One Sunday evening some months back, I turned on the television. The President would be making an announcement shortly, said the talking head.
Thoughts started to run through my head: "What the heck is going on? Are we being attacked? And if so, is it by aliens?" Hey, it was a long day. Without thinking, I turned to my go-to source for news and information. No, not CNN. And not Fox News either.
I turned to Twitter. And within about 20 seconds, I discovered that Osama Bin Laden was dead. Just like that. One of the people I follow had shared that information.
That scenario has—time and again—repeated itself when it comes to legal news: a new U.S. Supreme Court case or a new Department of Labor rule.
News breaks on Twitter. And that alone makes it an indispensable part of my practice.
But beyond that, Twitter has become one of my essential ways of communicating in both personal and professional circles.
I had trouble making a hotel reservation for a Sheraton hotel and tweeted about it. Within five minutes, I got a response from Sheraton’s Twitter account asking how they could help. Within 15 minutes, I had spoken to a live representative. Problem solved.
Flash forward to summer 2011. My brother had just captured some video of some dramatic footage of flooding in Vermont from Hurricane Irene. I posted it on YouTube and tweeted about it to Jim Cantore of the Weather Channel. Within a day, the video had gone viral (50,000 views in the first 24 hours alone) and my brother was interviewed in ABC’s World News Tonight.
I repeat that scenario on an almost daily basis. Twitter has proven to be an invaluable source of information and a great tool for chatting with other legal professionals about various legal issues. But is it right for you? Well, as lawyers like to say, “It depends.”
What is Twitter?
Twitter is an online social networking service that combines features of blogging and texting in a hyperconnected way.
The single most delicious (and, to new users, frustrating) aspect of Twitter is its insistence on one overriding rule: The message or “tweet” that you read or send can only be 140 characters or less. Why 140? Because that was the length of a text message when the service was founded. There are services available that actually allow you to send tweets that are longer than 140 characters, but most people do not use them.
What can you do in 140 characters? Turns out quite a bit. Twitter has fostered a new way to communicate that is more streamlined and more direct than anything else out there.You can share what you’re doing, or share photos or videos, but more importantly, you can share links to interesting content or post photos. People who want to hear what you have to say can “follow” you.
But, as your parents hopefully told you, it’s important to listen as well. On Twitter, you can also “listen” to people or organizations and the information that they are sharing, like National Labor Relations Board or other lawyers in your state. You do this by “following” people, which is the functional equivalent of “friending” someone on Facebook.
While Twitter does allow you to have a private profile, it pretty much defeats the entire purpose of Twitter. Thus, if you’re going to use Twitter, be prepared to do so in more of a public fashion than say, Facebook.
Another usage of Twitter, besides following people, is that you can follow or track a particular topic by searching for a keyword called a hashtag. Hashtags use the pound (#) sign in front of them. So, to follow anything related to human resources, for example, I can search for #hr or include that phrase in any tweets I write related to human resources.
Hashtags are also very useful when you are tracking or attending conferences or live events. For example, when the ABA Annual Meeting was on, a search for #abaannual would show you all the tweets from people attending the conference. This is a great way to connect with strangers.
Integral to Twitter is the resharing of other people’s tweets. This is called a “retweet.” What types of things might you share? Well, suppose a person that you follow posts a link with a note that the link contains “Great Tips for People Who Are New to Twitter.” You think that your followers might enjoy reading that? Click the “retweet” button, and presto.
Another interesting feature of Twitter is that you can use it to communicate on a “one-on-one” basis. Essentially, you can create a short message to a single person called a “direct message” or “DM.” You can also send a message to a particular user in a public way, which is called a “reply.” The difference is that a reply can be read by everyone; a direct message is seen only by the particular user. To use direct message, the other person needs to be “following” you. Don’t use DMs for client communications.
Twitter is particularly useful when you’re on the go. You can track and follow everything from a sports score, to new court cases, to traffic updates and new agency news.
But with such access comes the downside too: You can quickly get overwhelmed if you follow too many people. For example, just after the passing of Steve Jobs was announced, Twitter was reported that an average of 6,000 tweets per second were sent. So, for new users starting out, it’s important to start small and be conscious of the decisions you make.
How is Twitter Useful to Lawyers?
At the outset, let me say that there is no right way to use Twitter. You may find utility in it in ways that others don’t and vice versa. But the limitations on Twitter (Remember: It’s basically just 140- character text based messages) make it well suited for some features and not for others.
For attorneys who need to keep up to date on new developments, Twitter is a terrific vehicle for doing so. If you practice in employment law, for example, you could follow the ABA Journal, various ABA sections, the National Labor Relations Board, the U.S. Department of Labor and The New York Times, to learn about cases and issues when they break. That can give you a heads-up on your competition for informing your clients or helping out on an issue you have on a case.
But you can also interact with other attorneys (only some of whom you may know personally) who are on Twitter in your particular practice area or area of interest. This can build relationships with people who may blog in the area.
As noted above, Twitter is also very useful to track a subject as well. Thus, as an information gathering service, Twitter is unparalleled among Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook.
In the longer term, you can also build your own audience of people who have an interest in following you. You can kick start that interest by “following” them first; sometimes people return the favor by following you back.
