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January 2008 Issue | Volume 34 Number 1 | Page 47
Features

Online Social Networking for Lawyers

Ins and Outs of Social Networking for Lawyers: How Tough Is It to Cast Your Profile into Infinity?

Renowned legal bloggers and Web mavens Denise Howell and Ernest Svenson interact in a conversation that explores the dynamics—and the potential—of these sites.

Denise Howell: First off, Ernie, what social networking sites do you like, and why?

Ernie Svenson: I like LinkedIn and the fact that I can essentially have an online resume that is tied to a distinct group of people who, for the most part, I know in some professional capacity. I also like the ability to search LinkedIn for people that went to my law school during the years I was there, or to search for people who work at particular companies. However, I don’t know that it’s really been useful in getting me business referrals. LinkedIn has huge potential, but it has been more stagnant than it should be. The recent decision to allow users to post their pictures may signal that LinkedIn now understands that a professional network can be more personal.

There have been various reports that a lot of LinkedIn users are starting to make use of Facebook. Why do you think that i s?

DH: Actually, I’m one of the people who abandoned LinkedIn for Facebook—which is a site that I use daily and actively. As things now stand, I think Facebook is the winner in the interactivity battle. LinkedIn is designed as a network for businesspeople, which might seem more attractive for those in the legal profession, and I know there are those who find that it accomplishes precisely what they want. But Facebook is intentionally a larger universe, and one that makes it far easier to keep up with the doings of everyone in your network. Conversely, they can more easily keep up with you.

One important difference is the functionality of the sites’ privacy controls. For those who take the time to examine and tweak their privacy settings, Facebook makes it possible to funnel certain information only to certain parties. These fine-grained access controls help Facebook move beyond a resume-type experience and encourage an ongoing and evolving exchange between you and everyone in your network—and that network can include anyone who is important to you, above and beyond merely business contacts. Also, because Facebook makes it easier and more comfortable for people to share more of themselves and their interests, the information on the site is more genuine and less filtered. Facebook emulates social interactions in the real world in an impressive way.

Facebook’s “Groups” feature also takes the platform to another level. By joining public groups that match their interests (there are private ones as well), members find themselves interacting with others who are not already in their network of “Friends” but who share very similar interests. In addition, Facebook is beginning to allow more information out of its closed universe via RSS. The ability to subscribe to feeds of your friends’ status updates, posted items, notifications and the like makes it even more convenient to stay in touch and informed.

Lastly, Facebook’s iPhone application works really well (its mobile application works on other phones, too), making it possible to stay on top of your network’s activities wherever you have a cell signal. In this way Facebook supplements and is starting to replace my locally maintained address book. If we’re connected on Facebook, the contact information I need is just a click away wherever I may be.

So what’s your take on Facebook?

ES: I confess to also liking Facebook, and more than LinkedIn, mostly for the reasons that you set forth. But I also confess to not taking advantage of my privacy control options, and therein lies my conflict with Facebook. There are so many options and plug-ins that I sometimes feel overwhelmed. For example, I was curious about the Groups feature when I first started using it, but I couldn’t figure out how to get notifications of Group activity sent to my home page by default. I consulted the nearest and best Facebook expert I could find, and after listening to my question, my 17-year-old daughter said, “I don’t really use Groups much and none of my friends do either.” And with that I was left to wonder whether Facebook is indeed overly complex (or whether my daughter is maybe undermotivated).

In fairness to Facebook, though, we all must acknowledge that online social networks inevitably become as complex as the underlying social connections that they strive to manage. One of the hot new social sites I’ve discovered is Yelp, which allows average folks to review local restaurants and clubs. The reviews range from infantile to well written. But it is easy to learn how to filter and blitz through reviews and thereby gather good assessments of restaurants. The inherent messiness of Yelp is, to me, a strong suit. Too much polish can signal that the reviewer has been paid to take a favorable stance.

So, where am I going with this? Here’s the point: Maybe the more structured a social network is, the less dynamic or useful it is.

