Social media, it turns out, isn’t just for new parents and former congressmen. Increasingly, the corporate world is using channels like Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter to reach out to customers and clients, build awareness, develop relationships, and—ideally—win new business. Law firms are also getting in on the trend. In The American Lawyer’s 2012 technology survey, 72 percent of responding CIOs said their firm was using some form of social networking.

But how are they using it? Are law firms using these tools simply to blast out news on the cases they’ve won or which lateral partners have joined the firm? Or are they doing more interesting, innovative things, and taking approaches that may ultimately lead to competitive advantage?

To find out, I took a look at what firms are doing on Twitter. Sure, plenty of law firms are on other social media sites, but Twitter offers the most immediate and direct way to get a firm’s message—whether it is news, a report, or a lawyer’s expertise on a topic—in front of an audience.

I followed a lot of feeds and read a ton of tweets—those 140 character-or-less missives that Twitter users send out to the world. A fair chunk of my time was spent reading about what seemed like every award and accolade imaginable.

But I did see some novel approaches—firms that were trying something different, or doing a common task such as pushing content out to others, in a way that was creative or savvy. It’s too early to say whether these tweets are paying off—none of the marketing managers I spoke with had any hard metrics tying their social media activity to new business. But anecdotally, they all said that firm-related Twitter feeds, both from the firm account and from individual lawyers’ accounts, have generated assignments, boosted recruiting efforts, or strengthened relationships with certain clients.

What follows are some of those more interesting approaches, to illustrate to other firms the kind of strategies and tactics they might want to consider.

Tout the client. One of the real pitfalls of social media is coming off as though you are bragging. Updates about what a firm is doing and its achievements serve a purpose by helping others better understand the firm, its successes, and its expertise, but balance is key. The messages shouldn’t be so heavy-handed and so predictably self-congratulatory that no one reads them. Fortunately, many firms seem to understand this. I saw a lot of “Here’s to us” tweets, but not so many from any one firm that it drove me to cut the feed.

But what really stood out was an approach that Fenwick & West took: It devoted some of its tweets to touting its clients. On one day, the firm tweeted twice with links to articles about Flipboard, a start-up that makes a popular app for mobile devices. (“Very cool news for our client: Half a million @Flipboard magazines have been created in the last 2 weeks,” read one. In just a couple of tweets, Fenwick managed to convey several important messages: The firm is keeping an eye on what its client is up to, is helping to promote that business, and understands and uses the same technologies—mobile devices and social media—that its client is involved with. That seemed like a pretty smart use of Twitter. (The only potential pitfall, perhaps, is if some clients think they’re not getting as much attention as others, but Fenwick’s chief marketing officer, Robert Kahn, says the firm hasn’t gotten any complaints.)

Link to outside sources’ content—including other firms. For many firms, one of the main uses of social media is to promote content, such as reports, journal articles and conference speeches, that has been created by its lawyers. There’s nothing wrong with that, but savvy firms are taking content distribution a step further by pushing out material they didn’t create but think that their followers might find interesting.

Consider, for example, the tweets of R. Mark Halligan, a litigation partner at Nixon Peabody who specializes in intellectual property. While most of his colleagues’ feeds are personal accounts, Halligan’s Twitter account is largely focused on his area of work. He regularly tweets links to outside articles and reports on cyber security, data privacy, and trade secrets. He even links to content created by other firms (“Excellent Seyfarth Shaw Article on Uniform Trade Secret Act preemption doctrine”).

Halligan’s tweets convey the message that he is a lawyer who is immersed in his subject matter and is willing to tip his cap to other lawyers. “We encourage our attorneys to be social on social media and share great content that their audiences will find helpful and interesting,” says Lauren Iacono, Nixon Peabody’s digital marketing manager. “Our goal is to be seen as a resource, and Mark does a great job of that.”

Promote new initiatives. Social media can be a good way to give visibility to new programs and projects—a lesson not lost on Perkins Coie. In addition to its firmwide Twitter account and feeds from various practice areas (including its privacy and security and oil and gas groups), Perkins runs an active Twitter account for startupPerColator, the firm’s free, year-old online service that helps entrepreneurs generate documents they need to launch their business (among the tweets: “Hyper-Curious and Willing to Fail: How You Can Be More Like Steve Jobs”). “Given the audience [for startupPerColator] Twitter is the way to get word out about it,” says John Buchanan, Perkins Coie’s director of media and public relations.

But it’s not just a matter of promotion, he adds. Firms like Perkins that have a lot of technology companies as clients need to use tools like social media—and use them well—to have credibility with their clients. “We need to make sure we are using the tools our clients are using,” says Buchanan. “If we didn’t have a Twitter feed, we really wouldn’t be walking the walk.”

Highlighting a firm’s technological prowess through social media doesn’t have to require herculean efforts. Latham & Watkins, for example, steers its Twitter followers to its Book of Jargon—an iPhone app that defines key financial industry terms—by tweeting a new M&A term each day, along with a link to the app. It’s a simple but clever way to promote the app.

• Whet the reader’s appetite. How a link is presented can have a big impact on whether users click on it. For the most part, firms use the conventional approach, announcing some type of content—a paper, an article—and providing a link. Unless you already have an interest in the topic, you’re probably not likely to click. That’s why I thought the approach taken by Fulbright & Jaworski was noteworthy. Tweets linking to new content would pose a question, such as “Which industry faced the most data protection issues this year?,” or “Which country shows large increases in regulatory investigations?” These questions piqued my interest, so I clinked on the links, which took me to Fulbright-created content.

Cover firm events in real time. The immediacy of Twitter makes it possible for firms to report, in real time, about events they are involved with. This can vastly extend the reach and value of firm-sponsored seminars, conferences, and roundtables. Case in point: Thompson Coburn regularly tweets updates from events—not just highlights of what a speaker is discussing, but also photos and retweets from other attendees. In April, for example, the firm sponsored a session at Research and Innovation Week at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, where it tweeted, in real time, comments from the main speaker, a coffee chain entrepreneur going up against Starbucks in Missouri, along with some snapshots of the event. By doing so, Thompson Coburn brought the session, and itself, to a potentially far larger audience than the crowd at the university. “We see social media as a way to push out knowledge, not to say, ‘Come to the session,’ but, ‘Here is what So-and-So said at the session,’ ” says William Bay, a litigation partner at the firm, chair of the American Bar Association Section of Litigation and an active Twitter user. “ We use it to support the community, the good things clients do, the good things others have to say. And when we do that, I think it reflects well on the firm.”

Contributing editor Alan Cohen writes about law firms and technology.