When Craig Dillard formed the Houston Attorney Networking Group on LinkedIn in November 2009, he hoped to meet other attorneys in practice areas not represented at his firm, BoyarMiller of Houston.

But the group has provided more to Dillard than he expected, and it recently passed the 1,000-member mark. The members not only connect online through LinkedIn but also at social and educational meetings Dillard organizes in Houston. Dillard, a litigation shareholder in BoyarMiller, says he’s even gotten some litigation work from a contact in the group.

Dillard says what "blows his mind" about the reach of the group is that many of the people sending him requests to join are lawyers or others in the legal business he doesn’t know. He says that shows how a networking group through LinkedIn can take off.

D. Todd Smith, an appellate lawyer at Smith Law Group in Austin, started three networking groups from 2008 through 2011 for attorneys on LinkedIn, "mostly to have a community group where we get together and exchange ideas." The groups are Appellate Lawyer Networking Group, with 432 members; Solo/Small Firm Appellate Lawyers, with 146 members; and a Texas-only group, Texas Appellate Law, with 468 members.

"People will do things like share their blog posts, which is something I do regularly, share different news items," Smith says. "There’s a lot of potential here, but you have to have people put time into it to make it really work."

Smith says he uses his LinkedIn account and the groups, where all members are lawyers, to complement his other social media activities on Twitter and Facebook. He would advise lawyers who haven’t yet used social media for professional development to build a LinkedIn account.

"It’s a pretty easy way to make online connections with people — the best way to reinforce relationships you have in the whole world. Eventually, you can turn it around and use it the other way, help use relationships you have online . . . to make connections with people in real life," he says.

He says lawyer-only specialty groups like the ones he started are most useful to "kick ideas around with people who do the same thing you do, who aren’t in your firm."

Law firm marketing consultant Miranda Sevcik of Houston, founder of Media Masters, says lawyers need to market themselves in some way on social media, whether on LinkedIn or other outlets such as Twitter or Google+.

"It’s engagement, it’s that person-to-person engagement," she says, noting that lawyers simply don’t have time anymore to take clients out golfing or to a fancy lunch.

Sevcik says she advises firms to ask their lawyers to spend at least half an hour a week on LinkedIn, updating their profiles, making connections and posting information useful to other lawyers or clients.

"You don’t want to be offering just congratulatory promotional information about yourself but also real tangible things that make your life easier. . . . ‘I just learned this, this might help you,’ " she says.

Dillard says he looks at his LinkedIn account at least a couple times a week, partly to manage the group, but he also frequently updates his profile if he has a development on a case.

He’s noticed that his visibility on LinkedIn has gone up considerably since he started the group. Dillard says that over the last three months, 153 LinkedIn members have viewed his profile.

Ryan Schmidt, assistant general counsel for Orion Marine Group in Houston, says the Houston Attorney Networking Group has helped him connect with lawyers and others in the legal industry. It’s particularly important to Schmidt because he works in Clear Lake with a "bunch of engineers" and the networking group keeps him in the loop.

"I’ve definitely made a lot of contacts. My ‘Rolodex’ is full of attorneys but also service providers, things like copy services, depositions, court reporters and videographers," he says.

Although he finds the group useful, Schmidt says he closed his LinkedIn account about six months ago because he started getting a lot of "crazy emails" presumably due to hacking. He says he had about 400 contacts on LinkedIn, so he intends soon to reactivate his account soon.

Courtney Scantlin, U.S. litigation counsel for Direct Energy of Houston, says Houston Attorney Networking Group is useful in getting legal issues addressed quickly.

"It’s a diverse enough group that . . . when you have one of those hybrid questions, it actually gets answered," Scantlin says.

She also recently hired a litigator for her department through a contact in the networking group.

Jason Sharp, an associate with Schwartz, Junell, Greenberg & Oathout in Houston, says he joined the LinkedIn networking group at Dillard’s invitation in early 2010. He and Dillard were co-defense counsel on a suit at the time.

"I have had the opportunity to meet lawyers and in-house counsel in a circumstance I wouldn’t have had any excuse to meet them before," says Sharp, who says he became a board member of Houston Attorney Networking Group.

Sharp says the group has been good for business development and in introducing him to litigation-support people. It’s better for business development than a bar group, he says, because those events are full of lawyers. Sharp says he got some work at a networking event — a small contract review for someone who came to a networking meeting with a friend.

Sharp notes that he’s a big user of LinkedIn — he has more LinkedIn connections than friends on his personal Facebook account — and he uses it to reconnect with law school colleagues and to make business contacts.