Excerpted and adapted from Personal Branding in One Hour for Lawyers by Katy Goshtasbi, published by the ABA Law Practice Division.
How many times have you attended a crowded bar association event where it seemed every lawyer in attendance was wearing a blue or black suit? How many times have you left gatherings, such as those bar association events, where everyone and everything seemed like a blur? In a sea of sameness as lawyers, learn how to stand out from the crowd.
What Is Visual Branding?
Visual branding is about how you show up for others visually. In other words, we are talking about your actual appearance. Your appearance is only about 20 percent of the personal branding package that we are working to create, but nevertheless it’s an important piece. When you are at a crowded bar association or other networking event, are you wearing something that will make people stop and take notice of you in a positive way? Or do you choose to be invisible and blend into the background? Another good way of thinking about your visual brand is to keep asking yourself, “Does my attire and appearance bring me profit?”
Who Cares? I Am a Bright Lawyer
This is where some lawyers start rolling their eyes. They think visual branding is fluff and, therefore, unimportant. After all, no lawyer signed on to the profession to make a fashion statement.
No one can actually disagree with that thinking. Let’s face it: as lawyers we are very smart individuals. We have had tons of education and we are proud of it. We should be proud.
However, we also need to realize that society is visual and we are walking billboards for our practices. Why do you think retail clothing stores and clothing designers spend so much money each year marketing to everyone, including lawyers? While it is so much easier for us to stress our academic achievements and our educational backgrounds over everything else, we need to remember our visual brand.
Once you have a good idea of what you want to be known for and what personal brand you want to exude, your exterior needs to match. We need to understand that the packaging overlaying our brilliance matters because people buy our uniqueness before they ever buy our products or services. Lawyers refer business to one another, so it is important to stand out. This entire chapter is devoted to the concept because it is that important.
Once we see each other, it takes a very short time for you and me to decide if we want to get to know each other better. That’s called a first impression. And according to the results of a scientific study, new experiences that contradict a first impression are valid only in the new context. Otherwise, my first impressions still dominate and influence my perception of you regardless of where they were originally formed.  So if I can’t reflect on another context in which I’ve met you (and hopefully had a positive impression of you), then my initial, and perhaps negative, impression of you persists indefinitely.
Before I will ever come to understand your brilliance and education—that is, buy your credibility—I have to first decide to approach you and talk to you. This decision is based on what I see of you. If you catch my attention in a crowded room, you are halfway to making a good connection with me.
Once I have noticed you and learned about your education and experience, which makes you credible for me, I am apt to buy your services. This is a model you cannot end-run. In other words, it is impossible to go from invisible to profitable.
Let’s use a very basic example to illustrate this point. All else being equal (i.e., you do not personally know the following two people described), whom would you rather be alone with in an elevator late at night: a tall, unshaven male with dark, drab, baggy clothing or a tall, well-groomed man with a light-colored, well-fitted suit?
If you are still skeptical, that is natural. Stop and take notice of who is getting more attention at the next networking event you attend—the person in the boring blue suit or the person wearing something in a more interesting color and pattern.
Do You Look Like You Are Good at Being a Lawyer?
Who would you rather hire to perform IT services for your business: Tech Guy One, who shows up at your office with pressed khaki pants, a crisp and clean white shirt and polished shoes, hair combed and finger-nails groomed, or Tech Guy Two, whose khakis and shirt are wrinkled and food stained and whose hair and nails have yet to see a decent grooming?
The answer seems obvious—we would all rather hire Tech Guy One. But what if I told you that Tech Guy Two is much more qualified, has lower rates, and can provide you with better service? Well, you would then be more likely to want to hire Tech Guy Two. However, you may be hard-pressed to believe that Tech Guy Two is a better fit for you. In other words, I would probably have to show you proof to back up my claim regarding his expertise. Why is that? The answer is because Tech Guy Two does not look like he is able to outperform Tech Guy One.
As a society, we make judgments based on the visual packages we see of one another. It is very natural and normal and is done every day—to you and by you. If you think that your visual brand and appearance do not affect how people perceive your ability to provide quality legal counsel, think again.
Another interesting phenomenon is that if you look the part, you will feel better and produce better results. This is not about showing up everywhere in a fancy suit all the time. People often like to disagree on this concept, too. They are mainly the lawyers who prefer to work from home in their sweats and fuzzy slippers, or the casual Silicon Valley lawyers who run around in flip-flops and torn jeans.
Take Patrick, for example. Patrick was a managing partner of a national law firm. His main issue was that he no longer enjoyed his job. In addition, he wanted to learn more about national marketing and brand development for himself and for his firm. Patrick recognized that to do so, he had to start at the top with himself. He quickly recognized that he had a decent grasp of marketing. His biggest issue was that he no longer enjoyed his job because somewhere in his thirty years at the firm, he had lost sight of his purpose (i.e., personal brand) for servicing clients and representing his firm. His issue exhibited itself most strongly (and negatively) in his visual branding. He rarely bothered to consider the importance of his visual brand as a method to motivate other firm lawyers and represent his personal brand as well as that of his firm.
There is no other way to prove this concept to you other than for you to test it out. One workday, put on your best comfortable and professional attire, even if you have no clients to meet. See how much better you tend to perform and what kind of work you tend to produce. This includes how you come across on the telephone. You should see a big difference from the days you work in your sweats or your jeans.
The Virginia Board of Bar Examiners still requires people who sit for the bar examination to dress in professional attire. This includes dresses or suits for women and suits and ties for men. This does not necessarily mean that the other states without this requirement do not produce accomplished or professional lawyers. It just goes to show that the concept of visual branding shows up in many places for similar reasons.
How to Work on Your Visual Brand
First, please realize no one is asking you to look like someone out of GQ or Vogue magazine. In fact, an important premise is that you are comfortable in what you wear. Yet please understand that to have a dynamic personal brand you need to stretch yourself beyond your comfort zone and boundaries and develop on all fronts, including the visual brand front. While you cannot completely control others’ perceptions of your personal brand, the easiest way to have some control is by dressing in a way that guides their big picture of you and your personal brand.
Remember, small visual changes work just as well as big ones. You don’t have to change the world to stand out and be memorable. This applies equally to men and women, albeit women’s wardrobe choices lend themselves a bit more to the process. It can be a shirt that is a little different in color or style than everyone else’s; it can be a pair of more interesting shoes (suede, newer style, etc.); it can be a bolder/colorful necklace, scarf, or earrings for women, or a belt or cuff links for men. All that matters is that your item catches someone’s eye, draws the person to you because of the warmth and energy it gives off, and leads to a meaningful interaction with that person.
Visual branding is not rocket science. However, it is difficult for many lawyers to master because they may lack the self-confidence to own and carry off a visual brand. Even if you are good at putting clothing together, consider investing in a stylist. There are plenty of them out there, and they are not hired only by actors. Just remember, a stylist is not necessarily going to have a complete grasp of your personal branding goal and your purpose in dressing differently. So if you employ a stylist, you will have to be an involved participant in the process for your attire to serve your personal branding purpose.
Lawyers tend to enjoy visual branding much more than they expect to at the beginning. The change is something very personal and exciting, yet visible. The process has the ability to boost everyone’s self-confidence so much that it can be a creative highlight.
For more expert advice from Katy Goshtasbi, check out her book Personal Branding in One Hour for Lawyers, now available from the ABA Law Practice Division.
 “Why First Impressions Are So Persistent,” ScienceDaily, January 21, 2011, accessed May 27, 2013, http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/01/110118113445.htm.