I’ve given a lot of thought over the years to the very mundane topic of lawyer bios. Having done so, I am compelled to file this dissent to Matt Homann’s clever but off-base Venn diagram about lawyer bios (Your Clients Don’t Care Where You Went to Law School). At the same time, I will most heartily agree with the related post at Kelly’s Blog that the real problem with lawyer bios is that they “lack personality, life, vibrancy, interest.”

I started paying close attention to lawyer bios back in 2002, when I went from journalism to marketing and became vice president of editorial for the legal marketing and PR firm Jaffe Associates. During my time at Jaffe, I both wrote and supervised the writing of hundreds, if not thousands, of lawyer bios. Although I left Jaffe in 2004, I have continued to work with law firms on various writing projects, including bios, through my consulting firm.

What was clear to me from the outset about lawyer bios was how poorly written they were. Kelly hit the nail on the head in saying that they lacked personality, life, vibrancy and interest. They also routinely suffered one of the sins of journalism, in that they buried the lead. A veteran lawyer with a litany of accomplishments might have a bio that started out with a standard recitation of law school, law review and clerkships — stuff that happened decades ago.

What a Bio Should Be

So here is my basic philosophy about lawyer bios:

A professional biography should be structured no differently than any other piece of good writing:

  • It should have a theme.
  • It should use facts to back up that theme.
  • It should be written in a compelling style that draws in and holds the reader.
  • All of this should be done in no more than six paragraphs.

In the case of a lawyer’s biography, the theme should emphasize what makes that lawyer distinct — what makes that lawyer stand out from the competition.

Where Matt and I Diverge

Up to this point, I suspect Matt would agree with what I’ve said. But here is where we diverge. His diagram suggests that many standard elements of lawyer bios are irrelevant to clients. I don’t buy that.

Consumers of any product or service want to feel confident that they are making the right choice. There are two ways consumers most commonly reassure themselves. The first is by word-of-mouth referrals. The other is through objective information. Thus, if we are buying a product, we want to hear from friends and reviewers who’ve used that product. We also want to see data on repairs, safety, reliability, performance, etc.

In the legal context, word-of-mouth referrals remain the most powerful drivers of new business. Whether it is corporate counsel to corporate counsel or neighbor to neighbor, legal consumers are strongly influenced by the positive (or negative) experiences of others. (This is why Martindale-Hubbell now incorporates peer reviews and why Avvo offers client reviews.)

But referrals are not always available to everyone in every circumstance. Even when they are, consumers look for objective information that will help them corroborate a referral, narrow the pool of candidates, and provide further justification for the final hiring decision.

We may not like to admit it, but consumers still put weight in factors such as where the lawyer went to law school, whether the lawyer was on law review, what clerkships the lawyer did, and what cases the lawyer has handled. Different consumers look for different things, of course, and part of marketing is knowing how to position yourself to your target audience.

Let’s take the issue of cases you’ve worked on. I have spoken directly to corporate counsel who tell me they most definitely want to see evidence that the lawyer has handled the type of case or matter they have — and has handled it successfully. Do you need to list everything? Of course not. But should you highlight your core abilities and accomplishments? Of course you should.

By the same token, for a bio to say that the lawyer clerked for the Supreme Court or an appellate court is not simply vanity. Potential clients — particularly corporate clients — will read a lot into that. After all, isn’t there a presumption that it is only the best and the brightest who are selected for such clerkships? And don’t clients want to know that they are getting the best and the brightest?

Matt also puts lawyer ratings on the “clients don’t care” side of the diagram. I have come to believe that these various lawyer-rating lists and directories are valuable to consumers and should be included in bios. Yes, we can all bicker over the reliability of their methodologies and the inclusiveness of their results. But for consumers, these provide some element of objective, outside reference, just as Consumer Reports does for cars.

Bios as Mini-Profiles

To be fair to Matt, the overarching point of his diagram is that bios should be written not to feed lawyers’ egos, but to answer clients’ questions and address their concerns. Three of the points on the right side of his diagram are the questions I think are most important:

  • Do you have experience doing exactly what I need?
  • What kind of work are you really good at?
  • What do your clients think of you?

Your bio should answer these questions, and do so using objective information. It is more powerful to point to actual victories than to call yourself a great lawyer. It is more powerful to say that an international directory ranked you as a top lawyer than it is to give yourself that label.

As a long-time journalist, I like bios that are written as if they were mini profiles for a newspaper or magazine. As I said earlier, they should have a theme and that theme should be developed around the characteristics that distinguish you.

Unless you’re a brand new lawyer, then the law school you attended and the law review you worked on should not be central elements of your bio. But they should be in there somewhere. My preference these days is to have that core information in a sidebar, where it can be viewed at a glance but not detract from the bio itself.

