“It’s not what you know. It’s not who you know. It’s who knows you.” This probably some of the best advice I received as a high school student and it shaped how I approached law school and my legal career. The common misconception is that “who you know” dictates your success, but that’s not quite right. For example, I know who Oprah Winfrey is, but that doesn’t make a difference. We all know who Oprah is. But, if Oprah knows who I am and has a favorable impression of me, now that’s a game-changer. As such, how we brand ourselves and are perceived by others has much to do about your law school and legal career success.
As a law student of color, you face many challenges throughout your law school experience. Many times, you are one of the few students of color at your law school institution and it is difficult to fit in or find your place. Even those that find their way socially often struggle with becoming “tokenized” as the flagship students of color that their law school peers and administration highlight in the name of “diversity.” Extra-curriculars, internships, externships—these are additional responsibilities law students of color must juggle while striving to maintain academic excellence and mental sanity.
So how do you stand out? How do you avoid becoming labeled as the “diversity hire” or token law student of color? One answer to these questions is branding yourself!
It’s not what you know
When you start law school, there is a common misconception that “grades are everything” and nothing else really matters. Students of color are oftentimes first-generation law students. As a result, we oftentimes do not have the network or family of lawyers who can give us the proper approach to our law school careers. So it is common for many of us to succumb to the pressures of law school and become entangled with the myths and misconceptions of the law school terrain.
To be honest, while grades are important—and you should devote your time and energy to getting the best grades you can—they are NOT everything. Law firms are businesses that thrive on clients entrusting them with their business and legal counsel. Accordingly, they need talent that is not only legally astute but also socially savvy enough to obtain and retain clients. The same goes for the public sector. Whether you are an aspiring public defender, immigration attorney or other public interest attorneys, how you brand yourself can impact how a jury, a judge, or a legislative body views you and can influence the overall impact of your advocacy.
When you walk into a room full of strangers, potential clients, future employers, or jurors, nobody knows your class rank or GPA is, and quite frankly nobody will really care. Their first impression of you will be governed by how you present yourself, i.e. how you brand yourself.
There’s a saying that summarizes this point succinctly—” Nobody cares what kind of lawyer you are until they know what kind of person you are.” So the first step to your law school blueprint for success is establishing your brand.
The following are a few tips to establishing your personal brand as you navigate through law school:
Use Social Media
Let’s face it, social media is addicting. Most people are constantly, liking, re-sharing tweeting, blogging, or flicking it up for the Gram. What you may not realize is that your social media is an opportunity to showcase your best attributes to the world. In other words, it is one of the best tools you can use to brand yourself.
I learned this early in my law school career. As I sat down during my first job interview during my 1L year, the general counsel for the company told me she looked me up on Facebook and was impressed by what she saw. What she found was a page of nothing but accolades, scholarship awards, and photos of my student involvement in undergrad. I realized that social media is a canvas to the world and you hold the paintbrush. You can use it to your benefit or to your demise.
Social media is a tool. Tools can create beautiful works of architecture like the Statue of Liberty or the Eiffel Tower. Likewise, they can be used to destroy. So before you post that drunk photo of you at the New Years party or engage in social media rant or debate, consider what effect it will have on your brand in the eyes of a future employer or client.
Dress For Success
In addition to your online profile, your daily dress code can also drive your brand. It is tempting to just wear sweats and shorts to class for comfort. Trust me, I remember how comfortable sneakers and crewneck were for those long days of classes and studying at the law library. But like, your social media profile, one of the first things people will see about you is what you have on. Now, I realize this sounds really vain, but the reality is that people are drawn to how you are dressed and it tells a lot about you. For example, we know military, police officers, and firefighters, by their uniforms. Before we have the opportunity to engage them, we already know who they are. Accordingly, how you dress can speak volumes to others before you ever speak a word.
Now, I’m not saying that you need to put on a full suit every day, or show up to class “suited and booted” but you should take time to make sure that your outfit is consistent with the lawyer and professional you want to be. In other words, dress like the lawyer you are aspiring to become, not the law student you are now.
Don’t Be a Jerk
This goes without saying, but nevertheless, it needs to be reiterated. As I stated above, “it is not what you know or who you know, it’s who knows you” that can dictate your success. Nobody can impact the trajectory of your legal career you quite like your law school peers. Your fellow classmates are all aspiring attorneys and legal professionals. This means you have an entire pool of future referrals, references, and even co-workers or business partners at your fingertips. Quite frankly, this is probably the best time to network and establish your brand.
Many of your classmates will find themselves in different areas of the legal industry. The shy student in your Property class may become the general counsel at a major financial institution. The funny guy from Business Organizations might make partner at a firm you apply to down the road. The young lady that never did any of the reading in your Criminal Procedure class might be your state senator in a few years. The point is, you never know where your law school colleagues will end up and what kind of resource you can be to one another. Accordingly, by being genuine, courteous, and thoughtful to your peers can go a long way.
My advice is to take time to get to know your law school peers. Obviously, I do not expect anyone to become best friends with everyone in their class or law school, but you can take some time for them to get to know you. Take advantage of Homecoming events and Barrister Balls, Bar reviews, and get-togethers to reach out to classmates you are not normally around. If you see a classmate missing from class, check in on them and send them the notes you took for the class that day. Help the underclass students out by sending them outlines or offering tips to succeeding in a particular class. Also, consider taking on a leadership role in a student organization or your Student Bar association to expand your social network to the entire student body. Challenge yourself to meaningful and attainable goals as well.
As a 1L, I made it a point to have a meaningful conversation with everyone in my class before the end of the school year. I learned a great deal about my classmates, who they were, where they were from, and this has led to lasting friendships and mutual respect from my colleagues. Even something as small as remembering and addressing your classmates by name in passing on the way to class can have a lasting impact and will go a long way in your efforts to polish your personal brand.
Branding yourself does not mean you change who you are. On the contrary, creating your brand is magnifying who you are to the world in a way that easily distinguishable by others. Like any commercial brand, you know it when you see it. Whenever you see the Nike swoosh sign, the Starbucks mermaid, or Tiffany blue, you know you are going to receive quality shoes, delicious coffee, and some stellar jewelry. Similarly, when you brand yourself, you are showing others what they are going to get. Whether it’s a polished student with big law aspirations or a passionate social justice warrior, branding yourself is about illuminated who you are, not becoming something you are not.
At the end of the day, you make the brand. So make sure who you portray to be is who you really are and stay true to yourself.
These are just a few ways to establish your brand as a law student and is in no way an exhaustive list. You may find different ways to create your own personal brand that is tailored to you. If you don’t take anything else away from this article, remember that “Nobody Cares What Kind of Lawyer You Are Until They Know What Kinds of Person You Are.”