October 23, 2012

How to Create a Law Firm Social Media Policy

Many law firms struggle with creating policy for the use of social media. The generally cautious and conservative nature of law firm management means that in many cases the decision makers often see only the real (or alleged) dangers, often without an understanding of the tools or an appreciation for their potential. Now that the use of social media is becoming so widespread, disengagement is not the answer. The issues are not insurmountable, and being a wallflower lets others gain a competitive advantage.

All firms should develop a social media policy that encourages the use of these new and emerging tools in innovative ways. Get input from all stakeholders and participants by establishing a committee of your rainmaking lawyers, senior managers, IT experts, marketers, and members of Gen Y to devise your specific firm strategy.

The involvement of young minds is essential to the process. Lawyers unfamiliar with the tools should enlist new associates fresh out of law school to provide practical tutorials—they’ve always swum in this sea, and naturally have a different mindset.

Your new associates have also weathered the job market in the social media age. Ask them how they guard against overexposure on the Web: What steps do they take? How secure are their methods? Perhaps maintaining separate profiles is too onerous for some, with Facebook “smart lists” or Google+ “circles” providing a better solution.

Law firm policies range from listing overarching principles that govern the use of Web-based technologies, to listing rigid and prescriptive rules for the who, what, where, when (and when not) to engage in social media. You may be tempted to make your policy restrictive on the basis that it can become more permissive as lawyers gain experience. This will depend on your firm culture, but we don’t think curbing enthusiasm at the get-go is warranted by the business or ethical risks, unless you practice in a jurisdiction that has tougher ethical rules. We recommend you develop something in-between: A varied and dynamic approach tailored to your practice and the tools your firm will use.

There is a great sample of a law firm social media policy that includes explanatory annotations in “Law Firm Online Activity Policy” (alacapchap.org/resources/webinar0911_SocialNetworking.pdf), an article by Michael Downey that was published in The Professional Lawyer.

For each new technology, draft general guidelines on what information lawyers may share online. Professionalism and ethics are key here. Always consider how the communication reflects upon you and your colleagues. Consider how faithfully it represents your clients’ interests. Consider the implications of making this information public. You should take a permissive stance on the subject matter of Twitter feeds, say, and a more restrictive stance whenever client communications are involved.

Your law firm brand is important. So involve your marketing staff throughout the process, because it is its responsibility to promote, protect and enhance the integrity of your brand. Marketing staff members can offer significant value by training lawyers about effective communication skills, including how to avoid jargon and how to frame issues from client perspectives. But it’s best to prevent your marketers from policing the social networks. Monitoring is something firms can get paranoid about. Resist creating a burdensome editorial bureaucracy. Doing so will create a bottleneck when the thrust of social media is about speed and spontaneity.

Instead, think about how to balance security with the efficiency of the tools. If your policy defines the scope of the content to be published on each site, have faith in your writers to follow it and do not interfere. These are the same lawyers on whose professional judgment you and your clients rely every day.

Seasoned bloggers should be trusted to click and submit. Junior contributors should have their work read by one other editor before it goes live. Any more filters than that and your firm’s communications may lag.

You should set up Google Alerts or RSS feeds to summarize your firm’s activities on social media sites. Occasionally, it might happen that clients become concerned about what’s being said, and in that case you should be prepared when the call comes in.

Develop a regular schedule for each type of media you’re using. For example, group blog schedules are enforced more strictly than personal efforts, given the need for constant publication. A team of 10 lawyers might publish an 800-1200 word commentary every weekday morning, such that each contributor is responsible for something biweekly. Or the same team might prefer to publish snapshot summaries, each contributor being responsible for something every week. You should assign your lawyers soft deadlines to have written or solicited a post, and allow them to swap dates if they find themselves overloaded. Have pieces in the can so that you have content to post in emergencies.

Brainstorm creative ways to generate a readership for your blog. Consider point-counterpoint features or articles commemorating special events. Try publishing a weekly blog-roll of content you’ve read elsewhere on the net—other editors appreciate it and will remember by cross-linking back.

