RPTE eReport logo
  • A Bi-Monthly Electronic Publication for Section Members
  • June 2010

Technology and Law Practice Management

Should Lawyers Be Anti-Social Networking?
Suggestions on Sites to Use (or Perhaps Snub)
By Jason E. Havens

Social networking websites have captivated younger generations across the globe. You can reconnect with family or long-lost friends, share your "status" by posting what is happening in various aspects of your life, or "tweet" nearly every thought that enters or exits your mind. Do these or more modern profile-oriented social networking websites make sense for lawyers, though?

This article will explore some of the concepts of social networking for lawyers. It will not attempt to answer some of the challenging ethical questions raised by the use of these websites, nor will it help you decide whether your employer will terminate you (or not offer a position in the first place). There are abundant resources that address these issues, including several recent publications of the American Bar Association, e.g., "Five ethical pitfalls of online networking" in the November 2009 issue of "Your ABA". The May 2010 issue of Law Technology News also features several articles under the heading, "SOCIAL MEDIA: Risks & Rewards" (http://www.law.com/jsp/lawtechnologynews/PubArticleLTN.jsp?id=1202448388030&Risks_amp_Rewards), one of which includes a discussion entitled, "Don't Fall into Ethical Traps." What this article will share, though, is a few of my experiences with social networking and related websites, with highlights of some of the most effective tools that lawyers should consider using.

The New Generation of Lawyer Profiles or Electronic Biographies

Law firms formerly owned large, "lawyerly"-looking sets of Martindale-Hubbell's famous directories, prominently displayed in a particular lawyer's office or more likely a conference room or law library. In fact, those sets often served -- and still do from time to time -- as backdrops of headshot photographs of lawyers in a given firm or perhaps the setting for a video advertisement. These resources are still useful for certain tasks, such as researching a particular lawyer's previous employment, former rating(s), and even overviews of a domestic or foreign jurisdiction's laws if you use the helpful Martindale-Hubbell law digests, which incidentally are accessible freely online: see http://blog.martindale.com/Law-Digests-on-Martindalecom-Update.

If you want to reach other lawyers or potential clients, however, you probably need to focus on Internet-based profiles or biographies (which, for simplicity, will be referred to as "profiles"). As many articles have chronicled, most clients and likely even most lawyers nowadays use Internet search engines or specific sites to find a lawyer or a colleague to whom to refer a matter. Most people no longer use printed telephone books, even if they know the name of a particular lawyer whose contact information they are seeking. Consequently, lawyers must provide Internet-based information on their background, experience, and practice areas -- or risk the potential loss of a majority of potential client inquiries or referrals.

Traditional leaders in the lawyer profile arena, such as Martindale-Hubbell (now part of LexisNexis: http://www.martindale.com or, for consumers, http://www.lawyers.com) and West Legal Directory (now part of Thomson and delivered via FindLaw: http://www.findlaw.com), still offer these services. In fact, their basic listings are free. The free listings display limited information, but they are certainly worth considering, even for the most frugal lawyer who relies exclusively on old-fashioned (though arguably still superior) word-of-mouth referrals.

To utilize the more advanced features of one of the traditional leader's sites, you must pay an applicable subscription. For example, I recently subscribed to Martindale-Hubbell's premium profile service after avoiding that for years because of the value-added services of search engine optimization of the profile; the additional information that you can display, including office locations and contact information, fee information, and expanded descriptions of your practice; and the more reasonable pricing now available. For a sole practitioner or small firm, Martindale-Hubbell's premium profile now typically costs between $1,500 and $3,000 per year (although, as with any pricing information, you should research on your own to confirm any pricing mentioned in this or any other article). (As an aside, I wish that the American Bar Association would obtain significant discounts on this type of service, which would seem to make sense for organizations such as Martindale-Hubbell.)

These advanced features also include social networking tools, such as Martindale-Hubbell's "Connected," and even a blogging module. As a result, you may find colleagues and add them to your network, exchange ideas within the networking system, and further expand your profile description. In my experience, these legally-oriented networking sites and systems still need to be enhanced and promoted in order to gain meaningful traction. Few lawyers seem to know about these tools, which are definitely not as mature as the pure social networking sites such as FaceBook, discussed below.

