LinkedIn: How to grow, nurture your network and obtain results

Dennis Kennedy

Dennis Kennedy

Allison C. Shields
Allison C. Shields

Social media website LinkedIn topped 100 million registered users last year, and among them are 770,000 people in the legal field, making the legal sector the fifth largest user group on the website. Founded less than a decade ago, LinkedIn is now the premier business social networking tool, say Dennis Kennedy and Allison C. Shields, authors of LinkedIn in One Hour for Lawyers.

Kennedy, a technology lawyer, and Shields, president of LegalEase Consulting Inc., recently met with YourABA to share how lawyers on LinkedIn can grow and nurture their networks for professional success.

Some lawyers who have joined LinkedIn complain that they have found little value in the social network. You speculate that those criticisms come from those who aren’t actively engaged in the network. Could you explain the relationship between usage and value, and the ways that lawyers can maximize the value of their LinkedIn presence?
   
As the lottery people like to say, you can’t win if you don’t play. There is a definite correlation between usage, especially quality of usage, and the value you get from LinkedIn.
 
We sometimes say that LinkedIn is simultaneously the most used and most underused social media platform for lawyers. When we ask lawyers questions about their usage, we find that their approaches tend to be very passive and they simply aren’t familiar the main features of LinkedIn. In the book, we talk about the three building blocks of LinkedIn—Profiles, Connection and Participation. Often, lawyers are completely unaware of one or two of those three key features.

In the simplest terms, LinkedIn attempts to map the professional connections and relationships you have in the real world to the Internet, and then gives you some powerful tools to connect to your network and, this is the key insight, to participate in your networks. Once lawyers understand what LinkedIn does, they always seem to see the ways they can use it to increase the value. It’s funny how often lawyers will tell us after hearing us talk about LinkedIn that they realized that they had missed the point of LinkedIn and planned to start to use it better.

Think of LinkedIn like you would any other “real life” networking group: to get the most out of it, you need to participate. If you just set up a bare bones LinkedIn profile and passively sit back and wait for invitations to connect to arrive in your inbox, or invite connections without giving any thought to why they would want to connect with you or how you can help them, you’re just like the lawyer who attends networking events and hands out business cards, but does not follow up. In either case, business is unlikely to follow.

Networking is about building and fostering relationships. Relationships, whether online or in the real world, need to be nurtured. To gain the most benefit possible from LinkedIn, you need to be actively engaged. You need to send personalized invitations, follow up with your connections, make an effort to help others and provide value to your network.

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Somewhat related to my last question: You emphasize participation in the social network. What kind of activities should lawyers explore on LinkedIn?

Before jumping in to specific activities, we encourage lawyers to think about how they network in the real world, who their target audience is, and what type of participation makes sense for them personally and professionally. How do you network to get referrals and new clients? How do you reach out to existing clients? Do you write articles, speak, participate on boards or community groups, play golf or do other things? Once you understand that, the ways that you might use LinkedIn will become pretty apparent.

There are a number of specific ways lawyers can participate on LinkedIn. Three of the most important are Updates, Groups and Answers.

Updates are short messages you share with your network, similar to Facebook status updates. Think of Updates as very short marketing or networking messages that you send to your network to keep them informed about not only what you are doing, but also to share content and information that is of value to your audience.

One of the best ways to build stronger relationships within LinkedIn is through Groups. In Groups, people share information, brainstorm ideas and discuss their interests and challenges, and post informational articles and links, making it easy for you to get to know others, and for them to get to know you.

There are LinkedIn Groups organized around almost any topic you can think of: alumni, industries, practice areas, hobbies and many more. To get the most benefit from Groups, you have to be an active participant—discussing, writing, commenting and connecting with Group members. When you participate, other Group members will see your picture and a mini profile with your name and headline, and they can click to see your full profile. Participating in Groups helps you to establish your knowledge and expertise.

The Answers feature in LinkedIn allows lawyers to answer questions and show both their willingness to help and their expertise.

