Lawyer bios: what matters to clients

Keep It Pithy T-shirt

Our new head of proposals has a T-shirt pinned to the bulletin board in her office. It says “Keep it pithy!” in bold black letters. And it’s pink. You can’t miss it.

When I started talking to this associate director about writing I could tell she lives and works by the edict on her T-shirt. She loves active voice, catchy headlines and getting to the point. When providing direction to her team on what to include and not include in the proposals they write to win new business for our law firm, she asks them, “What matters to the client?”

This question is also important to consider when writing lawyer bios, or any bio for that matter, whether it’s yours or someone else’s that you’re drafting for a proposal or the firm’s website.

When writing bios, we often include information that’s significant to us but doesn’t matter to our audience. We may be proud of particular awards or rankings. We may be enamored with articles we’ve written or speeches we’ve given at conferences. We may hold leadership positions within our organization. And these are all good things.

But a little goes a long way when talking about awards, rankings, publications and committees. For one thing, none of these things tell a story. They are facts that, when listed one after the other, read like a laundry list. And who wants to read a laundry list?

For another thing, it can start to sound “braggadocious,” as Donald Trump so famously claimed not to be during last week’s U.S. Presidential Debate. It’s a delicate balance to write a bio that’s impressive yet balanced. One that provides enough information about your expertise while “keeping it pithy!” One that focuses on what matters to the client rather than what’s important to you.

So let’s think about this from the client’s perspective. If you were looking for an employment lawyer to help you resolve a complex HR issue, which of the following would be most important?

a. Where they went to school
b. How long they’ve been practicing
c. What their areas of expertise are
d. What articles they’ve written
e. What speeches they’ve given
f. What clients they’ve worked for
g. What committees they’ve served on
h. What outcomes they’ve achieved for clients

So…?

Well, according to Career Tools, a professional development podcast I listen to, anyone who’s considering hiring you, whether it’s a potential client or potential employer, wants to know two things:

1. What do you do?
2. How well do you do it?

That’s it. End of story.

Why do they want to know this? Because it’s the quickest way to tell whether you have the direct experience to help them solve their problems. As Mark Twain said, “The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.” Okay, so he wasn’t talking about lawyer bios, but he could have been.

My answer to the quiz above was h: what outcomes they’ve achieved for clients. Just like I noted in my post about the problem with our firm’s deals lists, our lawyer bios often fail to talk about the one thing that matters to clients: results.

What are your clients’ most common problems? How do you help them solve them? The answers to those questions should be highlighted in your bio like this:

As the chair of Baker & McKenzie’s China M&A practice, Teresa Zhang specializes in private and public M&A, both in the Chinese domestic market and cross-border transactions involving Chinese companies. One of the biggest challenges clients face in these transactions is passing China’s stiff competition requirements and gaining regulatory approval.  In the past year alone, Teresa has guided three global companies through the process, using her knowledge of the system to help them gain regulatory approval within the deal time frame.

The first half of the paragraph describes what Teresa does:

As the chair of Baker & McKenzie’s China M&A practice, Teresa Zhang specializes in private and public M&A, both in the Chinese domestic market and cross-border transactions involving Chinese companies.

The second half explains how well she does it:

One of the biggest challenges clients face in these transactions is passing China’s stiff competition requirements and gaining regulatory approval. In the past year alone, Teresa has guided three global companies through the process, using her knowledge of the system to help them gain regulatory approval within the deal time frame.

This paragraph will be of greater interest to potential clients than a laundry list of awards because it does two things:

1. Provides information about what is challenging in Chinese transactions (insight)
2. Explains how Teresa has helped clients overcome the very challenge other clients reading her bio may also face (outcome + relevance)

Now it’s your turn. Read the bio below. As you read, put yourself in the client’s shoes. If you needed to hire an employment litigator to defend your company in a high-stakes lawsuit, which facts would make you most interested in hiring Joe?

Joe Smith is a partner in Baker & McKenzie’s Chicago office. He has over 30 years of employment litigation experience and counsels employers on the entire spectrum of employee benefit and executive compensation matters. Mr. Smith was named by his peers as one of “The Top 100” lawyers in Illinois by Super Lawyers magazine for both 2014 and 2015. Mr. Smith has been named one of the “Best Lawyers in America” every year for over five years.

