September 02, 2020

GP MENTOR: Running a Social Network

Jonathan G. Stein

Last issue in “GP Mentor” I covered the topic of social networking through e-mail lists. These lists can be invaluable. But what if you cannot find a list that works for you? Or what if, like some of us, you get kicked off of a list? Yes, some lists have rules that are so onerous that a consumer law attorney can get kicked off for representing a sole proprietor against a large corporation. Some lists will kick you off for discussing politics or religion or . . . you get the point. Is it time to create and run your own list?

If so, you should do it because it is something you want to do—you will not make a living running a social network for attorneys. Never. Ever. Why? Attorneys are notoriously cheap. You can put in hours and hours of work, and lawyers on the list will still question whether they get value out of it. True story: On one of my free lists, I raised the idea of charging between $10 and $20 to maintain it. This is a marketing list where ideas flow freely and one good idea could make a member hundreds of dollars per year. Yet, when I asked, over 90 percent of the respondents refused to pay any fee. Bottom line: Do not start an e-mail list as a way to supplement your income.

On the other hand, if there is a topic, or topics, you enjoy and you want to get together with like-minded people, creating an e-mail list is the way to go. Getting started is fairly easy. There are three major choices.

First, you can go the Google way. Google is everywhere. You are probably familiar with enough Google tools to get started fairly quickly. Google is free, so you don’t have any out-of-pocket costs, a big plus. Google has an easy interface for setting up a group. You can make the group public or private. You can allow anyone to join, or you can restrict membership to those you approve. The approval feature is nice, especially if you have a group where limiting access is important—such as attorneys who sue Sneakers O’Toole, and you do not want Sneakers to get access to the group. I use this feature for one of the marketing lists so that I can limit members to one practice area per geographical location. Google also lets you upload and share files. And you can use Google Docs to create documents, such as a list of members. The archives are searchable and, like most Google products, easy to use.

Your second option is the oldie but goodie Yahoo! Like Google, Yahoo! is free. And like Google, you can make your list public or private. But a private list on Yahoo! will still come up in a group search, whereas a private list in Google is hidden from everyone except members. Keep this distinction in mind when you decide which way to go. Yahoo! will let you upload and share files, but I find its system more cumbersome than Google’s. And Yahoo! does not have a Google Docs counterpart. So if someone uploads a file in a format that not every member has, not everyone will be able to view the document. And you cannot cooperatively work on a document.

Your third choice is a dedicated list provider such as Lyris or DiscussThis. Lyris is a bit pricier than DiscussThis, but they both have pros and cons. I chose DiscussThis for my Sololawyer list. Unlike my other two lists, Sololawyer costs money to join—a whopping $20. It is SoloSez-lite, without the water cooler discussions. DiscussThis provides for hosting, approval, and even payment of a membership fee. But it charges depending on the number of members. Some companies charge based on the number of messages. Factor these fee structures into your decision. Lyris and DiscussThis have private lists, a la Google. Unless you tell people about your list, they will not know it exists. That means you need to market your list somehow, an added cost. But these lists can be powerful—they let you search for old posts more easily than on Google or Yahoo! and allow multiple e-mail addresses for members, among other features. When considering these service providers, you really need to do your homework. DiscussThis works well for me, but it may not be everyone’s cup of tea.

A note on the costs of a list: Do not confuse no out-of-pocket costs with no costs. I spend at least several hours per week dealing with list issues, responding to e-mails or complaints, etc. Although this is not an out-of-pocket cost, it is a cost. It is time away from practicing law, and that is my livelihood.

And one more note: I strongly suggest you do not start a wide-open list for anyone on any legal topic. The ABA’s SoloSez has that covered. Speaking from experience, it is difficult to get people to leave something that they are used to in order to try something new. Although I prefer my Sololawyer list, and most of the members do as well, I am never going to compete with the breadth and reach of SoloSez.

Starting your own e-mail list can be a great way to share ideas with other lawyers. Your list can be as narrow or as broad as you want. Although it will never be a money-making proposition, you will be able to make connections in new places, meet new people, and get perspectives that you may not have considered. And being the boss allows you to do it your way.

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