If you write articles or like to let people know about new legal developments, sending regular Updates with links to articles or developments will make sense. If you like to bring together groups of people with common interests, participating in or starting your own LinkedIn Group will make sense. If you network by matchmaking—putting people together who should know each other—LinkedIn’s connecting tools might be a powerful way to use LinkedIn. Writers and speakers will want to use some of the LinkedIn apps to make articles and slides available. The key word in your question is “explore.” LinkedIn has a lot of useful features and tools that many lawyers simply don’t realize even exist.

Could you provide some tips for creating robust, dynamic profiles that get noticed?

Two general tips come immediately to mind. First, fully complete your LinkedIn profile. LinkedIn gives you a set of “wizards” to walk you through that process and a helpful “completion percentage” to remind you that you haven’t finished. Second, imagine that you are reading your profile as an outsider who really wants to learn more about you, maybe even because they knew you in school or at a previous job. Don’t use a traditional resume or, worse yet, the standard internally-focus law firm bio (“a partner in the real estate group at ABC firm”). You’ve got plenty of space to write a plainspoken, helpfully descriptive bio. Even thinking of the profile as a “bio” rather than a “resume” will help you.

Edit your “Professional Headline:” Instead of just your title or insider firm descriptions (“associate” or “partner”), use all of the 120 characters allotted in the Professional Headline field and provide information helpful to someone outside your firm. Describe your practice area, your clients or your services.

Make good use of the “Summary” field: The "Professional Experience and Goals" portion allows approximately 330 words to describe what you do. It appears at the top of the profile, and is often read more than the description under your current position.  Consider it a chance to give your “elevator pitch.”

Fill out the “Publications” and “Skills” portions of your profile: Published books and articles add to your credibility and help establish your expertise by demonstrating what you know. LinkedIn is returning search results directly linked to the skills listed in your profile, so it is important to add something to this section for the best search results possible. Completing this section is an opportunity to highlight specific skills that potential clients (or potential employers) may be seeking.

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What are some techniques that users can employ to grow their number of connections?

In the book, we highlight seven different ways to grow your connections using tools LinkedIn has built in. There are three ways we really like to jump-start your number of connections, keeping in mind, of course, that you need to decide where you fall on the quality versus quantity continuum. Whatever method you use, remember to use personalized invitations rather than the default, generic LinkedIn invitation template.

First, you can import your contacts from Outlook or a web-based email account like Gmail. It’s a simple importing process that will show you a list of the contacts you import into LinkedIn with an icon that identifies those already in LinkedIn. You can check the box by a name and send LinkedIn invitations to them.

Second, LinkedIn leverages the information about your current and previous employers in your profile—another good reason to complete your profile—and generates lists of “colleagues” from those employers who are members of LinkedIn and gives you an easy tool to invite them to connect to you.

Third, in the same way, LinkedIn will generate a list of “alumni,” from your college and law school who are members of LinkedIn, and gives you a tool to invite them to connect to you in LinkedIn. The great feature here is that you can see the list for your graduating class or for people who attended the schools during all the years you were there.

The “Alumni” and “Colleagues” build intelligently on the idea that those places are likely to be primary sources of people in your network.

There are search and other tools to help you add connections, but using one or more of the three we just mentioned will get you off and running with building out your network on LinkedIn. Also, be sure to watch the “People You May Know” suggestions LinkedIn provides.

Something many lawyers seem to forget is that whenever you meet someone in person—at a bar association event, networking breakfast or even at a social event—follow up with an invitation to connect on LinkedIn. Then follow up again by taking the relationship offline; call them on the telephone or meet for coffee to continue the conversation.

Privacy is a concern of many social network users. What are your recommendations for the LinkedIn privacy settings?

First, be aware that they exist and know where to find them. LinkedIn makes that easy by grouping the controls and putting them in one place. Then take 10 or 15 minutes to work your way through the settings. LinkedIn has excellent help features, so be sure to consult those if you have any questions.

For the most part, activity on LinkedIn is business-related; since there isn’t much personal information being shared, there aren’t too many privacy-related issues. However, users should be aware that LinkedIn allows you to control the visibility of various pieces of content you post on LinkedIn. For example, you can control whether people can see when you change your profile, follow companies or make recommendations. You can also limit who can see your activities, Connections and Updates, and control what information is shown if you view other users’ profiles. Most lawyers will want to be sure that the box under the social advertising setting, “LinkedIn may use my name, photo in social advertising,” is not checked.

