For many members, belonging to a bar association has always been, at its core, about the networking opportunities an association provides. Whether at the state or local level, or by area of practice, the chance to get to know fellow lawyers is often the most powerful draw an association has.
The desire for networking hasn’t changed, but some of the ways to accomplish it have, and bars now find themselves having to master a new set of technologies in order to remain relevant to the next (and some of the current) generation of lawyers.
“If we don’t look to the future and add technology to try to engage members, eventually we will become dinosaurs,” says Catherine Sanders Reach, director of the ABA Legal Technology Resource Center. “The new crop of potential members and incoming members will have certain expectations for how your Web site functions, period. And if they don’t get it, they may or may not be patient with the process."
The latest focus for many bars is so-called Web 2.0 technologies. These are generally defined as technologies that “facilitate creativity, information sharing, and, most notably, collaboration among users,” according to Wikipedia, the Web-based encyclopedia that gets most of its content from people who visit the site—which means Wikipedia itself is an example of Web 2.0. Some examples that may be relevant to bars include social networking sites such as LinkedIn or Facebook, video-sharing sites such as YouTube, and blogs run by bar staff or volunteer members.
While it was once enough to simply have a Web site, and then members-only areas and customizable “my site” functions became the standard, the popularity of user-generated content sites in the general population means that bars must look to adopt the best features of those and offer them to members sooner rather than later, say Reach and others in the bar world.
“Bar communicators are not fully communicating unless they have a full grasp and a working knowledge of these Web 2.0 tools,” says Mark A. Tarasiewicz, director of communications for the Philadelphia Bar Association. “If you’re not savvy on these tools now, you had better be prepared to become a quick study, because it’s happening very quickly."
Social networking sites
Some bars are well into adopting or experimenting with various technologies. The State Bar of Texas offers its members a social network, Texas Bar Circle, along the lines of Facebook or LinkedIn.
The Texas bar decided in early 2007 to explore the best way to provide the network, says John Sirman, the bar’s Web manager and technology editor for the Texas Bar Journal. Sirman had used social networks in his personal life and thought they were “the natural thing to do” for a bar association, he recalls. The bar’s Web Services Committee agreed.
Rather than set up an area in an existing site such as LinkedIn, the bar wanted to have its own network, with access limited to Texas lawyers. Sirman approached Affinity Circles, a software company that offered alumni networking sites, which he had used in his personal life. The company told him they were planning to move into the association realm, so the Texas bar became the first professional organization to use the new association-based product.
Affinity Circles hosts the site, which was launched in June of last year. “There is no infrastructure hit on us,” Sirman notes.
Texas lawyers must authenticate themselves the first time they log on to Texas Bar Circle, by providing such information as their bar ID number (the State Bar of Texas is a mandatory bar). Once logged in, they are able to create a profile, add contacts, send messages to other members, form groups of like-minded lawyers, post job listings, and perform other tasks that social networking sites typically offer.
Members have formed a number of groups since the site was launched, Sirman says. In addition to legal interest-based groups, lawyers who share interests in photography, music, and other hobbies have also formed groups, which may prove to be sources for feature articles in the bar journal, he says.
The bar pays about $8,000 per year for the site and provides its own customer service to members who have issues with lost passwords and other problems, he adds.
Posting on YouTube
In addition to networking, a popular feature of Web 2.0 is sharing videos and other multimedia content through such sites as YouTube. Several bars have begun to add their video content to YouTube, in the hopes of spreading awareness of their associations and showing their willingness to adopt new technologies.
Having successfully used YouTube to publicize its November rally in support of the justice system in Pakistan, the Bar Association of San Francisco is now building a “channel,” the YouTube term for what is essentially a home page for one’s video content. At press time, BASF was in the process of creating a standard opening and closing for its video features, says Ann Murphy, the bar’s director of communications and public relations.
