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ABA TECHSHOW 2009 TECHNOLOGY TIPS ISSUE

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Features | Frontlines | Technology | Business

March 2009 Issue | Volume 35 Number 2 | Page 28
TECHNOLOGY

NEW COLUMN! LEGAL WEB 2.0 - Online Social Networking: Is It a Productivity Bust or Boon for Law Firms? By Doug Cornelius

The term Web 2.0 was coined to reflect the interactive nature of the modern Web, where new tools have emerged to allow everyone—including lawyers—to contribute commentary, collaborate instantly and work digitally in formerly unimaginable ways. In this column, we invite savvy legal technology experts to write about tools and tactics that lawyers can use to leverage the power of the Web 2.0 (r)evolution.

A number of law firms block access to social networking sites because they believe it translates to social not -working in the office. Yet one has to wonder how valid that concern is—especially when weighed against the advantages that these sites can bring.

Once a fairly static read-only environment, the Internet has transformed into a highly social place where people across the globe actively communicate, interact and share their ideas and expertise. Social networking sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn are among the hottest spots on the Web today. But despite that—or rather, because of that—some law firms are frowning on the use of such sites and blocking access to them in the workplace.

To get an idea of the issues underlying this trend, and how widespread the practice of blocking might be, I put together an unscientific survey, which was distributed via—you guessed it—some interactive Web sites, including the Law Practice Today webzine and the co-operative blog Slaw.ca. Here’s an overview of what the survey revealed—and how the concerns raised can be debunked.

Arguments for Blocking—And the Counterpoints

Of the 231 respondents to the survey, 45 percent said their firms block access to some social Web sites. The most commonly blocked sites in the respondents’ firms are Facebook, MySpace and YouTube, which are also three of the most popular sites on the Web. See the chart below for a breakdown.

The main reasons for blocking, they reported, were concerns about the following:

  • Loss of productivity
  • Viruses
  • Confidentiality
  • Bandwidth consumption

So how valid are these reasons? Let’s consider each in turn.

Loss of productivity. According to the survey, the specter of lost productivity is the most common reason for blocking social media sites. However, many firms felt the same concern when they first opened up access to the early Web, e-mail and probably even telephones. This is not a technology problem—it is a people problem. Unproductive people will still find ways to be unproductive without using the social Web: daydreaming, crossword puzzles and endless coffee breaks have been around for a long time. Proper supervision and performance policies are the real solution to this concern.

Viruses. The Internet has many ways to cause malicious damage to your computers. However, social networking sites do not provide any new avenues for malfeasance that don’t exist otherwise on the Web or in e-mail usage. Every law firm should, as a matter of course, have the full range of security protections on its systems and educate all firm personnel about the potential for malfeasance in any online activities.

Confidentiality. It’s true that the social Web provides ways for attorneys to breach client confidentiality and to otherwise offend clients. But these confidentiality breaches can also happen by e-mail, on the phone and in the hallway. It is more important to educate the firm about maintaining client confidentiality in all forms of communication, both offline and online.

Bandwidth. A surprise in the survey results was that firms are concerned the social Web is consuming too much of their Internet bandwidth. However, Internet connectivity has become a utility just like electricity, water and sewer lines. You would not build your law office with too little electrical capacity, so why in the 21st century would you have an office with too little Internet capacity?

Advantages Firms Miss by Blocking People of all ages and all walks of life are relying on social Web sites to share, discuss and disseminate information. Some of those people are bound to be your clients and potential clients, your employees, your prospective recruits and your competitors. Can your firm really afford to miss out on reaching them? Consider the following.

Think massive audience. Online social networking is shaping up into a tremendous business development tool. There are over 150 million users on Facebook alone, and professionals are growing their contacts on LinkedIn by leaps and bounds. Lawyers who successfully leverage these sites have a distinct advantage over those who don’t. And isn’t building one’s network and name recognition a justifi ed use of workday time?

