One of the most famous speeches was the Gettysburg Address given by Abraham Lincoln, a lawyer. One of the most influential fighters for civil rights was Mahatma Gandhi, a lawyer. And finally, and only because I’m given a limit on the length of my column, one of America’s landmark cases, Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka was championed by Thurgood Marshall, a lawyer, who later become a U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice.

Your own personal reputation is the key to your success. Having integrity and a strong reputation for being an honorable attorney goes a long way and will pay you back many times over.

1. Sara Parikh, et al, ABA Sec. Lit., Public Perceptions of Lawyers Consumer Research Findings (ABA 2002)