Some lawyers are born to work a room. Others are perfectly comfortable broadcasting their thoughts, in 140 characters or less, to hundreds of "followers."
Not everyone’s on Twitter, Facebook or Tumblr, but all lawyers—even the most unassuming and bookish—are finding they must understand how social media works and what it can—and cannot—do for them, their clients and even the practice of law.
Large firms have prepared internal guidebooks that focus on social media policies, best practices and how-tos. Trade associations, such as Meritas, have published guides that can help mid-size and smaller firms develop standards and navigate how to set up a firm’s Facebook page or manage privacy settings across many platforms.
Greentarget’s 2012 In-House Counsel New Media Engagement Survey reveals that social media choices have seen a much wider adoption by in-house lawyers in their 40s, 50s and 60s, while use by younger attorneys has leveled off. Some 76 percent of in-house counsel surveyed said that they were influenced to some extent by a firm’s blog posts when looking to retain outside council.
The survey also calls LinkedIn "the serious social network for lawyers," leading all other social networks in professional usage and perceived credibility (88 percent), although usage of Twitter and Facebook continues to rise.
A blogging tale
Blogging, for the uninitiated, is like keeping an online diary of commentary, musings and noteworthy suggestions. Lawyers in specialized practices may realize the greatest returns on their time investment from blogging, if it’s done well. In this forum, they are able to deliver a substantive message to a targeted—and receptive—audience.
When blogging about legal issues, content truly is king. Lawyers considering this approach may be comforted to know that if the message is on-point, the firm’s size and the experience of the practitioner become secondary issues.
Matt Devries, a construction litigator at Stites & Harbison’s Nashville office, has since 2009 written "Best Practices in Construction Law," a blog aimed at addressing topics of interest and consequence to his commercial contractor clients. Recently, for example, he tackled how sequestration will affect the construction industry.
As a result of his blog, Devries has become an industry voice, and has been quoted in trade publications—the kind clients read—such as Engineering News Record. He attributes his newfound status to his blog’s focus on best practices and its audience reach.
Devries says the blog averages about 6,000 unique visitors a month, and another 2,400 followers who may see those posts via Twitter, as well as his 800 LinkedIn connections. He considers himself a regular user of LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook, and employs hashtags for indexing and archiving relevant topical matters. Hashtags label content under a certain category and allow others to find information disseminated through tweets by topic, at any time.
"In the beginning, it was difficult to set aside the amount of time I needed to do this," Devries said. "Still, it was a decision I made to make the commitment, and not to worry about whether the blog entries were scholarly or like those of a reporter. I know I’m not that. But I knew I could give practical takeaways and tips to my readers in the industry."
For Devries, who was an early adapter embarking in social media in 2006, reward came quickly; within a year of launching his now four-year-old blog he received a direct cold call that turned into substantial legal work.
Devries cautions that at the heart of a real and lasting social media presence are the "never out-of-fashion" values of commitment and discipline. When he started blogging, he says, he posted new content four to five times each week. As he developed his voice and style, he found that 20 minutes to a half hour yielded conversational blog posts of less than 400 words.
Now, he says, he has scaled back to only two or so posts a week, but his outreach into Twitter and LinkedIn shows him the value of developing new networks by following others online, commenting and responding to their posts. One appropriately placed comment can generate thousands of conversations online, bringing work in the door.
As an example, Devries recounted a direct message he sent in 2011 to Michael Hyatt, the former chairman and CEO of trade book publishers Thomas Nelson. Devries had followed Hyatt on Twitter, but they had never met. The direct message then was tweeted, generating 2,400 unique visitors to the blog in a single day.
Devries isn’t alone in the belief that blog traffic is itself a meaningful payoff. Greentarget’s in-house counsel survey showed blog content as credible at a rate of 84 percent, including law firm blog content in 2012.
No such thing as a free lunch
In a profession where time is measured— and billed—in one-sixth of an hour increments, legal professionals require the ability to control the time, calibrate their participation and measure the results of what has become a megaphone for drawing media and clientele and displaying expertise to communities of interest. And they want to know what it will cost.
LexBlog—which started in 2004 and now links its network to 7,000 lawyer-written blogs—is a professional services group that helps lawyers begin blogging and offers various customer support subscriptions that can easily run over $200 a month.
A client’s monthly subscription fees often include ongoing support from a designated social media account manager, exposure on LexBlog’s LXBN and LXBN TV networks, content review as requested and appropriate, and access to monthly education webinars on blogging and social media best practices.
LexBlog also will advise clients on website activity. Although the team will not write or edit blog posts, it compiles useful lists, such as lextweet.com for lawyers wanting to follow others in their practices.
Eye of the beholder
Defining success with social media varies, depending on what the lawyer or firm was hoping to accomplish. Aside from taking brand visibility to the next level online, establishing your book of expertise, and igniting client development, building a search-engine (such as Google) footprint is a valuable outcome. By using Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and especially Google Plus social networks, your content can be indexed and show in other people’s searches.
Take, for example, San Diego. Immigration lawyer Jacob Sapochnick uses Facebook to communicate with more than 70,000 people worldwide through a firm’s fan page. He also publishes a monthly newsletter with legal news and updates for his Spanish-, Russian-, Hebrew- and French-speaking clients. By doing so, he has broadened his reach as a social media expert for lawyers, and has become a resource for those seeking U.S. residency.
Or Dallas-based First Amendment lawyer Brian Cuban—whose billionaire brother, Mark Cuban, is fairly active on Twitter with nearly 38,000 followers. Brian Cuban employs not only a blog but also YouTube to try to build his brand as a hate crimes litigator.
Generally, there are two types of social media-savvy lawyers: youngsters who cut their teeth on texting, and those who see social media as a path to client development. As technology increasingly moves toward mobile devices, many firms are moving toward mobile engagement in social media.
UCLA School of Law recently launched a site dedicated exclusively to mobile applications useful to lawyers. Useful apps include JuryPad, a productivity app for lawyers to aid in the jury selection process. It also directs users to mobileappsforlaw.com, which touts more than 900 apps of value.
Atlanta family practice lawyer Randy Kessler of Kessler & Solomiany says that because more people now will visit a website from a phone rather than a laptop, his firm’s website was upgraded to be more mobile-friendly. Kessler, a frequent lecturer on legal social media and marketing, says his research shows that less than 40 percent of all businesses have developed mobile sites. Doing so is yet another way to differentiate from the pack.
"Social media is considered uncharted territory, but the more attorneys delay, the longer the trek is going to be, because you need to reach the younger clients," says John Yates, head of the technology practice at Morris, Manning & Martin. Yates said he jumps onto his iPad to be mobile, when need be, but does not think that social media platforms are always best on mobile devices.
When he first came into LinkedIn, he said he considered it a glorified Rolodex, but now finds it to be an ideal source because it is more up-to-date that any customer relationship management system, allowing for instant connections and new relationships.
Morris Manning’s members-only technology law and business report group on Linked­In is now up to 2,412 members.
Roughly 20 percent of the 179 managing partners and marketing directors recently surveyed by ALM reported they have hired full-time social media specialists to manage their firms’ LinkedIn, YouTube and Twitter accounts.
Firms increasingly are turning to curators to maintain professional content and develop the rules and regulations for all law firm participants.
With each LinkedIn post, Yates says, "I’m dropping a penny in the piggy bank, and after awhile it will be worth a million dollars."