Choosing a lawyer is a slippery thing. Clients are looking for anything to grab onto. Much as we hate to admit it, sometimes that something is as mundane as where we went to law school.

  • Anonymous

    I am a legal client who has screened multiple legal firms on the basis of websites and bios. I have seen Matt Holman’s Venn Diagram and think that he misses the mark, and was delighted to see your analysis which I think is on target. Thanks!

  • Spot on, Bob.

  • Corinne A. Tampas

    Before I became a lawyer, I was a building contractor in California. On several occasions I was a client of a lawyer. In fact, I never would have had an interest in becoming a lawyer were it not for the fact that I have had so many appallingly bad attorneys over the years.

    My experience has taught me that bios are meaningless. For starters, I do not care if the attorney loves his or her family and goes to church. Second, some of the attorneys who went to the “better” schools and were on law review have not accomplished anything since and do not feel that further accomplishments are necessary. (This is especially true of California lawyers who think that that bar examination is the last hurdle they should ever have to jump.) And third, any attorney involved in politics or a plethora of community activities does not have the time (or interest) to practice law and, therefore, does not have the time for my legal problems.

    What I do look for from a website is whether I get the feeling that a particular attorney is willing to roll up his or her shirt sleeves and work on my file without vying for the billable hours of the year award. Simply put, the fact that a lawyer is a lawyer presumes a basic level of competence. What I am looking for in a lawyer is to get a matter resolved in a fair and expeditious manner. I think that other than at the corporate level, most prospective clients are looking for the same thing.

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  • shg

    The problem with all of this is that it ultimately comes down to quantitative data, or what is better known as bullshit, to distinguish one lawyer from another. And as a lawyer comes to realize that his competitor’s website has better bullshit than his, he will modify his bullshit to match or exceed his competitor’s bullshit, until they both ultimately roll together in the gutter of marketing and are, again, indistinguishable.

    For me, the most telling indicator is a negative one, the absence of basic quantifiable date. Year of graduation from law school, year of admission, that sort of stuff. It’s absence is a big red flag, telling me that this is a newbie trying to pretend he’s experienced and willing to conceal material data to do so.

    • shg

      Nuts. Meant to write “qualitative” in first sentence. Oh well, it’s not like anybody who reads this doesn’t have a horse in the legal marketing race anyway, so it will be roundly ignored.

      • You can avoid the bullshit spiral (and the problem of lawyers pretending to be more than they really are) by using facts in the bio. Won a case at the Supreme Court? That’s not bullshit. Won an acquittal in a difficult case? That’s not bullshit. Helped set a significant precedent? That’s not bullshit. Achieved a noteworthy result in a case you handled pro bono? That’s not bullshit. In short, your accomplishments are evidence of your abilities.

        • shg

          That’s great advice, with one problem. The people who need to market themselves are the ones who have none of that to offer. Those who have real accomplishments aren’t the ones desperately in need of marketing themselves for lack of business.

          Then, I could tell you stories of lawyers who tell all about their big wins to clients to impress them, except for the fact that it’s total and complete bullshit. The clients, of course, can’t tell a lie from the truth. You know how that goes.

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  • SHG has a point, although I don’t agree with him entirely.

    Reading a bio is like looking at one half of a balance sheet; it has all of the assets, none of the liabilities. Prospective clients read them with that in mind.

    Frequently I am helping clients craft their bios. High profile lawyers, especially those who concentrate their practice in one area and who seek recognition often find it easy to write their bios.

    For the outgoing, energetic lawyer, it is far easier to rack up a resume full of “leadership” positions and other shallow indicators of legal competence than it is to consistently do great work on clients’ behalf. Even if the titles and leadership roles are hard-earned, how does being chair of the Family Law Committee of the [pick your city] Bar Association translate into being an effective advocate? In fact, many of these lawyers are so busy with extra-curricular activities that they don’t focus on the practice of law.

    The hard-working, roll-up-your-sleeve, small-firm attorney who quietly spends his time helping ordinary people and businesses may find it difficult to write a compelling bio, irrespective of how good he may be.

    For example, how does a residential real estate or a small-business lawyer who regularly goes the extra mile to get a deal done communicate that in a three paragraph summary? Even if he could convey that qualitatively, there is nothing that prevents the lazy average attorney from making the same claim. Qualitative claims that lack factual support also sound self-serving.

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  • Word-of-mouth is the best advertisement, especially for a law firm. The best referrals are from current clients. Their website should give bios for each attorney as well as their areas of expertise.

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  • I agree. Homann’s diagram is a recipe for lowering a lawyer’s revenue in two directions: lower quality clients and poorer inbound referrals.

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