I had a fabulous time, if you will, as a panelist and participant in last night’s Fashion Lawyer Marketing CLE at Fordham Law School’s Fashion Law Institute. I certainly learned far more than I taught, but of course, that makes sense, considering that I was only one-third of the panel. Attendance was so good that people even sat in the front row! I didn’t even see people looking at their smartphones. (Someone said that’s because there’s no signal in the room, but that’s just crazy talk.)
The fascinating and insightful Professor Jeff Trexler moderated, and first called on Bernice Leber, who besides having done everything a lawyer can do right in a career has also been the president of the New York State Bar Association. She walked briefly through the history of lawyer advertising regulation and laid out the standards that apply today, mostly focusing on the attorney advertising rules in New York (many of which are her handiwork!) but without failing to address the complex nature of multi-jurisdictional and online practice in our era. Bernice also discussed specific cases that have come before ethics panels and acknowledged that applying the standards in a social-networking, multimedia, branding-branding-branding world can be tricky.
I spoke next. Obviously I spoke about myself. In other words, I acknowledged the fact that I was invited to participate in the panel in part because I am considered a “success” a “branding” my practice among fashion lawyers — having come to terms with the fact that I probably really am a “fashion lawyer,” just kind of a lumpy one — and that it probably does “work” for me. But I made a point of discussing how conflicted myself is about all this myself-talking-about. Believe me, I am. It’s almost embarrassing, really. Indeed, I said, (a) I’m not sure what it really means to say that all this @roncoleman “branding” “works,” in terms of “fashion” clients; (b) what I do on this blog and in social networking is, to put it mildly, not for everyone; (c) what I do here is certainly not for everyone who wants to represent major fashion houses or the other big-money parts of the fashion “industry,” but that (d) people who represent smaller clients in design, retail and other parts of that business are also fashion lawyers, and … that’s okay; (e) unfortunately, while there are opportunities in marketing to and serving such clientele, the first part is easier than the second if you don’t have bona fide experience — ideally representing Big Fashion for a meaningful period of time, as I have been privileged to do — and that (f) yeah, I know, that experience is not so easy to get these days. By the end of my presentation I managed to ensure that not one participant would get any ideas about sending me a resume.
Not so the next speaker, the highly tall and distinguished and stentorian and charming Ted Max, who did not hesitate to reinforce my point that we way we do things here at LIKELIHOOD OF CONFUSION® is not for everyone. Ted recommended the approach of being really successful instead, and discussed fashion lawyer “branding” in the broader sense of career development — seeking to be the person, for example, in a general-practice environment, who seeks IP- or fashion-related assignments; writing and publishing; and observing basic (but widely misunderstood) tenets of networking which focus on adding value to others (in this case, fashion clients) without expectation of recompense. To do this properly, he explained, and to otherwise “brand” yourself effectively as a fashion lawyer — whether within or without your organization — Ted stressed the need to truly learn about the industry you wish to serve and get to know people in it. Clients can tell, he says, if you “get it” or not. They insist on working with lawyers who get it, as Ted does.
Ted noted, in the nicest possible way while gesturing obviously (but affectionately) towards me as a counterexample , that in terms of “personal branding,” major fashion clients don’t want it. They are the brand, not you. And he is 100% right. This raises a bit of a dilemma, of course, for young lawyers seeking to break into fashion law in the 2010’s as opposed to the 1970’s or ’80’s, before the fashion business’s boom. That boom, as Ted pointed out, was in no small part the product of the far greater number of department stores, and hence opportunities for design startups to get designs out to the public. Yes, we have the Internet today, but the Internet probably amplifies the domination of extant brands and designers rather than open up opportunities for innovation in the field. For what it’s worth, Ted said that, like Bernice and me, he never woke up and decided he wanted to be “a fashion lawyer” and doesn’t necessarily think of himself as one. We are all, he said, lawyers who are privileged to have fashion clients, among others.
We took a few questions afterward. One was a follow-up on the subject of “getting to know the business,” an area in which Bernice, Ted and Jeff could speak far more expertly than myself. Besides reading Women’s Wear Daily and going to fashion-industry events, what else would the panelists suggest? We all agreed that young lawyers don’t know enough about the business of business, fashion industry or otherwise, and should make it theirs to know how to read financial statements and balance sheets and to understand the nitty gritty and culture of the industry in order to serve them well.
From there we segued to further discussion I alluded to in my comments: There is a perception that a lot of people who are interested in fashion law are, perhaps, mainly interested in pretty things but their daddies made them to law school so here’s how they’re going to “follow their passion.” This image is reinforced by the proliferation of light-as-air “fashion law blogs” focusing a little too much on the pretty new things they’re showing this year and not quite enough on legal analysis, case developments and, God forbid, anything original. That’s not good “fashion lawyer branding.” (A good example of a fashion law blogger who, in contrast, demonstrates her hands-on comprehension and professionalism regarding fashion law is Staci Riordan, as exemplified in this post.)
There was discussion as well of the stress on young lawyers to skirt ethical limitations on marketing, especially with respect to candor about their inexperience, when they’re facing underemployment and over-indebtedness. At this juncture Jeff Trexler, whose background is in classics, sagely noted the connection between our word “ethics” and the Greek concept of an ethos, meaning, in a sense, a statement of “what you are about” — ironically, a classical concept of branding. That’s a good point to focus on in ending this recapitulation of an industry that seems to focus so much on dressing up to look as if you are about something and a young cadre of professionals who, for a range of reasons, want to dress up to serve that constituency as attorneys.
This was one of the most engaging and consciousness-raising CLE’s I’ve either given or attended. And the discussion at the panelist and event team dinner afterward, which went on until they pretty much kicked us out of the restaurant at 11, was a fitting follow-up. (If I get some clearances perhaps I will divulge some of that talk as well in a later post.) All this is, of course, a testament to the vision and talent of — did you think I was going to forget? — the doyenne of fashion law, Susan Scafidi, academic director of the Fashion Law Institute and the fashion law lady we all want to grow up to be.
Thanks to Susan, and her crack team (including Jeff Trexler, of course, as well as her Fashion Fellow Females) for making it all happen, and for inviting me to participate!