Authentic Style and Developing Your Own Brand
Q: How does your style impact your personal life and your work?
I started my career in Kansas City Missouri at an extremely conservative law firm. This was a law firm where we had discount cards and membership firms to Brooks Brothers. New associates were expected to conform; dress a certain way and maintain a certain image. A partner told us, “You can’t sit in on a $5 million deal and look like $5 dollars.” I immediately went to buy the button down shirts, jackets and suits to the knees. I wasn’t particularly comfortable wearing those clothes but I thought it was required to be successful and to be taken seriously. Then I looked to some of the female partners at the law firm. They looked sharp in gorgeous sheath dresses, wonderful cardigans and well made tailored suits that really fit them. And they seemed really comfortable in their clothing and in their skin. I also looked to my mother and aunt who are both professionals and ultimately realized I didn’t necessarily need to follow the given mold. I realized that I can do it my own way.
Q: How did you discover your professional style?
I started going to well known department stores and working closely with the on-site stylists. That’s when I discovered the sheath dress. It’s my go-to look. Once I became more comfortable and matured, I accepted that it was the best design for my body type. I discovered the designers who made well-fitting and high-quality sheath dresses for women like me who did not want to be boxed into a suit. I still wear suits occasionally, but other than that, there are three elements to the foundation of my style:
- A sheath dress
- A talented tailor
- A well fitting white blouse
You definitely want to represent yourself and your organization well, but it doesn’t have to only reflect someone else’s guidelines.
There tends to be more flexibility in the major metropolitan areas like New York,San Francisco and Chicago, but in the south there doesn’t tend to be as much flexibility. In the south, I can’t imagine an attorney appearing in court or at a client meeting wearing a twin-set or a loud color. Yet, I have a friend from law school who is a prosecutor in Southern Californiaand she appears before the judge in hot pink or orange suits; even multi-patterned ensembles! Here are some basic rules:
- When in Rome, do as the Romans do. But look to your superiors, not your peers.
- Wait until you’ve established yourself, your skills and abilities before you become over the top, outlandish and flashy. You have to earn it!
Q: Was there any reaction at the law firm to your change in style?
My change in style got second looks and there were some whispers. I stood out firstly as an African-American attorney working for a law firm who at its height (while I was there) had 3 African-American attorneys out of 500. The change in my look included the signature sheath dress, tailored looks and more refined handbags. Even an umbrella can sometimes turn a head. In my opinion, such accessories and details matter. I found that I was being taken in on client meetings more frequently, and gained valuable hands-on client experience. The exposure helped me to determine that I wanted to focus on Federal tax controversy. The related career growth opportunities led me to Chicago.
Q: How important is authenticity in personal style? We are often told that we should dress the part of who we want to be and not necessarily who we are right now.
Authenticity is crucial in personal branding. I am true to myself regarding the image that I project. If you’re going to communicate a personal branding message, it needs to be consistent. It’s not going to be consistent if your style is fake, stiff, ever changing and ever evolving. People will not know what to think about you.
Ask yourself: Do you want to be a brand or a commodity? For me, personal branding is about being authentic, differentiating myself and having the knowledge and experience to back it up.
How does your personal brand compare to your professional brand?
Beyond my personal brand, I have given a lot of thought to my professional brand as well. I want to be a brand, not another attorney. I want to be known for something. After gaining valuable guidance from a few law professors who encouraged me to explore the field of tax law, I further decided that I want “to become a sought after expert in my chosen field.” That was the number one focus for my brand. I didn’t know exactly which area of tax law, but I knew I wanted to be exceptional. Keep it simple and you’d be surprised how it all falls into place and gains focus when you have a slogan in mind.
My style has evolved as I have matured and as my client base has changed. My clients respect me and are confident in my knowledge and experience. Additionally, communication is often more open when people perceive they are dealing with a peer; someone who understands their lifestyle, interests and motivations. This can often be reflected in personal style.
Coming Soon: Part 2