The current economic downturn may be creating more time and more need for lawyers to engage in business development. For that, a key tool is online social networking sites. Fifty-four percent of all lawyers already belong to such sites, according to a July survey, and LinkedIn in particular is a site well-suited for legal professionals. Here are some tips for getting the most out of LinkedIn.

Join for free advertising and protection: It’s important (and free) to post your profile on LinkedIn. A profile allows former colleagues, friends and people with whom you may have lost touch to find you. When you set up a profile, you not only have a painless way to keep in touch with your own friends and colleagues as they change jobs and cities, you also can let people know where you are when you do the same. It also allows those looking for a lawyer with your skills to know you exist.

There are also real risks to not having profiles. Beyond the missed opportunities, if you don’t claim space, as an Aug. 8 Washington Post article noted, “someone else may do it for you as a way of scamming or attacking your friends and business contacts.”

YOUR BEST PROFILE

Put your best profile forward: It’s critical to put care into developing your profile, which is your online calling card and résumé. Be strategic about what you highlight to ensure that your profile will help you achieve your goals:

Use keywords. Be specific and use keywords so that those searching for your expertise can find you easily. If you are an antitrust lawyer or have expertise in private equity, make sure to include those words in your profile, rather than simply stating you are an attorney and giving the name of your firm. For example, a products liability lawyer might include every type of product he or she has experience with, while a litigator might list the types of trials in which she specializes instead of just saying complex commercial litigation.

Add recommendations. Unlike a traditional résumé, LinkedIn allows you to include personal recommendations from co-workers, supervisors, clients and subordinates. Recommendations permit you to showcase yourself in ways that a traditional résumé and cover letter cannot. Carefully chosen recommendations allow you to draw attention to particular abilities relevant to the next position or the next client you are seeking. It never hurts to ask the person who is writing your recommendation to emphasize certain aspects when writing it. The worst they can say is no.

There is a limit to how many recommendations you want to have, however. Some have hundreds, which is perhaps overkill and could call one’s judgment into question. In addition, client recommendations may disclose too much competitive information about one’s client list.

Control your online image. LinkedIn permits you to make your profile information available to search engines to index. Since LinkedIn profiles are one of the first things that come up when people search for your name on Google or other search engines, you can control what information people will find out about you by controlling the information in your LinkedIn profile.

Here’s how. Make your profile public and select “Full View.” On the section called “Public Profile,” don’t use the default URL but customize your public profile’s URL to be your actual name. Put in your first and last name or your last and first name, no spaces. Once you do this, you have “claimed your name.”

BUILDING A NETWORK

Build your network: Actively add connections to your network. You can add connections by mining networks of people with whom you have done business, worked or gone to school. When you try cases against attorneys, negotiate deals with them, or meet them at conferences or bar events, add them to your network before you forget each other.

It is easy to lose touch with people as we change jobs or move to different cities. But keeping your contacts up via an online social networking site makes it easy to keep track of people and for them to keep track of you.

When you add a contact, you get access to that person’s network if they have agreed to keep their contacts open. (You have the option to keep your contacts open or closed to others on LinkedIn.) It’s as if all your friends have left their Rolodexes open while you look through them to see who you want to meet. Such a practice can exponentially increase your number of connections. Through LinkedIn, you can access the contacts of your contacts by asking for an introduction. If their connection is willing to link to you, you can then cement your new connection by linking to them and becoming their connection.

GIVING TO RECEIVE

Sometimes you have to give to receive: referrals and questions. On any given day, numerous people on LinkedIn are asking substantive legal questions and asking for referrals. On Oct. 29, for example, these sorts of questions were listed in the “Legal” section of the site:

1. Our office practices exclusively immigration and nationality law and currently represents more than 500 clients. Lately due to the economic downturn, we have had a huge demand for bankruptcy lawyers … toward this end, we are looking to partner with a bankruptcy law firm.

2. How can you protect intellectual property while discussing your concept with potential customers?

3. My law practice is focused on catastrophic personal injury cases. I am referred employment law cases from time to time and would like to network with an employment attorney interested in more referrals.

Taking the time to answer questions and make referrals, where you can, is a way to network online, market your practice areas and add to the value of your existing professional network. Responding to questions on LinkedIn can raise your profile online and showcase your expertise. When you answer questions for particular people, it also enhances the likelihood of linking to them, building further contacts.

Members who ask the question also can rate the value of the answers they receive. If your answers are highly rated, those high ratings show up on your profile, increasing your visibility as an expert in your legal area.

But beware of providing legal expertise online — it may expose you to unwanted legal liability. Make sure to consult with your law firm marketing representative or the bar association as to how to make sure your answers are not legal advice and do not inadvertently create an attorney-client relationship.

BOOST CONNECTIONS

Join other LinkedIn groups. Another way to boost your connections and visibility is to join various groups on LinkedIn, ranging from your alma mater to groups based on past workplaces, professional interests, charities or avocations. Legal groups abound. They range from the Council on Litigation Management to Marketing for Lawyers to Lawyers Without Borders.

Build contacts when you travel. If you are traveling to another city for a business meeting and have down time, you can always print out LinkedIn contacts in that city in advance and set up business networking meetings with them.

E-mail your network. When attorneys have victories they’d like to share with others, such as a big courtroom win, an article they’ve published in a law journal or a big case that settled out of court, LinkedIn allows members to e-mail their contacts with the news. If e-mailing your network seems too intrusive, you also can use your “Working On” line at the top of your profile to let people know what you are doing.

RESEARCH, RESEARCH

Research potential clients, bosses and job offers. If you are meeting with executives but don’t know much about them, you can look them up on LinkedIn and often find out tidbits that can help you build a connection before the interview. There may be otherwise hard-to-discover information on LinkedIn profiles that can provide a competitive advantage in a business meeting.

The same is true for companies where you are considering taking a job. Using LinkedIn can help you find people in the company to get the real scoop on working there. It can also provide a competitive advantage in the interview, by helping you familiarize yourself with the people with whom you will be meeting, avoiding that killer silence right after the handshake.

You can also find out who had the job you have been offered by researching the job title and company, but unchecking “current titles only.” You will be able to locate people who used to have the job. They are likely to be a lot more candid, especially if they have left the company or law firm.

Boost your law firm Google ranking. The more attorneys in your firm who have profiles on LinkedIn, the higher up in the Google search ranking your firm will be. So encourage every associate and partner in your firm to post his or her profile.

Scope out the competition. By accessing the “Company” section of LinkedIn, you can get competitive information about other firms and companies. For example, firms have profiles that indicate the top law schools their lawyers come from, what percentage are partners, associates, staff attorneys and counsel, and where their attorneys go when they leave. This information can be very helpful if you are considering applying to the firm for a job. You can also research the firm’s attorneys to see if you know anyone who could help your candidacy.

In sum, there’s much gained by being linked in. Failing to post a profile is like turning down the match in your employer’s 401(k) plan. Sure, you can do it, but why would you?

Diana Rubin is a managing director in Major, Lindsey & Africa’s in-house practice in Washington, D.C., and a former practicing attorney.