Why your lawyer’s not a social media ninja

Why your lawyer’s not a social media ninja

Let me start with a confession.

It took me a while to "get" Twitter. The first time I tried it (which I think was 2008), I just used it to consume information. It wasn't great for a number of reasons - firstly, I didn't put a lot of time in to work out who to follow (and in particular I didn't discriminate between those companies or people who had anything interesting to say online and those I simply had an interest in) and secondly, at that time it wasn't as widely adopted as it is now, so there were simply fewer good users.

Sam in IT security did not mess around when enforcing the firm's policy

The next time I tried, I switched to "broadcast mode" and used it as a one-way tool to let the world know about my blog. Of course, because I had nothing else of any interest to say (or to be more accurate, if I did, I didn't say it on Twitter), I got very little traffic as a result and soon gave up.

The third time was when I got it. A bit of experimenting, understanding the world of hashtags, retweeting and trending, and soon I found a community of likeminded folks (two of which have been featured on this blog in the past).

This of course led to the critical step - engagement, which is where the value comes from.

Now I have an established community, the news I get is both relevant and extremely timely. In terms of sharing my content, whether it's this blog or other work-related content, the communities are generally much more receptive and interested than simply broadcasting to the world at large. And of course the more I engage, the more that community grows and the more I gain.

What I don't pretend to be, is some sort of social media guru, but I absolutely see the benefit from it.

Twitter, Linkedin and my Blog have all provided very tangible positive benefits to my professional life (Facebook I keep separate for personal use), and given the user numbers for social media, the valuations of the main players, and the newsworthy status of the platforms (super-injunction anyone?), at first look it seems strange that more law firms are not using social media effectively.

Scratch the surface, and the reasons are obvious. At least to me.

Perhaps the reason that's most often cited is the perceived risk involved.

Trained to be wary of defamation, and qualifying into organisations which are (rightly) protective of their reputations, the more risk-averse partners in law firms can often see huge potential danger in allowing individual lawyers to express themselves in an informal and opinionated way.

This can lead to social media being simply struck off the agenda ("it's just a fad anyway"), or so sanitised any communication simply resembles a bland summary of the firm's press releases. zzzzzzzzzzzz.

If you want to test this, firstly check out the more forward thinking media and look at the amount of their engagement. Are they tweeting, blogging and active on discussion groups? Is their engagement commensurate with their brand and positioning?

Or in fact do the lawyers have to engage without mentioning the firm? Or does all the comment come with the health warning "views are the personal opinion of the author" (meaning if they generate goodwill and thought leadership, the firm will promote the content and benefit, but if they step out of line, they're on their own and we did warn the reader it was nothing to do with the firm!).

Some of the other reasons are perhaps a little less obvious, but I have some theories for you to consider.

The first is the very restrictive IT security policies than many firms enforce. While I've written before about the deficiencies in many firm's information security, the need to be seen to have all systems locked-down means as well as restrictions on employee internet use (which are becoming less Draconian over time) there are pretty stringent controls on which applications can be used on mobile devices. In the age of the app, this seems to come at the expense of productivity - I certainly do much of my Twitter use remotely while walking around the building or waiting for trains. Without the ability to exploit these micro-chunks of time, the busy lawyer will find it difficult to contribute meaningfully to the marketplace.

The biggest unwritten hurdle is of course time. When the primary method of measuring lawyer performance is the chargeable hour, anything outside that category, especially something where the return on investment is less tangible, is heresy. While those who know how to use social media and can demonstrate the profile and connections they build for the firm may get some leeway to invest some time, those who are new to the game are often denied the time and encouragement to try, and it remains a mystery and missed opportunity.

The related point is the need for timeliness, and again, when lawyers are chained to Microsoft Office and their practice management system, with one eye on the clock, grabbing five minutes to check what's going on in their network, and respond in a timely fashion to questions and comments can be doubly challenging, putting the pressure on even the most adept online legal ninja.

Now just for the record, I'm not for one minute saying that interacting with social media should take precedence over client work and critical deadlines. Holding up closing a multi-million dollar aquisition because you are engaged in a juicy debate on liability clauses on twitter is not a bright idea.

But, if law firms are going to make the most of the social media revolution, then they need to find ways to allow their best people to experiment and engage which in turn will allow their stars to shine.

I've no doubt as the demographics of firms continue to change and more lawyers who have grown up with social media join and have a meaningful presence, the culture will of course change. The question is which firms can get ahead of the curve and reap the benefits before their competitors?

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