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Vol. 38, No. 2

Rules of engagement: Bob Ambrogi’s advice for reaching members now

by Marilyn Cavicchia

Check out this list and see if you can identify what the items have in common:

  • networking
  • CLE
  • publishing
  • research
  • marketing and referrals
  • practice management

All are products and services where the bar association was a dominant player—but that lawyers now find online, often for free.  So where does that leave the bar?

That was the underlying question during a plenary session by Bob Ambrogi at the September 2013 National Association of Bar Executives Communications Section Workshop in Portland, Ore.


Bar associations do still have a role, said Ambrogi, a lawyer, journalist, and media consultant based in Rockport, Mass.—but only if they understand and take advantage of a recent “sea change” in the profession.

What’s new?

Ambrogi called the technological revolution that’s occurred in the past five years “the biggest change in any point in the history of lawyers.”

Smartphones have “untethered lawyers from their desks,” he said, but they and other factors have also increased certain expectations: A recent ABA survey of lawyers’ technology use found that 89.7 percent of those surveyed check their law-related email “all the time.”

The percentage of law firms with blogs has risen from 15 percent in 2011 to 27 percent in 2013, Ambrogi said. The U.S. Supreme Court now cites blogs, he noted, adding that lawyers and law firms are now “as much publishers as you are.”

Lawyers now prefer to use free, online sources for their research, not Lexis or West, Ambrogi said; 35.5 percent said they use Google most often for legal research. Good news for bar associations: 24.6 percent said they most often used a bar-offered resource such as Fastcase or Casemaker.

Online CLE is also “huge” for lawyers, Ambrogi said; in his opinion, it’s “such a better way to do CLE.” Lawline offers its full CLE catalog for free, though Ambrogi noted it’s not free for those seeking credits.

Perhaps the biggest change has involved social media. “Networking used to be almost entirely a physical event,” Ambrogi recalled, and bar associations played a big role. Now, he says, networking is “primarily virtual.” The ABA tech survey found that 81 percent of respondents now use social media such as Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn—compared with just 15 percent in 2008.

Be where they are

How can you attract and engage members when they’re not sure they need you anymore? There are two “essential ingredients,” Ambrogi said: quality content—it’s still king, he noted, even when it’s delivered online—and the right tools.

Bar communications staff members “have it covered,” he said, when it comes to providing important information from a trusted source—but it might be time to “update your tool set.” No longer, he explained, can the bar hang back and avoid social media, blogs, or any other place where members and prospects are already gathering online. “Be where they are,” Ambrogi advised, whether that means Facebook, Twitter, or some other platform.

And it’s not enough to have a website just to have it, he added; websites now need to function as “virtual brand offices,” where a visitor can quickly see what the bar is about and accomplish everything he or she set out to do.

Make sure the website and any electronic communications present well on a mobile device, Ambrogi advised: “Increasingly, lawyers are doing everything on their smartphones.” In fact, he noted, 91.4 of respondents to the ABA survey said they use their smartphones for law-related tasks.

What do you do there?

“The reason we call it ‘social media,’” Ambrogi said, “is because it’s social.” That sounds simple enough, but he believes too many bars either have a very static social media presence, or they just use it to push out their information.

For example, he said, if your Twitter account has a lot of followers, but you don’t follow anyone yourself, you’re missing the whole point. What people really value, he thinks, is meaningful interaction.

Post comments on blogs. Respond to anything posted on your Facebook page. Follow others on Twitter and retweet information that’s relevant to your audience. All of those, Ambrogi said, will show lawyers and others that you want to engage with them, and not just communicate in a one-sided fashion.

Rather than adding to lawyers’ feeling of being “inundated” with information, he said, you can use social media to seek out and deliver only the best, most relevant information. “Be a filter,” he advised, “not a firehose.”

If your bar has a blog, he said, it’s important to be consistent and timely: Post when you say you’re going to, and if you have a great topic in mind, don’t hesitate—someone else might beat you to it. Ambrogi’s own blog sees a huge spike in traffic, he noted, anytime he’s first or at least among the first to break a piece of news.

And wherever you are online, “share generously,” he recommended. Ambrogi is not a fan of bar associations’ tendency to keep all their content behind a member wall; consider opening up more of your information, he advised. The ABA Journal, for example, became a much more relevant and valued news source when it came out from behind its wall, he believes.

Lead members toward tech competence

Things have changed to such an extent, Ambrogi said, that knowing how to use technology is now a core skill for lawyers; in fact, Comment [8] to ABA Model Rule 1.1 specifically says this is part of a lawyer’s overall competence. There’s currently a proposal to adopt that comment in Massachusetts, he noted, and other states have referenced it as well.

Many lawyers “have a long way to go,” Ambrogi believes, and bar associations can help by staying ahead of the curve themselves. “You need to know technology better than your members,” he said.

For many bar associations, following Ambrogi’s advice would require trying some new things. That’s good, he said—don’t be afraid to be a little bolder, to be a little fresher, and to learn a new dance move or two.