No matter what the medium, firms should offer real incentives to lawyers who help with these new initiatives. Within your firm, regard the social media committee the same as other work in management, or count non-billable hours docketed as if it were billable time. Appreciation for the lawyers’ effort should be reflected in their reward.

And remember that your social media policy will need to be tweaked as the firm gathers experience and as the tools and opportunities evolve. Who knows? In six months, your firm might develop in areas well-suited to social media—privacy, marketing and advertising, copyright, entertainment, and communications, to name a few—and a practice group Twitter account might seem like the easy and obvious fit. And by then will Google+ have surged in growth or gone the way of the dodo? Your firm should be alive to recent trends and adapt its policy accordingly.

Be creative. Be flexible. Have fun with social media. The benefit to your firm is great if you use the tools wisely. 

When is Too Much Information Really TMI?  

There is some truth to the often-repeated complaint of those looking for the best excuse against using social media: “I don’t care what you had for breakfast this morning.” Certainly, there are those who seemingly maintain accounts for the sole purpose of bogging down your streams with each and every mundane detail of their lives. The other end of the spectrum, of course, is made up of the more salacious details like party pictures from office or networking events; angry diatribes and flame wars; or associates airing their law firm dirty laundry. In between these extremes are the useful or entertaining tidbits of information that social media can magically deliver.

Why do we see these unfortunate snippets of information? In part because we are all human. All of us that actively use the Internet have likely made a social media misstep somewhere along the line. But there is something else happening here: The boomers tend to engage in social media in ways fundamentally different than those in the various letter generations do.

Different in Kind

Younger users tend to be flippant on social media; and because there is no sarcasm font yet developed, older users just don’t get it. Older users tend to use a far more serious tone in their comments. The business uses of social media are more readily ascertainable for younger users, and they seem to have an innate sense of how to use these platforms to make a soft sell. Older users are more direct, less nuanced and more often overtly salesy. Older users often misunderstand the nature of personal profiles versus business pages.

The simplest explanation for these departure points, and others, is that the younger group grew up immersed in social media and the older group did not. There is no surer method of indoctrination than application at youth. So it is that younger users understand the flow of digital social conversations; and they realize the essential permanence of online information—even though they sometimes willfully ignore this fact. They can also better conceptualize the entwined nature and reach of the Web. There is an ease of interaction manifest in their social networking that is nowhere present in the online machinations of older users.

Sense and Sensibility

We need to understand that different generations are fundamentally different when it comes to sharing information online. However, regardless of whether you are a younger or older user of social media, here are nine useful rules of interaction that will keep you out of trouble:

  • Never post pictures from your wild/drunken/debauched weekend. 
  • Never post personal relationship drama. 
  • Don’t be passive-aggressive. 
  • Don’t post other people’s personal news/events. 
  • Allow a cooling-off period before posting in anger; chances are you won’t post at all.
  • Don’t be overtly braggy; or, definitely, don’t do it consistently. 
  • Think very hard before posting pictures of your children online or consider restricting the persons who can see them. 
  • Unless you want to get blocked or ignored, don’t make frequent status updates concerning mundane daily events.
  • Don’t post anything derogatory about your job or your boss.

So what does this all mean to the legal profession?

Many attorneys feel hamstrung respecting their use of social media, given the myriad of ethical rules they are required to follow. The main reasons for this is a cultural lag with the authorities that are charged with creating the rules we are all to follow. Many of the individuals responsible for directing or creating these rules do not have the technology background or experience to understand and keep up with the nuances of dealing with social media. The net result is a complete absence of regulation, regulation that occurs in fits and starts, or regulation by making blanket pronouncements that attorneys should, essentially, analogize the online situation to an appropriately similar offline situation–sometimes this works well and sometimes it just doesn’t apply or leads to crazy results.  

As you can see, TMI is really TMI, regardless of what generation you are from. Keep that in mind next time you are thinking about posting something personal.

- By Jared D. Correia
Jared D. Correia, Esq.,  is a Law Practice Management Advisor at the Massachusetts Law Office Management Assistance Program