In addition, I would like to see the ability to link to an existing social networking site, such as FaceBook or LinkedIn, rather than being required to use the legally-oriented version's own (redundant) data entry. The same suggestion applies to blogs. I would prefer to create one blog and then have other blogging tools merely point to that one and even retrieve my postings from it. These capabilities are becoming more realistic with the use of application protocol interfaces (APIs), which open up a particular site and allow it to exchange information with another site. The legally-oriented social networking sites that I have seen generally do not offer this functionality, although it is only a matter of time before they do or else they will probably fade into the technological sunset. Most -- or, more likely, nearly all -- lawyers do not have the time to maintain two or more networking sites. Integration with other leading sites is therefore critical to the success of legally-oriented social networking sites.

Other Modern Profile Sites to Consider

Beyond the typical lawyer profile sites, I have found several more progressive sites to be useful. LinkedIn ( http://www.linkedin.com ) is probably the leading business-oriented profile and networking site. In contrast to FaceBook (discussed below), LinkedIn has focused on the business community. LinkedIn offers many of the same features of an historical legal profile service, such as work history, educational background, and even endorsements of business colleagues or clients/customers. It also offers a strong networking capability, though, that allows you to identify existing business relationships and even build new relationships.

LinkedIn, like many other networking sites and systems, allows you to add direct contacts whom you know. You may search LinkedIn via one of your online address books, such as Google's Gmail or Yahoo, to identify contacts who are already LinkedIn members. You may also invite those who are not already LinkedIn members to join and simultaneously become one of your contacts.

Then you may generally see the contacts of your own connected contacts -- secondary or more remote relationships (or "friends of friends" in FaceBook parlance) -- to determine if you want to invite them into your own network. In other words, if I am connected to Albert A. Barrister, I can typically see his contacts and even the contacts of his contacts. Also similar to other networking sites, LinkedIn will suggest additional contacts and illustrate how you are connected, if at all. To continue my example, assume that Albert is connected to Bridget B. Solicitor. She would be a second-degree contact of mine. If I wanted to connect to Bridget's connection Clayton C. Lawson, I would see Clayton as a third-degree relationship and ask him to connect with me. These concepts should be familiar (or perhaps even familial) to trust and estate lawyers, who know all about tables of consanguinity and the like!

LinkedIn also sends you regular updates to inform you of the contacts made by your own connections, which then allow you to make those same connections if you see someone whom you know. You may also read how your connections have updated their profiles. Other reporting and tracking features are available as well.

LinkedIn's free service is very good in my experience. You cannot use the more advanced networking features of the system, such as sending numerous "InMail" messages (which I believe are simply email messages via LinkedIn's own proprietary system). However, most lawyers probably would not use those features regularly anyway. Other enhancements, including a "Pro" offering that displays your status as such, are also available.

Another site that you should definitely consider in my view is Justia ( http://www.justia.com ), which seems to be affiliated with Cornell University's Legal Information Institute (LII) (see, e.g., http://lawyers.law.cornell.edu/ -- the same appearance as Justia and driven by the Justia system) even though it was created by a group in Silicon Valley. Justia offers one of best lawyer profiles in my estimate. It resembles profiles such as Martindale-Hubbell, but is more advanced in that it subdivides your profile information into numerous well-designed, collapsible (or expandable) sections, such as an overview section, which includes professional experience, education, professional activities, awards, fees, certifications, jurisdictions, and various excellent links to your website(s), social networking profiles (with small icons to boot, which looks very good), and legal profiles (with the same small icons); a publications section, where you may list your articles and other works; a blogs section, which links directly to nearly every blogging tool imaginable with the ability to display your recent postings; a Twitter and feeds section, which is similar to the blogging section above; a videos section; a contact information and mapping section (powered by Google); and an administrative settings section. To illustrate the level of design and sophistication of Justia, the contact section automatically generates an electronic business card (vCard), based on the information included in your profile, that visitors may download.

The full features of Justia are available freely. If you are interested in enhancing your search results, you should include as much information as possible in your profile, consider supporting the LII (see https://lawyers.justia.com/contribute), or write a legal blog. A contribution to LII is reasonable for the lower-level premium search enhancement. Known as a "bronze badge," it costs $250 per year. There are also silver ($500 per year) and gold ($1,000 per year) badges, which cost more but increase your search result optimization.

There are other profile sites worth considering, such as Avvo ( http://www.avvo.com -- also a newer lawyer ratings site) and JD Supra ( http://www.jdsupra.com ). Because this area changes almost daily, you should review other articles and resources to determine if another site has been developed or addresses your needs in a better way. The sites above have served my purposes well thus far, though.

