October 23, 2012

Thinking About Social Media in Your Law Firm

You’ve likely heard the extraordinary statistics that Facebook has 550 million members. That more people are using LinkedIn as a job-seeking tool than anything else. And how a single Twitter post can grow from nothing to a movement within days. Why should you care? Because lawyers and clients will increasingly work together and learn about each other through social networking. Law firm leaders need to think about how social media fits into the firm’s business and marketing strategies.

It’s Too Late to Do Nothing
One recent survey reported that fully three-quarters of general counsel belonged to a legal networking site. Plus, younger lawyers share their generation’s enthusiasm for social media, and as they move up the partnership ladder using these tools to connect with clients will become routine.

Planned or not, your firm already has a social media presence. It’s just under your radar. Most of the younger people in your firm already have Facebook pages and active presences on other social media sites. Your IT staff may have told you about strange spikes in Internet bandwidth usage as people view YouTube or other streamed content at work. Should you be worried that the social Web is diverting them from billable work? Is an outright ban a possible strategy? If so, only for a while. A ban tells clients you don’t want to communicate and younger lawyers that you don’t quite trust them.

You can’t outright reject these tools—nor should you rush to mindlessly embrace them. Rather, you need to take steps to understand how they can be used to support your lawyers, your clients, your firm and its strategic ambitions.

Touring the Social Media Landscape
Don’t allow yourself to become paranoid about social media. But do remind your lawyers to behave professionally and use common sense. Then figure out what they’re up to. Find a fresh young lawyer just out of law school to give you a primer on the services available. Visit the social media sites to find out what is being said by and about your firm. Run your firm’s name through Google Blog Search. Set up Google alerts or RSS feeds on your firm.

Law firms are conservative places. The temptation will be to look at what your competitors are doing and follow meekly along. Big mistake. You’ll never get noticed. Articulating your competitive advantage to clients through social media requires you to think afresh.

But Which Services to Use?
Talk to clients. Find out how they respond to social media in their workplaces. How are they partnering with their professional advisors using social media—and how can you use these tools to collaborate and deepen your relationship? Ask what types of information they find useful, and in what format. For example:

  • Networking sites. Find out whether legal networking sites like LegalOnRamp or Martindale-Hubbell Connected are relevant to your clients. For broader networking, generally, you’ll find that professional business sites such as LinkedIn may give you a faster payback than Facebook, which is currently more of a people site rather than a business platform (although it is evolving). To help build out your networks, encourage your lawyers to add the professional bios written for your firm’s Web site and legal directories to LinkedIn, too.

  • Blogs. Firms have replaced newsletters with blogs for many practice areas. Real-time updates on developments that affect clients are much more useful than quarterly summaries on bond paper. A blog can be a useful marketing tool—especially for highlighting your experience and knowledge. Pick an area of law where there will be enough recent developments to write about regularly. Consider making it a group effort and get lawyers into the habit of posting at least once a week. Make it fresh—marketing material that is stale is counterproductive.

  • Twitter. If you have a client base that will follow 140 character updates, then go where the clients lead. Otherwise, you may find it difficult to provide helpful information in such short posts. But you could connect with others who follow your tweets. If you do use Twitter, consider this advice from lawyer Jay Shepherd (in 140 characters): Our Twitter policy: Be professional, kind, discreet, authentic. Represent us well. Remember that you can’t control it once you hit update.

  • Do test runs. Experiment and assess which lawyers and practice areas can best connect with clients through a social media group or a targeted blog or tweets. Empower your lawyers and encourage them to experiment. Social media tools are easy and flexible. If you make mistakes, they can be adjusted. But look hard at what works and what doesn’t, and learn from your successes.

Avoiding the Dangers
Naturally, the lawyer in us is a bit paranoid about social media. Rightfully so—there are dangers here. But they are not insurmountable. Remind your lawyers that professional conduct rules apply fully to lawyers’ activities using social media and, by extension, to all firm staff. They must presume that anything done or said online will be public and permanent and act on the assumption that your client, any relevant court, opposing counsel, disciplinary counsel, and anyone hoping to sue your firm may have access to and use your online statements. Once it’s out there on the Internet, it can be copied, forwarded or used in evidence. You can’t control its ultimate use or dissemination—or get it back.

Developing a Policy and Rolling It Out
I advised our managing partner to expand the firm’s social media strategy development team beyond IT, marketing and partners over 40. Here, your smartest thinkers will be young lawyers who are culturally of the Web generation and already understand how that generation uses the tools. Remember the power of these tools is their ability to facilitate relationship building. They necessarily are highly personal and customized. So there will always be a tension with the professionals in IT and marketing who would like to control the firm’s online presence and prevent risks in interactions with the outside world.

For a good start on creating a firm policy, see Michael Downey’s “Law Firm Online Activity Policy” in The Professional Lawyer (ABA, 2009). A sound social media policy can be summarized in two words: Be professional. Your reputation matters. A good reputation, after all, is what gives people the confidence to do business with you. Protecting your firm’s reputation is paramount. Other firm policies continue to apply.

One key to a good policy is flexibility to distinguish between personal activity and anything that refers to your firm. You shouldn’t be in the business of controlling after-hours speech, although even here, the watchword of professionalism should guide. But also recognize that these tools are in flux and that your policy may soon need adjusting.

Social media will continue to evolve, and new opportunities for use and abuse will open up. Focus on what fits your strategy. Experiment. And have fun. It’s a whole new world out there.

Guideposts for Lawyers’ Personal Use of Social Media

  • Don’t post anything that would embarrass you, your clients, your colleagues or the firm itself.

  • Be careful not to disclose client confidences or privileged information.

  • Don’t mention client names without client consent.

  • Write in the first person. Don’t imply you’re speaking for the firm or its clients.

  • Respect applicable legal and professional rules (copyright, trademarks, insider trading, tipping, defamation, applicable human rights laws, unauthorized practice, advertising, inadvertent client relationships, etc.).

  • Temper criticism of the judiciary or regulators—you have to appear before them.

  • Lay claim to your posts and comments by putting a name to them. Don’t post content on an anonymous basis or fake an identity. The consequences of unmasking are too serious, for the individual and the firm.

  • Respect the interests, opinions and privacy of your clients, your colleagues and others online.

  • Be professional.