DH: I too distrust a lot of structure and polish in a social network. Messiness can lead to useful results, like the collaborative take on a restaurant experience that results from a random group of Yelp reviewers, or the collaborative take on a book experience that results from a random group of Amazon reviewers. This starts to get at why so many social networking sites have developed such devoted followings: Executed well, they can function as tools that actually save you time and help you get things done, rather than putting up roadblocks to accomplishing tasks, or saddling you with more “responsibilities” than you had before participating in the network.

Several years ago, before social networking platforms exploded, Shoshana Zuboff and James Maxim cowrote a thought-provoking book called The Support Economy: Why Corporations Are Failing Individuals. In it, they discussed how online tools for purchasing, booking travel and so forth can appear to be time-savers but in reality wind up “outsourcing” much time-consuming busy work to the customer. The authors posited that a “support economy” would spring up to help people cope with their overwhelming data and task management issues. I’m vastly oversimplifying their thesis, but social networks fit well within Zuboff and Maxim’s framework because of the way these sites and their communities can become your personal agents.

Yelp is a good example. And Facebook beats any contact management system I’ve ever used, not only because it tells you how someone can be reached (without you having to input or update that data), but also what they may be working on or interested in most recently. Twitter likewise keeps you up-to-the-minute on your contacts’ activities, and because it’s designed for mobile use, it lets you tap into that infostream wherever you might be. Flickr’s Creative Commons search puts literally millions of licensed images at your beck and call. Upcoming applies the wisdom of the crowds to events. Pownce marries community, microblogging and file transfer. Google Reader, del.icio.us, Digg, Rojo and Newsvine offer different takes on letting you follow what a large universe of people are reading and tagging. A wealth of needs are being filled by these and similar platforms.

A recent article in the Australian newspaper The Age discussed lawyers “building up bloggable hours”—that is, blogging to raise their own and their firm’s professional profiles. You’ve personally built quite a profile through blogging. Do you think it’s possible to do this effectively with social networking sites?

ES: Having a traditional legal profile typically means speaking at conferences and writing articles that highlight one’s expertise. But when I discovered blogging, I found that I could get noticed by broadcasting in a new medium. At first I was a small fish in a small pond. Then as blogging became more mainstream, I was a relatively large fish in a small but growing pond. The pond has gotten bigger now and my “relative” profile has diminished, but it’s still a significant profile because I entered the medium early. I know that you have the same experience from your blog.

So experience leads me to conclude that social networking tools like blogging, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and so forth are most powerful when you are willing to experiment with them early on—while the pond is still small enough, so to speak. The cost of using these tools is zero if you measure in monetary terms, and it is minimal if you measure in temporal terms. But the payoff in terms of getting attention is potentially huge, limited only by your curiosity and initiative. I’m certainly not advocating that everyone just go online and start trying to connect with people in random ways. But many people (myself included) have had great success despite not having any formal plan. If you understand the tools and you have a plan, then odds are you’ll reach your goal more quickly.

When I started practicing law I wanted to join a firm because I appreciated the ability to work with other lawyers and bounce ideas off of them. It wasn’t easy to work collaboratively unless you joined a group of lawyers. The Internet has changed that. Now I have at my disposal a very broad range of lawyers whom I can call on whenever I want to brainstorm an issue. In fact, my network of “colleagues” is bigger now in my solo practice than it was when I worked at a law firm. And a number of the clients that have come to me recently are people who would never have found me if I hadn’t had an online presence. I no longer think of my professional profile as something static that gets periodically updated, like a resume. My professional profile is now something highly dynamic and easily accessed by anyone in any part of the world. I think the online social networking tools that are freely available to everyone can do the same for other lawyers.

About the Author

Denise Howell is an appellate, intellectual property and technology lawyer who muses on legal issues and other subjects on her Bag and Baggage blog.

Ernest Svenson , principal of The Svenson Law Firm, is a business litigator who ruminates on a gamut of professional and personal topics on his Ernie the Attorney blog.

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