Also, for better or worse, people are saying things about your lawyers, your firm and your clients on the social Web and you are missing those conversations if your firm is not on the social Web, too. To block access is to block these conversations, which in many instances could keep you from knowing things that affect your firm and its practices. Moreover, even if their access is blocked at the office, your people can still access the sites at home and through mobile devices. If they identify themselves with your firm, what they say affects your firm. Enabling the online conversations at the office, where you can implement proper oversight procedures, can help you maintain ownership of your firm’s brand on the social Web.

Consider the recruiting pool. In the Deacons’ Social Networking Survey 2008 , 16 percent of the respondents said that an employer’s policy for the social Internet would influence their decision to join one employer over another. Now, imagine that percentage rising as more Gen Y and millennials keep pouring into your recruiting pool. Law school students and junior lawyers grew up immersed in the Internet, and they consider the social Web the primary way to communicate with others. (In a survey of my former law firm’s summer associates, the vast majority reported using Facebook every day to keep in touch with friends.) So not only would “Faceblocking” prevent your younger lawyers from communicating with their contacts today, but it could potentially lose you future recruits as well.

Compare your competitors. Your firm may not be embracing online networking, but others certainly are. Hundreds of law firm-related groups exist on Facebook, and increasing numbers of lawyers are touting their expertise through Web 2.0 venues like YouTube.

There are currently three major sites set up for social networking for lawyers: Legal OnRamp, Martindale-Hubble Connected and the ABA’s LegallyMinded. Over 25 percent of the AmLaw 200 firms have blogs in production. These are mainstream tools for your competitors. Do you want to look out of touch in comparison?

Take a breather to refresh. Lastly, let’s return to the issue of productivity. Everyone needs a short break during the workday. In fact, taking short breaks can actually increase people’s productivity by allowing them to reenergize and get a fresh perspective on the task at hand! For many, that is best done by browsing the Internet. If someone’s choice is to check in on Facebook or watch an interesting video on YouTube, that should be allowed. Banning access to these sites shows a lack of trust in your people.

Some Caveats

While your firm should not block access to social Web sites, it should set some guidelines for using these sites. According to the survey, though, most law firms lack cohesive policies about the social Web. Policy specifics will vary based on firm size and the like, but here are some fundamentals.

  • For lawyers, certain content on social Web sites (such as “recommendations” on online networks) could be considered advertising in some states. Review your jurisdiction’s restrictions and incorporate them into your policy. (Also see “When Testimonials Meet Tweets” by Will Hornsby, in the January/February Law Practice .)
  • Be cautious about inadvertently creating an attorney-client relationship by giving advice or answering legal questions online. Instead focus on supplying information only.
  • Be aware of the differences between your personal and professional appearances on the social Web. They are not mutually exclusive domains, and your personal content will intersect with your professional content. The general rule: If you don’t want the wrong person to see it, don’t put it on the Web.

Understand the risks, but do not let fears become an excuse for inaction in taking advantage of all that the social Web offers to your firm and its lawyers.

Doug Cornelius is Chief Compliance Officer for Beacon Capital Partners, LLC. He is a frequent writer on the social Internet, knowledge management and enterprise 2.0 for lawyers.

SOCIAL NETWORK BLOCKING SURVEY

RESULTS OVERVIEW

Size of respondent’s firm
10 lawyers or less 9%
10-50 lawyers 13%
50-200 lawyers 19%
200-500 lawyers 19%
500 or more lawyers 41%

Does your firm block access to social networking sites?
Yes, our firm blocks access to some social networking sites 45%
No, we have unfiltered access to the Internet 55%

Does your firm block access to any of these sites?
Facebook 85%
MySpace 77%
Twitter 26%
LinkedIn 14%
YouTube 55%
Blogs 22%

Methodology. This survey was conducted in January 2009 on Zoomerang.com. A total of 231 individuals responded.

Web Only Content

Web Only Content: Speaking Out on Social Networking: What the End Users Say

About the Editor

Steve Matthews is principal of Stem Legal Web Enterprises and a member of Law Practice ’s Editorial Board. If you have ideas to share or topics to suggest, contact him at steve@stemlegal.com. Steve blogs at www.stemlegal.com/strategyblog.

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