October 26, 2017 Joanna Foo

If You Volunteer, It’s Part of Your Brand

I’ve volunteered almost my entire adult life. Some roles were emotionally challenging. Others were highly complex, where projects took months to succeed, and managing volunteers was like herding cats.

For all the frustrations that came with volunteering, however, it was wonderfully rewarding on many levels. Interestingly, when I started to network and build my business, I began to notice that when those I met heard about my volunteering efforts, something … shifted.

That shift is in how people perceived me. I was often met with a curious mixture of respect, and not a little discomfort (sometimes, folks chafe at being reminded – however indirectly – that they should be doing more for their community as well). But if anything, I did feel that it left enough imprint for some to reach out to me through social media or invite me for a quick coffee. In other words, that small aside about my volunteering experience helped to extend the conversation and in some cases, also create a real connection with a center of influence or potential client.

Why? My educated guess it that these people saw me as a person of some integrity and if anything, doggedness and reliabilty.  They came to learn that my volunteering projects were not small. In fact, some were 2nd full-time jobs, albeit pro bono. Others were emotionally draining.  I did not talk so much about my experience, as I did about the people who needed my help and the organizations that continued to do such incredible work for those they served.

So much of volunteering is about staying focused and motivated. Many volunteers lose steam or interest. If you’ve offered your legal expertise pro bono, then you know exactly what I mean. It takes a real commitment. An eye that’s fixed on something larger than yourself. It means that you have integrity and give your best even to those who don’t pay for your efforts.  For those prospective clients who have high discomfort with attorneys, this commitment to your larger community implies trustworthiness more often than not.  And we all know how trust is pivotal to getting a prospect from calling you to meeting you to engaging you.

Note thought that I’m not recommending that you take on pro bono work or other volunteer activities simply to boost your brand. I’m positing that if you already give back to your community, you shouldn’t be afraid to say so.

Should you dedicate a section of your website to your pro bono work or charitable efforts? Yes, but my own view is that it should be a simple description of the typical cases your firm takes on, with an emphasis on selectivity and legitimacy. You don’t want to be inundated with calls from prospects who want to engage an attorney for free. And you don’t want to come across as “showing off”. People expect dignity and restraint from their attorneys.

How should you talk about your volunteering? Simply and succinctly.  Talk about the cause or project that you managed, or an interesting pro bono case. If you’re networking, or catching up with clients or prospects, segue into asking the other person and ask whether they know of anyone who would like to volunteer with you or help an organization you know. If you use social media, post about your team of volunteers, or the charity’s mission or event. Even the simple listing of an event you’ve organized or support is a positive signal to those who see your post. Better still, include your clients in a charitable event if you can round up enough support for one. It doesn’t have to be a big one. It just has to make a real difference to your shared community.

As for which charity should you support, if you prefer to avoid taking on pro bono cases and get involved with an organization instead. But you must have a real passion for it. Don’t just sit on the Board of Directors. Get your hands dirty in the trenches. Attorneys who sit on boards proliferate. Attorneys who embed themselves in their community are rare.

To sum up, I think lawyers who take on pro bono or charitable work are to be lauded. Your practice already takes on so much of your time and efforts. To give to those who desperately your valuable time and expertise is no small thing. The point is that it speaks to your overall sense of self: that you wish to make a difference. And you do so outside your work, without expectation of accolade or financial reward. Whether the next client will care that you volunteer is besides the point. Some where along the way, however, there will be prospective clients who will decide to engage you for more than just your legal expertise.


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