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Leveraging Connections Online: Sold on LinkedIn
This social networking site promotes interesting and personal connections.

By Erik J. Heels

Used to promote interesting and personal connections, this social networking site is a reminder of what e-mail was like in its early days. Plus, it beats trying to keep your address book updated.

LinkedIn has generated a lot of buzz—and a bit of criticism, too. I admit that I, in the spring of 2006, criticized LinkedIn for three reasons: (1) it generated spam from strangers, (2) I was concerned about the privacy of my address book, and (3) real relationships are better than virtual relationships. Looking at the proverbial LinkedIn glass pessimistically, I definitely considered it half-empty.

A year later, I have completely changed my mind based on positive experience with using the service. So I will now refute my earlier arguments and explain how LinkedIn can benefit like-minded lawyers.

LinkedIn Basics

LinkedIn is a business social networking service. In other words, it acts as a central online meeting place for business contacts to network and find other contacts. People use LinkedIn to get back in touch with college classmates, law school classmates, former coworkers and the like. They also use it for promoting their professional capabilities, announcing job openings, looking for service providers, and recommending service providers. As of this writing, there are 9 million LinkedIn members.

There are several types of LinkedIn accounts, ranging from the Basic personal account, which is free, on to the Business, Business Plus and Pro accounts, which are currently priced from $19.50 to $200 per month. There are various perks involved as the prices go up, but the most important difference between the personal free account and the various business accounts is the ability to send InMails.

InMails are private messages sent within the LinkedIn system from one user to another. Think of them as e-mail messages without e-mail addresses. If you find people you know in the system and if they have agreed to accept InMails, then you can contact them directly in LinkedIn. I have a Business Plus account, which costs $500 per year (or $50 per month) and allows me to send 10 InMails per month. Because LinkedIn has made InMails scarce, they have more value, and I (and other members) use my InMails very selectively.

Refuting Criticisms of LinkedIn

First, as you might guess from my preceding statement about the value of InMails, LinkedIn messages are not spam. Would you get a lot of spam if spammers had to pay $5 for each message? Probably not. When I get a LinkedIn InMail, it reminds me of what e-mail was like 15 years ago. Each message was interesting, each was worth reading. I have found the same to be true with LinkedIn. There are the occasional off-the-wall communications, like a former coworker who pretends to know you personally and sends you a request to connect. But you don't have to accept requests to connect with people you don't know (or don't want to be associated with), and you don't have to reply to InMail messages. From the InMail sender's perspective, LinkedIn will credit back your account if you don't receive a reply within seven days.

Second, you are not sharing your address book with LinkedIn. You are sharing information about yourself in your public profile. But profile information is typically the same information that is already available on the Web: where you went to school, where you worked, what your current bio says and the like. (See Figure 1.) In addition, you are sharing information about who you know. And if you'd rather not tell everybody who you know, then you can make your connections private. However, I think this defeats the purpose of LinkedIn. (More on this later.)

Third, real relationships do matter more than virtual relationships. But LinkedIn's connections are based on the real relationships that you already have. By listing a former coworker or classmate, you are simply making it easier to keep in touch with people who move more frequently than you can update your address book. In the Internet age, I challenge anyone to keep an address book current without the help of the people listed in the address book. This is one of the main benefits of LinkedIn.

Putting the Site to Use

Since becoming sold on LinkedIn, I have invited all of my clients, former clients, prospective clients, classmates and former coworkers to reconnect. However, because some people object to having their e-mail addresses given to social networking services without their permission, I've invited people in two separate ways. First, I've searched to see if they are already in LinkedIn. Second, I've sent each an e-mail with the URL for my LinkedIn profile and invited them to connect that way. If they were already a LinkedIn member and wanted to connect, great. If they weren't, that was okay, too.

I wish that LinkedIn had existed in 1984 when I first got on the Internet. Since then, I have had the opportunity to meet thousands of people. But it is quite easy to lose touch with thousands of classmates, thousands of coworkers and thousands of business contacts. To solve this problem, I decided to let a lot of people find me indirectly: by searching for themselves. Come on, admit it, you search for references to yourself on the Internet. Many people do, so I'm told. Knowing this, I created pages listing the people that I'd previously been associated with. For example, I have LinkedIn pages on my blog for classmates, coworkers and others. I also created a social networking category on my blog.

Three months into my LinkedIn experiment, I have 232 connections, which is about 5 percent of the 8,000-plus contacts in my contacts database.

I also added links to my LinkedIn profile on my blog. I didn't want to have more than one URL in my e-mail signature file, so I created a special page on my Web site that includes links to the sites that comprise my Internet identity. It's my meta home page—and in the center page (of the nine thumbnail pages) is LinkedIn.

At the beginning of each month, I send out 10 new InMail invitations. If some of those go unanswered, then I'll send out a few more.

Most significantly, perhaps, is the fact that I mention LinkedIn when I meet interesting new people. The question, "Do you have a LinkedIn account?" in 2007 is like the question, "Do you have an e-mail address?" in 1992. LinkedIn is the next big thing.

I know some lawyers who belong to LinkedIn but keep their connections on it private. If you do this, however, you're less useful to your connections. If you are afraid that other lawyers will steal your clients by virtue of knowing who they are, then you've got big problems (and must not have very good relationships with your clients). And if you are the kind who would try to steal clients from another via LinkedIn, then you've got even bigger problems.

I recently met a like-minded lawyer who shared my no-nonsense approach to patent and trademark law. We were on opposite sides of a cease-and-desist letter, but that didn't stop me from sending him a LinkedIn invitation. And it didn't stop him from accepting.

Seeing the Big Picture

I think you have to take the long-term view of things in life. Today's adversaries might be tomorrow's partners. Some businesses might need a patent lawyer or trademark lawyer only once per decade. Maybe they'll find me via LinkedIn.

My long-term goal isn't to have the most LinkedIn contacts—or to spam my contacts with information about the services my firm provides. My goal is to be more helpful to my connections than they are to me. In this way, people will want to continue to connect with me, and good things will happen. The LinkedIn glass is definitely half-full. And then some.

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