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Want to be a successful lawyer? Think Jimmy Buffett. Wait…what???

Like many of you, I was saddened to learn of the passing of Jimmy Buffett last week. He was a phenomenal artist and a cultural icon. He was a singer, a writer, and an author, among other things. His music, in many ways, was the music of my life. He gave us more than 40 years of songs and stories of happiness, sadness, distant places, and, of course, adventure. Whenever I hear one of his songs, I am reminded of vacations, the beach, cruises, and good times.

Jimmy made us see the Gulf Coast in our minds. You could almost smell the breeze off the water hearing his music. You could picture the characters he sang about

Many of you may not know that Jimmy was not only a great artist but also a shrewd businessman. The value of his holdings from merchandise, restaurants, hotels, and casinos was valued at over a billion (with a B) dollars.

How was he able to do all this? How could he be successful as an artist, a writer, a restaurant owner, and a marketer? He was certainly talented but he also understood branding. His music converted a certain spirit and feeling—Caribbean sunshine. Good times. Ballads and stories about people he knew in the gulf coastal region and the islands he frequented. When you heard a snippet of one of his songs, you immediately knew it was a Jimmy song. Not that all of them sounded the same by any means. He converted all of that into his personal brand. His brand was consistent with who he was and how he wanted to be viewed.

His brand was Jimmy and Jimmy was his brand

The same was true of his books, restaurants, and hotels. You didn’t have to be told it was a Jimmy joint when you walked into one of his restaurants. You just knew. They all evoked that same sort of feeling. You knew what they were. Without ever meeting him, you had an idea who Jimmy was and what he stood for. And those two things were always consistent in everything he did. He was always in character.

Of course, being in character seemed easy for Jimmy because I think it was who he really was. His brand was Jimmy and Jimmy was his brand. Jimmy was just genuine. He loved what he was doing. When you watched him in concert, for example, he was always having a good time. He seemed like the kind of guy you wanted to have a beer with. All this too was always consistent with his brand. A brand that evoked feelings of the beach, good times, and good stories.

The result of this lifelong branding: loyal fans (aka Parrotheads, a moniker entirely consistent with his brand). While he hadn’t had a hit record in years, people flocked to his shows. They ate at his restaurants. They stayed at his hotels. More than just loyally, Jimmy’s fans (yes, I am one) loved him.

So What Does Have to Do With Being a Lawyer?

So, what does that have to do with lawyers? All too often, lawyers ignore branding. They ignore thinking about what kind of person they want to hold themselves out to be. How others perceive them. Who they are. What they stand for substantively. They lack consistency because they don’t have a brand. And it shows.

Too many lawyers try to be all things to all people. They are too afraid of giving up something in hopes they will miss an opportunity. In doing so, though, they never gain the kind of loyalty that Jimmy enjoyed. Their clients never know what they do. By never focusing on what they want to be, no one knows who they are.

Branding has to be a personal decision and initiative.

Lawyers also sometimes get caught up in their law firms when it comes to braining. They try to be a “Cravath” or a “Skadden” lawyer, as if that’s enough. But branding has to be a personal decision and initiative.

I decided early in my career to devote my energies to defending businesses sued in significant, complex mass tort matters. I started working as a junior lawyer on large fire disasters, often involving multiple deaths and millions of dollars in property damage. I liked the work. I liked the challenge. I decided to make these kinds of cases my life’s work.

However, doing so in a relatively small geographic market was challenging. I saw lots of other lawyers in these cases decide to do other things, fearing that they couldn’t compete.

But with lots of help and an outstanding mentor, I made defending these cases my brand. Every choice and decision I made started with the question: Is what I am doing consistent with my brand? Will it promote me as the kind of lawyer I want to be?

And it worked. I got some substantial fire-related cases all over the country. And because I liked doing this kind of complex work, like Jimmy, I was able to move into related and similar lines of business, like serial litigation on a national basis. They weren’t fire cases (For Jimmy, restaurants weren’t songs), but they were all consistent with my branding as a complex tort litigator in big cases.

I knew that to succeed, I had to devote my practice and myself to the brand I wanted to be.

I was able to do this because I loved what I was doing. And because I loved what I was doing, like Jimmy, I was genuine. My clients, like Jimmy’s fans, were loyal. I worked hard to convey a certain atmosphere about what I did and how I handled my cases.

Steve Jobs famously said you can only connect the dots of your career by looking backward. I didn’t know if I would succeed when I started my personal branding mission. I didn’t know where I would end up. But I knew that to succeed, I had to devote my practice and myself to the brand I wanted to be.

My advice to young and not so young lawyers? Decide what you want to be as a lawyer and a person. Define yourself by committing to doing something you like doing. It will make you genuine. Then, formulate your brand and how you convey what you do to others. Keep that formulation as your lodestar. Devote your energies to that brand. To being that person.

Of course, that doesn’t mean you will never have to pivot. If you read any biography about Jimmy, you know it took him a while to find what worked for him. He started without in Nashville trying outlaw country. It wasn’t until he made the decision to leave Nashville for Key West that he discovered a brand that was successful. He created a signature sound with acoustic guitars, steel drums, and pedal steel guitar. From that point, everything he did evoked a certain atmosphere. He lived his brand.

He was generous with his friends and strangers alike. He had a deep admiration for the people he worked with, and he never took himself too seriously

It all starts with deciding to brand yourself. Define your brand, who you are, and what you want to be. Then, pursue that brand, your dream, with everything you got.

Oh and one more thing. After he passed, his daughter, Delaney, wrote a tribute that appeared in Parade magazine. Of Jimmy, she said, “He was a great man and an even better dad to my brother, sister, and me. He was generous with his friends and strangers alike. He had a deep admiration for the people he worked with, and he never took himself too seriously…”

If that can be your eulogy, maybe you don’t need to worry about branding.

Remember, it’s the second star to the right, straight on toward morning.

Photo by Bruce Tuton via Flickr