Working Smart: Managing Perceptions and Your Reputation

Working Smart: Managing Perceptions and Your Reputation

by Valerie Fontaine
Special to
February 22, 2011

"It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you'll do things differently."
--Warren Buffett

Your business image must be managed and protected. Other people constantly observe your performance, attitudes and behavior, and form theories about you. Your reputation, or professional image, is based on perceptions of your competence and character as judged by your clients, superiors, subordinates and colleagues. Since it's unlikely that everyone in your workplace has first-hand experience with you, decisions affecting your career advancement may hinge on the impression you make on just a few individuals. Therefore, isolated negative perceptions can have disastrous consequences despite overall top-notch performance.

Just as you proactively develop the technical expertise and interpersonal skills you need for success, you must take responsibility for shaping the positive perceptions you want others to have about you. Unfortunately, we never see ourselves as others do. Sometimes, you'll get direct feedback, but most often you'll receive indirect signals through career advancement, work assignments and client referrals (or lack thereof). If you're not getting the results you want, take a good look at yourself. Better yet, ask for a trustworthy colleague's or your mentor's assessment of what's holding you back.


The "ideal associate" was described by top partners from prestigious law firms at an October 2010 Women Lawyers Association of Los Angeles program, "Partners' Pet Peeves." Striving to achieve the qualities they discussed will go a long way towards developing a strong professional reputation for a lawyer at any level of seniority.

According to those partners, the ideal lawyer consistently cares about every task. To demonstrate this quality, after clarifying exactly what is expected of you, endeavor to deliver more. Treat each project as if it was your own problem, taking initiative and thinking ahead. Look at the big picture -- overall themes and theories, not just the narrow task -- while keeping the client in mind. Rather than merely warning against a particular action, find creative ways to achieve the client's objectives. Give alternatives and note the consequences of various options. Ask questions, make suggestions and think outside the box. At the same time, of course, you must be sensitive to deadlines and billing constraints.

The consummate attorney is intellectually curious and projects an attitude that law is fun and interesting. To promote this perception, be willing to consider all the angles, and explore within and beyond your specific practice area. Demonstrate that you are a team player, asking for opportunities to grow professionally, and treating each task with importance. Do your best to view criticism as an opportunity to learn. Acknowledge responsibility for and take immediate action to correct any shortcomings. Show you are committed and reliable, putting in the extra effort until the job's done right. Portray a sense of urgency about your work even when (or, especially when) there's a dearth of work to fill your quota of billable hours.

To build a strong professional reputation, remember that quality work always matters. Do every task you undertake to the highest standards you can, given the increasing pressure to keep costs in line by working as efficiently as possible. Proofread everything, not just what goes out the door. Every "draft" should be as close to a finished product as possible, checked for grammar and typos before hitting your supervisor's desk. You need to impress your colleagues, co-counsel and opposing counsel, as well, so proof all e-mails and memos. Although not every assignment merits the scrutiny of a Supreme Court brief, your reputation and that of your firm follows each document forever. You never know where and when career paths might cross in the future.


Impression management also includes consistent attention to non-verbal behavior such as appearance and demeanor, verbal cues including vocal pitch, tone, rate of speech, grammar and diction, and overall attitude. Keep your personal presentation well-groomed and professional. You're not dressing to please yourself, but to represent the firm's and the client's best interests. The public has a stereotype of what a lawyer should look like. The more you deviate from that image, the harder you have to work to gain their trust.

A negative first impression is difficult to overcome. Initial perceptions are impacted by your greeting in addition to your appearance. Learn how to shake hands properly. Smile genuinely and make eye contact. Maintain an upbeat and confident attitude. Always watch your etiquette, table manners, and grammar (minimizing "like," "um," and "you know"). Surprisingly, these basic details were included and discussed during the "Partners' Pet Peeves" program.


Attention to your professional image must never flag. Remember, when attending business development or firm social events outside the office, you are at work. Moreover, even when "off the clock," you may be in the public eye. Because modern technology so effectively broadcasts personal details to everyone, private lives are increasingly public. In addition to making out-of-the-office conduct more open to review by clients, prospects and colleagues, it creates a record you may never escape.

It's not quite as bad as the stereotypical movie gunslinger threat, "One wrong move and you're toast!" -- but almost. Because your reputation is built every day, it's in constant flux. Managing others' perceptions requires consistent vigilance and effort, but is an essential ingredient for career success.

Read other articles in the "Working Smart" series:

  1. Working Smart: Resolve to Work Smarter, Not Harder, This Year
  2. Working Smart: Finding Your Niche
  3. Working Smart: Promote Yourself
  4. Working Smart: Managing Perceptions and Your Reputation
  5. Working Smart: Boosting Your Business Acumen
  6. Working Smart: Playing Well With Others
  7. Working Smart: Create a Mentor Network
  8. Working Smart: It's All About a 'Me File'
  9. Working Smart: Early Steps to Take for a Better End-of-Year Review