The bar plans to use videos on YouTube to promote events and to help sell MCLE videos, Murphy says. For example, BASF taped a recent seminar on diversity. It will be edited into one-hour MCLE segments that can be purchased and watched online through the bar’s online CLE provider. Clips will be put on the YouTube site to show some of what’s on the tape, and a link to the purchase site will be on the YouTube channel. For an upcoming fundraising bicycle ride, BASF will create a video showing people training, and urging viewers to sign up either to ride or to sponsor a rider.
With the BASF Barristers Club (those in practice for fewer than 10 years) making up 40 percent of membership, the bar hopes to reach a large percentage of that group, which in general may be more used to working with technology.
The New Hampshire Bar Association can also be found on YouTube. The bar taped some of the proceedings of its “We the People” State Championship and posted a video on the site, says Dan Wise, the bar’s communications director. The NHBA wanted to draw some attention to the project from the news media, and also to highlight interesting aspects of the program, to entice other schools to participate in the future.
“We wanted to put it in the medium that our target population is familiar with,” Wise says.
The State Bar of Texas ran a video contest last fall called “Let’s Do Justice for Texas,” Sirman says. Any member of the public was allowed to submit a video entry dealing with any aspect of the theme. The bar posted the videos on YouTube, and judges determined the winners.
“It’s important to stay on the cutting edge,” Sirman believes. He notes that posting on such sites as YouTube is free, but bars that don’t already have video and editing equipment or software would need to invest in that.
What about blogs?
Blogs get a lot of attention in the world of politics, and now, some bars have begun to incorporate them into their offerings to members. The Philadelphia Bar Association decided early last year to provide them to members “as a way for lawyers to share best practices and communicate with each other about issues that impact them and their professional work,” Tarasiewicz says.
The PBA began with a blog for its Young Lawyer Division. A number of members posted regularly, and the blog “took off,” Tarasiewicz says. In addition to talking about legal issues, members discuss some of the electronic gear they buy, or what type of law they want to practice.
The bar has since added blogs for both the Women in the Profession Committee and the Criminal Justice Section and may add more in the future.
Keep it real
As with earlier Web-based technologies, bar leaders are left to determine for themselves which new ideas to adopt for their members. While caution is always advised when moving into new arenas, those who work with interactive technologies say bars should not be afraid to sample some new approaches, especially since many are free or low cost.
“You do it gradually,” Reach says. “You find the Web 2.0 technology that makes the most sense, that you think will bridge the gap.” Offering RSS feeds, which allow members to easily see what’s new on your site without having to visit it in their browser, can be a good place to start.
Allowing online comments from your members can also be an effective tool, says Fred Faulkner, the ABA’s manager of interactive services. Even though you may not always like what you hear, he adds, you shouldn’t be afraid to allow the feedback.
“We have a perception that we want to put up high-quality content,” Faulkner says. That leads to a fear of allowing anything to be seen that doesn’t live up to that standard. But, he says, “transparency is what Web 2.0 is all about.” For example, if you have an executive director’s blog, but it’s really written by the public relations staff, that’s not as authentic as one written personally by the executive director. “If it has a misspelling, it has a misspelling,” he adds, “but at least it’s real."
Creating the space for your members to network online can help drive attendance and interest in real events, Faulkner notes. People who meet online can discuss common interests and, when an association has an event related to that interest, can use it as a way to meet and continue discussions. They can then talk about the event afterward, when they are back online—continuing that endless networking loop that Web 2.0 facilitates so well.
—By Dan Kittay
A FEW WORDS TO THE WISE
While a fan of Web 2.0 technologies, David Drager, manager of information technology at the Chester County (Pa.) Bar Association, says bars must be sure to consider all the ramifications of the various vehicles available.
For example, he suggests that Facebook may not be the way to go for an association that wants to set up a social networking site. “Facebook is more of a personal social network. I’ve noticed that attorneys like to keep their personal and professional lives separate,” Drager says. That may make a site such as LinkedIn, which is designed more for professional networking, more appropriate for a bar, he believes.
Another consideration in using any public social networking site, as opposed to one the bar itself has a hand in creating, is that a bar may not be able to verify that someone actually is a member. And according to the terms of service for many of these types of sites, whatever content is posted can be used by the site for promotional or other purposes, Drager says.