We haven’t heard much on the issue of privacy with respect to LinkedIn over the years, especially in comparison to other social media platforms. Probably the best advice we can give on privacy is to change your password on a regular basis and use “strong” passwords (combinations of upper and lower case letters, numbers and symbols).

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How can a lawyer leverage his presence on LinkedIn to attract potential clients?

A common reason that lawyers are disappointed with LinkedIn it that they join and sit back and wait for new clients to roll in. LinkedIn is really a networking tool, not a direct marketing channel. We like to emphasize that LinkedIn will work better for you if you focus on potential referrers of business rather than potential clients.

The best ways to attract potential clients are by building strong relationships and demonstrating knowledge of the clients’ business and challenges and expertise in solving clients’ problems. Each of these can be accomplished through participation on LinkedIn.  In other words, you must provide value to your LinkedIn network. Again, you must think of LinkedIn in the same way as you think of real world networking.

Answering questions and participating in discussions demonstrate a lawyer’s concern for the audience and willingness to engage in brainstorming and problem-solving activities. Making introductions to others on LinkedIn helps lawyers build others’ networks and provides value to the lawyer’s connections. Just as these activities create business opportunities in the real world, they can create opportunities for business on LinkedIn.

What are some tips and tricks that lawyers may not be aware of?

Customize website links: In your LinkedIn profile, you can (and should) provide three links, for your website, blog and other pages on the Internet. However, LinkedIn defaults to names like “Company Website” for the links on your profile. Click on the “Edit” button and customize those links to reflect the destination site; instead of “Company Website,” name it “[Yourfirmname] Law Firm Site.”

Personalize your invitations to connect: Don’t use LinkedIn’s default message. On LinkedIn, you add connections by inviting people to connect to you and—this is important—having them accept your invitations. The default message LinkedIn sends with an invitation to connect doesn’t provide the recipient with any information about you or much context about what your relationship might be. Don’t count on your invitees clicking over to LinkedIn to view your profile or to searching for you online when they get your invitation. Give them enough information to identify who you are and why connecting with you makes sense for them. A custom invitation also gives you the chance to say hello, remind them of a good experience you shared, and encourage a reply in addition to an acceptance of your invitation.

Change your public profile link: The default URL for your LinkedIn profile contains a long set of gibberish characters. If you sign in to your LinkedIn account and click on the “Edit” button in the view profile screen next to your public Profile link, you can change the URL to eliminate the nonsense characters and substitute your name, your firm’s name or other branding you use. It’s a simple way to make it easier to find your profile, show that you are LinkedIn savvy and reinforce your brand.

How do the ethical rules impact lawyers’ participation in LinkedIn? Should they have a disclaimer?

The ethical rules lawyers must follow vary depending upon their jurisdiction’s individual rules, and all lawyers should review those rules carefully to see how they affect participation on LinkedIn and other social networking sites. Many jurisdictions do require disclaimers and if your jurisdiction requires it, you must include it; and it may be a good practice for all lawyers to include some form of disclaimer on their LinkedIn profile. But regardless of whether lawyers include a formal disclaimer on their profile, all lawyers should be aware that as a general rule, lawyers are prohibited from making false or misleading statements about themselves or their services and they should take care to prevent creating unjustified expectations in the mind of the website visitor.

State bar regulators do have a tendency to look at lawyers’ usage of social media. However, in the last few years, we’ve gotten the feeling that the ethics people are starting to see LinkedIn as an appropriate professional networking tool and seem to be getting less suspicious of LinkedIn usage. You need to keep up with developments. Probably the big issues in LinkedIn are disclaimers, as we mentioned; whether recommendations fall into the category of “endorsements;” and whether answering questions might fall under the definition of giving legal advice.

We have found that LinkedIn, possibly because LinkedIn knows that lawyers are a significant group of users, has done a good job of providing lawyers with options that will help them comply with ethical requirements.

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