June 06, 2011

Get Connected: Social Networking for Lawyers

The popularity of the youth-oriented MySpace community, with more than 130 million active users reported as of December 2008, shows the tremendous reach of social networking Web sites. Webopedia defines a “social networking site” as any Web site that enables users to create public profiles and form relationships with other users of the same site who access their profiles. In other words, social networking sites are Web sites that build a community of users, and which include public profiles, online discussions forums, chat rooms and other social spaces online.

With all the demands on a lawyer’s time, what is the value of developing an online social network? A lawyer’s stock in trade is his or her relationships with others, especially clients. An investment of time in a social network can yield a substantial return if developed carefully. Many lawyers have been seeing returns on relationships developed through this growing medium.

The business social networking site LinkedIn with its simple philosophy, “Relationships Matter,” appears to have resonated with the legal profession. Legal marketer Steve Matthews reported 216,000 LinkedIn lawyer profiles in existence in June 2008. When users join LinkedIn, they create profiles that summarize their professional accomplishments. These profiles are public, allowing users to find and be found by former and prospective colleagues, clients and partners. Users build a personal online network by inviting trusted contacts to join them on LinkedIn, potentially linking users to thousands of other qualified professionals and leads.

The legal profession has made significant inroads in adopting social networking, with several sites tailored specifically to lawyers.LegalForce, a social network with more than 211,584 users in the legal profession, provides a platform for law students, lawyers, legal employers, contract attorneys and members of legal service organizations to network with alumni of their law schools and law firms. Legal professionals have the option of networking with peers, rating and reviewing law schools and firms, and discussing legal topics as well as searching for employment opportunities.

Legal OnRamp joins in-house counsel, outside lawyers, law students and educators for networking and collaboration. Although it is an invitation-only network, basic services are free with the understanding that members will contribute content and participate in community forums. Users create a personalized network with other members who can communicate via e-mail-like messages and bulletin-style comments. The site also features a repository of law firm updates and wikis on various legal subjects.

The ABA has taken a step toward social networking with its recently launched online community for the legal profession: LegallyMinded. Though the service is provided by the ABA, it isn’t limited to ABA members. LegallyMinded seeks to bring all lawyers, law students, academics, administrators, support staff, judges, law librarians and other legal professionals together to network and collaborate online. Users can build networks, share knowledge and resources, schedule meetings through an integrated calendar, and even rate and comment on content posted to the community. LegallyMinded is currently in a public beta—meaning all are welcome to sign up while the site continues to work on adding features and functionality.

Other interesting lawyer-to-lawyer online social networking sites include Martindale Hubbell’s Connected (BETA), LawLinkTexas Bar Circle, two Chicago-specific lawyers’ networks and many more on the way. Other general social sites lawyers are using to network include FacebookTwitter and even YouTube.

In addition to helping lawyers broaden their professional networks, online social networking sites can help lawyers identify business opportunities and connect with potential clients. Lawyers must, however, be mindful of their professional responsibilities and some of the risks posed by social networking. For example, some states prohibit or otherwise restrict lawyers from using public communication that contains an endorsement of another lawyer or an opinion on the quality of his or her legal services.

Additionally, many states have rules regulating real-time communications with prospective clients—this can include online chat and instant messaging, primary features available in some social networking sites. Lawyers should ensure that their online profile and social networking activities do not violate the rules of professional conduct in their state, especially the rules that define and regulate lawyer communications, advertising, solicitation and referrals. For more information on these ethics issues, lawyers can contact their state bar and consult the ABA ETHICSearch service, which provides consultation and research on ethics questions.

Lawyers can clearly benefit by establishing a social networking identity but as with all online endeavors, there are security concerns. Lawyers should be cautious of unfamiliar people with invitations to join their social network. Contact the person to verify the authenticity of the invitation, or ignore the request if it seems suspicious. Furthermore, it pays to be careful about how much personal information is divulged online, as identity thieves and scammers can easily use such information for nefarious purposes.

Proceed with caution, but consider adding online social networks to your business development arsenal.

This article first appeared in YourABA e-newsletter, a monthly publication distributed via email to all ABA members.  Learn more about the benefits of belonging to the American Bar Association.