“He has a dream that one day, this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘They hold those truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’”
“He considers himself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth. And he might have been given a bad break, but he’s got an awful lot to live for.”
“They shall go on to the end; they shall fight in France; they shall fight on the seas and oceans; they shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air; they shall defend their island, whatever the cost may be … they shall never surrender.”
Something not quite right about the foregoing quotations, isn’t there?
Great speeches are great not just because of their soaring rhetoric, their stirring ideals, and their inspirational calls to action. As these badly re-engineered quotations demonstrate, they’re great because they’re delivered in the first person. The speaker puts himself directly into his speech, puts his vision and commitment and personal sacrifice right there on the line. I have a dream. I am the luckiest man on the face of the Earth. We shall never surrender.
When I (or we) communicate a fact or idea in the first person singular (or plural), my presence and responsibility and dedication are clear, and they resonate with readers and listeners. When people communicate a fact or idea in the third person, however, that responsibility is sidestepped, that dedication is compromised, and that presence is removed several steps away. (Notice how the passive voice automatically shows up in the third person?) And when you talk about yourself in the third person, you not only put a damaging amount of distance between you and who you say you are, you also suggest that you’re at best a little pompous and at worst a touch delusional.
And yet lawyers constantly talk about themselves in the third person in their own biographies, on their own web pages. It’s an affectation and a distraction. “Jane is a partner in the firm’s Litigation Department who specializes in class action defence. She is often retained by Fortune 500 companies. Her hobbies include hiking and travel.” Who is supposed to be speaking here? Is this a toast given at a wedding reception? Is the reader to assume this biography has been written by an admiring third party, without the lawyer’s input but with her graceful acquiescence?
When you describe your practice, skills and experiences in the third person, you might think you’re being appropriately modest or professionally circumspect. In reality, you’re putting unnecessary distance between yourself and your own best qualities. Law is a relationship business, and the best relationships are made directly, between two people who are open and honest with each other. Third-person biographies insert an imaginary third person into that relationship, complicating things and creating a sense of detachment or distance on the lawyer’s part.
Good lawyers don’t do this when they practice their craft. The most effective advocates don’t tell the court, “It is my client’s position that…” They say to the court, “We believe that…” It’s a subtle change, but a powerful one, communicating ownership and commitment and alignment with the client. There’s every reason to apply the same approach to our website biographies.
Consider these two bios:
- “Gary is a partner with Parable & Metaphor LLP. He focuses his practice on business law, serving clients in the manufacturing and recycling sectors in areas such as environmental compliance and new product development. An avid golfer, he enjoys traveling and spending time with his family.”
- “I’ve been a partner with Parable & Metaphor LLP for six years. I help clients in the manufacturing and recycling sectors with a wide range of business law matters. I make sure they comply with environmental regulations and help them develop new products for their markets. I love to play golf, ideally while travelling across the country with my wife and three kids.”
The information is pretty much the same in both, but the personal touch of the second one encourages the provision of more detail and invites a level of openness and engagement with the reader (and notice that saying “I” allows you to connect more easily and effectively with the work you do for the clients you serve.) By contrast, the first one reads like a cookie-cutter description of Any Lawyer Esq., or maybe a testimonial elicited under some level of duress. There’s a stiffness and distance about third-person biographies that’s unconsciously off-putting to the reader or listener, and it’s completely unnecessary.
Own the details of your life and career with pride and enthusiasm. Show your willingness to commit to a relationship with your biography’s reader. Stop pretending that some invisible authority has independently studied and described you, like an anthropologist drily detailing a new species. Stand up, speak out, and be yourself. Clients want to know who you are and whether they’ll like working with you. Tell them the first, so that they can start to decide the second.