Lawyers and social media: The jury is out

Reading Eagle Business Weekly
May 21, 2013
By Erin Negley

As blogs and social media grow, attorneys have been slow to catch on and start tweeting, blogging and posting.

Can you fault lawyers, a risk-averse group, for waiting to see how others use these new tools?

“This is unfamiliar territory, and they want to make sure they do it right,” said Kevin McKeown, president of LexBlog, a legal blogging consultant based in Seattle.

But now that blogging and social media are more mainstream, more lawyers are joining the conversation. Local attorneys are embracing LinkedIn, blogs and even Wikipedia to connect, communicate and research. In a competitive market, it’s even more important to build an online reputation and ultimately drive business.

When Greentarget, a communications firm, and Zeughauser Group, a legal consulting firm, created their first survey for in-house counsel in 2010, many attorneys were still uncomfortable with new media. Just three years later, about 75 percent of survey respondents use social media and blogs.

“In 2013, the lawyer who has his paralegal print his emails for him, gets all his news from the print edition of The New York Times and thinks a blog is a smudge on his tie is part of a dying breed,” according to their latest report.

As the legal profession embraces new media, many are hidden users, reading and listening rather than contributing to the conversation. But some have taken a larger role.

Two years ago, Fox Rothschild‘s local office launched the Berks County Law Update, a blog about local legal cases. Partner John J. Miravich and attorney Benjamin Nevius saw it as a way to report important local court cases. Last month, the blog explored DUI blood tests, a local Superfund cleanup site and a pharmaceutical take-back program.

The blog also is a way to promote Fox Rothschild attorneys and their knowledge of the local legal landscape, Miravich said.

Decades ago, Kozloff Stoudt advertised mainly in the Martindale-Hubbell Lawyer Index and phone books.

Now, the Spring Township firm announces new hires on its own website. It also manages several social media accounts to share information with the public and current clients. Social media extend the company’s marketing and give staff another way to connect and build relationships. Traditionally, attorneys would start those connections at networking events, but that’s changed as people become busier.

“The Y Generation is less likely to be out there,” said firm administrator Robin Shappell. “If they’re not out there, how do we get to them? That’s when the answer is Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.”

Most Kozloff Stoudt employees have personal Facebook pages, and many attorneys have professional LinkedIn pages as well.

Shappell uses Facebook to show the personal side of the firm, with photos of community service.

Clients are asked how they heard of the firm, and often, the social media sites are mentioned, said Joan London, a firm shareholder.

“We know that it does have results,” she said.

Barley Snyder uses Twitter and LinkedIn to spread the word about lawyers’ speaking engagements and company information.

The Lancaster company with a Reading office recently attended a business expo, and Marketing Coordinator Jenna Wagner tweeted kudos to other expo companies.

The message is spread far and wide for very little time, leaving a bigger impact than a business lunch, she said.

“It takes such a short amount of time,” Wagner said. “It gets exposure for the firm’s name and shows our company to the community.”

While some attorneys are joining the conversation online, they’re more likely to read information than post. The percentage of these “invisible users” in the Greentarget survey rose to 74 percent in 2013.

Listening is fine, but lawyers should take the next step by building an online profile, which leads to more business, McKeown said. Starting a blog, for example, builds your network beyond family and friends, and each post strengthens those new connections. Sharing someone’s writing and linking to legal sources are great ways to create new relationships.

And the work pays off. Law firms getting 40 percent to 60 percent of their leads online grow four times faster than those generating no online leads, McKeown said.

When lawyers are active online, they choose LinkedIn, the “serious” social network. Two-thirds of counsel in the Greentarget report said they have visited LinkedIn in the past week for professional reasons.

London uses LinkedIn to research and connect with attorneys as well as share legal articles and professional events.

Wagner tells staff to post news and share with their contacts in relevant industries, such as real estate and construction. She also suggests taking five minutes after a professional talk to share a summary and add what’s important for the reader.

Barley Snyder attorneys have asked for LinkedIn training, so Wagner is creating a few sessions about the easiest ways to stay active on the site and get the most return on your time.

There are ethical pitfalls for attorneys online, considering the sensitive nature of the business.

Barley Snyder has a golden rule: “If you wouldn’t say it in public, in front of your peers or attendee at a seminar, it’s best to not post it,” Wagner said.

She advises companies to review social media policies annually because the social media landscape changes so quickly.

Attorneys should avoid giving advice online.

“When we post an article on our website, it always contains a disclaimer: This isn’t legal advice,” London said.

The firm also asks staff not to post confidential information online, because it can be read by an adversary.

Attorneys are discouraged from communicating with clients through Facebook. London will take a question from Facebook, for example, and respond through email, to keep the issue private.

Lawyers also shouldn’t discuss a case of their own or the firm online.

“You have to use discretion, especially when commenting on news stories of local interest, that you’re not potentially taking a stance that could be used against your client in court sometime,” London said. “You have to think before you post and think before you take a stand.”

Be careful about being insensitive, be considerate and use common sense, Shappell said.

London likes Ben Franklin’s words of wisdom, from centuries before the Internet was created:

“When in doubt, don’t.”

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