Social Networking Sites that Lawyers Should Probably Approach Cautiously

Lawyers should also consider more "mainstream" social networking sites and profiles. Based on my limited research, one of the primary risks with one of these sites is that many people view them as personal sites. For example, many people throughout the country and now the world use FaceBook ( http://www.facebook.com ) to provide updates to their families and friends, including everything from the birth of a child to remarks regarding the cool new car next to someone who should not be updating their FaceBook status at all (because of their current operation of a motor vehicle!). That is not to say, however, that lawyers absolutely should not use FaceBook. On the contrary, FaceBook allows you to create a corporate-based page that can be linked to your individual FaceBook account and profile. There you may post upcoming events, such as educational seminars or related presentations that you will be delivering, along with plenty of additional information on your law firm and practice.

Again, from my perspective, I think that you can use FaceBook effectively if you intentionally choose to use it for your general business development or similar purposes. If you want to use it to connect or reconnect with family and friends, share photographs of children, or something along those personal lines, my recommendation is to create two separate individual FaceBook accounts: one that you use for business and the other purely for personal purposes.

FaceBook is free, as most of the known universe knows. I literally just received a message via FaceBook from a good friend in Nashville that FaceBook will begin charging about $15 per month in mid-2010. I leisurely surfed to Snopes ( http://www.snopes.com ), entered a general description, and arrived at the confirmation that this message is erroneous (or "false," as Snopes classifies it). You truly need to be careful when you receive a message like this, which my good friend obviously did, because the author of the message can attempt to lead you to a website that proceeds to collect information from your computer after you select the link provided in the bogus email message. (As another aside, I routinely check Snopes or a similar website if I receive something that appears legitimate but just does not "smell right" due to the message's bizarre claims or promises; please use common sense out there, folks, when examining electronic information and deciding which links to click and which to kick into the permanently-deleted trash can.)

FaceBook pioneered social networking as we all know it. You may connect with others and then, depending on their privacy settings, potentially connect with their "friends" (or connections as LinkedIn would describe them -- another illustration of the differences in the two sites' general audience and typical users). If you later decide to disconnect from someone, you may "unfriend" them, which bizarrely passed muster with the Oxford Dictionary committee to become an authentic English word. (I would still differ on that decision!)

Twitter ( http://www.twitter.com ) is another site that deserves to be mentioned, but with the same cautionary recommendations. The rest of us in the legal community honestly do not want to know that you just took out your garbage! Likewise, do your lawyer friends really need to hear about your child's soccer game? I am all for devotion to your family, your faith, and everything else that is important to you. It seems wise to me, though, to decide how you want to use Twitter and then proceed accordingly.

I must confess here that I am guilty of a minimal amount of "mixed use" both of FaceBook and Twitter. I generally use both for business purposes only. Nevertheless, I sometimes use FaceBook in particular for personal purposes. I try to take precautions by only sharing personal information via FaceBook's messaging system. I try to avoid spending any level of substantial time on FaceBook because I know a few friends who nearly live on it! I should take my own recommendations, though, and create a separate personal account or else use "lists" to segregate business and personal contacts.

Both of these social networking sites and others above allow you to link them, simultaneously sharing information via FaceBook and Twitter (and any other connected profiles). You might also want to utilize tools such as ShareThis ( http://www.sharethis.com ), which is one of my favorite technological discoveries. You may create a ShareThis account and then, via an Internet browser plug-in (or other means if you choose), share links or other information to your blog, your Twitter account, your FaceBook account, and more. You may also share something again very easily, all without leaving the page that you just found interesting.

Conclusion

The business of legal services and how they are marketed is changing as rapidly as most other industries, expanded daily by the Internet and related technological tools. Lawyers should at least consider a few of the premier profile websites -- both legal- and general business-oriented sites -- to list their biographies, typically at no charge. These sites feed into all major search engines and will likely lead potential new clients and referral sources to your firm or you. Caution is warranted, of course, with particular concerns regarding confidentiality of client identities and information, advertising rules, and other ethical rules governing the legal profession, which do indeed vary from one jurisdiction to another. Overall, though, lawyers should become more social in a professional way in this new age of social networking. And if you have questions as to how to sign up or use these tools, just grab a younger colleague or a younger relative!

Jason E. Havens, P.O. Box 5496, Destin, FL 32541; jason@trustestatelaw.net.