In 2012, Best Lawyers named Mr. Smith “Employment Litigation Lawyer of the Year” for Illinois. He was named one of Chambers USA‘s “Leaders in Their Field” in both 2015 and 2016. Chambers USA has described Mr. Smith as “an employment legend in the Midwest whose expertise has resulted in national acclaim,” and noted that he has been “handling very prominent cases and producing high-quality work.”

The Legal 500 USA has labelled Mr. Smith “exceptional” for employment litigation. He has also been listed as a leading attorney for employment litigation in Illinois Super Lawyers from 2005 to the present. Mr. Smith is Chair of the American Bar Association’s Employment Litigation Subcommittee. He is the featured employment litigation columnist for the Benefits Law Journal. In addition, he acts as a court-appointed mediator for employment cases in Illinois.

Mr. Smith has defended a number of ERISA plan fiduciaries and has secured numerous favorable precedents. Among Mr. Smith’s most notable achievements, he was the lead attorney in six class action employment cases resulting in six consecutive client victories using six different legal theories. He also regularly represents clients in federal district and appellate courts across the country.

Phew! It’s a lot, I know. And anything but pithy. So what information makes you want to hire Joe?

a. He has more than 30 years of employment litigation experience.
b. His peers named him one of “The Top 100” lawyers in Illinois in 2014 and 2015.
c. He has been named one of the “Best Lawyers in America” for five years.
d. He chairs the ABA’s Employment Litigation Subcommittee.
e. He’s a columnist for The Benefits Law Journal.
f. He acts as a court-appointed mediator in employment cases.
g. He has defended a number of ERISA plan fiduciaries and has secured numerous favorable precedents.
h. He was the lead attorney in six class action employment cases resulting in six consecutive client victories using six different legal theories.

Yet again, the best stuff comes at the end, a place readers may not even get to because of the laundry list of awards that came before. My answers to the question above: g and h.

Yes, it’s good to know Joe’s years of experience. Yes, his awards and committees tell you he’s accomplished in his field. But the points that caught my attention were the facts that he’s secured favorable precedents and won six class actions using six different legal theories.

The message to clients: this guy handles high-stakes, complex employment cases (what he does). And he wins (how well he does it).

How would you rewrite Joe’s bio to get to this point more quickly? Here’s my revision:

Joe Smith has over 30 years of employment litigation experience and counsels employers on employee benefit and executive compensation matters. He has defended a number of ERISA plan fiduciaries and secured numerous favorable precedents. Among his most notable achievements, Joe was the lead attorney in six employment class action cases resulting in six consecutive client victories using six different legal theories.

Joe has been recognized by his peers and the legal community with numerous awards and accolades, such as:

  • One of “The Top 100” lawyers in Illinois by Super Lawyers magazine
  • One of the “Best Lawyers in America” every year for five years
  • One of Chambers USA’s “Leaders in Their Field” in 2015 and 2016
  • An “exceptional” employment litigator according to Legal 500 USA

Joe also chairs the American Bar Association’s Employment Litigation Subcommittee, writes an employment litigation column for the Benefits Law Journal and acts as a court-appointed mediator for employment cases in Illinois.

Now we’re talking. The only additions I would make are to specify how many ERISA plan fiduciaries Joe has defended to give the statement greater impact (more than 100?) as well as how many favorable precedents he’s secured (10? 25? 50?) rather than using the vague word numerous.

I would also provide a little more context about the six class action suits — what the main issues were and how he overcame them — to provide greater context that could resonate with other clients. But working with what we’ve got, this is much better than the original.

As for awards, I picked the most recent, most impressive and used bullet points to make them easier to scan. I then wrapped it up with a few more details that reinforce his prominence in the field, but only after providing specific outcomes of his work in the first paragraph.

After these three paragraphs, you can list basic details like education, bar admission dates and include a brief list of representative matters, being sure to include the outcome of those cases.

So there you have it. A new way to approach lawyer bios. Now go forth and focus on outcomes. And keep it short. Don’t make me send you a pink T-shirt.

2 thoughts on “Lawyer bios: what matters to clients

  1. jeanette October 4, 2016 / 8:18 am

    love it! thank you for this and send me please a couple of pink T – shirts 😉

  2. O. October 10, 2016 / 8:12 am

    Just submitted our response to a massive RFP. The client has asked most of the questions (except speeches and articles this time) from the list above. (un)fortunately, CVs are the only resource to get global data quickly and efficiently.

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