You may find that Twitter is useful for following subjects that are not law-related. On occasion, I may tweet about some technology-related or even about my favorite team. For example, I’m a big Yankees fan. I can follow some of the reporters and bloggers who cover them and stay up to date on news and developments. It’s particularly fun during sports games to interact with others. “What a catch by Granderson!”
Twitter is also useful for seeking and receiving information about specific questions. For example, in preparation for this article, I sent a tweet out that asked for people’s best tip for new users on Twitter. I received a dozen responses. This method of seeking advice from others has been termed “crowdsourcing.”
What Twitter is probably not so good at is direct client marketing. The reach of Twitter, while global, is mainly limited to the people who follow you. Until and unless you have a mass audience (Ashton Kutcher of “Two and a Half Men,” for example), the tweets you send out will be heard by more of a core audience. That’s not necessarily a bad thing—the people who are following you likely want to hear what you have to say—but they may not be in a position to give you business.
Twitter Do’s and Don’ts
As I mentioned above, Twitter is at its best as an information sharing service. I asked my followers for their advice on Twitter do’s and don’ts, and here are some of their responses:
@lawroomkent Be authentic; it’s too exhausting to keep up a Twitter stream unless you honestly care about the topic.
@LeeBerlik #noobadvice Don’t spam Twitter; one tweet a day is enough for most people.
@JHMadarang You need to follow others in order to have followers.
@teniciavanzant I’m a newbie. I was told to use my name.
@ryanmckeen Be yourself.
@RossRunkel Give useful information, always including a link.
@egculbertson 1. Post a real picture to be taken more seriously. 2. Converse w/others when getting started, makes it more fun.
Here are some of my own tips as well:
Keep your profile open. Twitter is unlike Facebook or LinkedIn because while it is helpful to communicate with some of the people you know, Twitter is useful for reaching the people you don’t know. And the only way that you’re going to find them and they will find you is if you keep it open.
Be conscious of what you post. Because of that openness feature, I’m particularly cautious about what I tweet. My tweets mainly consist of employment law-related topics, or topics important to bar associations. On occasion, I may tweet about something technology-related or even about my favorite team, the Yankees. But I save the personal items for Facebook.
Be aware of local ethics rules. Because I use Twitter mainly for business-related reasons, I need to register my user name with Connecticut’s Statewide Grievance Committee as a type of “website advertisement.” I may disagree with the approach taken by the state in regulating this type of conduct, but that disagreement doesn’t stand in the way of me complying with the rules as well.
Share useful information. Hopefully this is self-explanatory.
Be generous with your retweets and compliments. A little courtesy goes a long way on Twitter.
Don’t limit your tweets to strictly business. Consider injecting a bit of your personality into your tweets and have a sense of humor from time to time.
Use your profile and real name. Twitter allows you to set a profile and upload a picture. Do both of these tasks. Show that you are a real person. In the same way, set your user name to your name if possible. If your name is popular, like “John Smith,” try variations like “JohnSmithEsq” or “JohnSmithNY.”
Consider using “lists” to filter your Twitter stream. You can set up lists of people who you follow. So, you may have a “lawyer” list or a “Yankees” list. Then you can view each list instead of your entire Twitter stream. It breaks up information into more manageable groups.
Don’t tweet about clients or confidential information. While ethics rules may allow certain types of information to be shared, a better rule is to limit your tweets to something other than what you’re working on or keep it vanilla. When in doubt, don’t.
Don’t be afraid to “unfollow” someone that isn’t providing helpful information. My list of people that I follow has changed over time. Some people that I followed weren’t providing the information I thought was helpful or, even worse, they were tweeting way too often. Feel free to follow or unfollow people as you wish. And don’t feel compelled to follow everyone that follows you.
Keep it Manageable. For me, having a list of about 300 people or so is the maximum number that I can follow. Anything bigger and it just seems unmanageable. But other people use it to follow thousands of others. They do so with the use of lists. Use whatever system works for you but start slowly. In my experience, it’s easier to add new users than get rid of old ones.
Tools to Manage and Monitor
As I indicated above, Twitter can be overwhelming at first. New tweets keep getting added to your stream and you can quickly get overwhelmed if you’re not careful.
Fortunately, Twitter and third-party developers have created some tools to make tweeting a little easier. I tend to use HootSuite. HootSuite allows you to set up columns to track users or hashtags or lists or whatever else you want to do. You can also use it to integrate multiple accounts from, say, Facebook or LinkedIn.
One of the best features of third-party applications like HootSuite is the ability to schedule tweets. My biggest audience for Twitter is between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. EST each business day, so if I have something that I want to be seen, I can schedule a tweet during the day, instead of 6 a.m. when I am on the computer and no one is up yet.
It used to be that I would never recommend Twitter’s mobile applications, but that’s changed recently. Both the iPhone and iPad apps are very intuitive and easy to use. And, when you’re waiting at the courthouse for a case to be called, Twitter is a great way to be productive in a limited time and space.
The Bottom Line
I use Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. But I use them all very differently because, in my view, they each have their own advantages and disadvantages. For me, Twitter is my go-to information resource, even replacing my RSS subscriptions at times. And Twitter is my best way of communicating with some people and sharing information. But I wouldn’t dream of posting family pictures on there.
Figure out what you think you can use Twitter for and jump in. And feel free to send me a note on Twitter. That’s what it’s there for.
Follow @ABATECHSHOW on twitter. Use #ABATECHSHOW in your tweets and become part of the conversation.