By Nora Riva Bergman and Mark Powers

This article originally appeared in Lawyers USA.

“I expect in the world of social networking that, before too long, we will be able to communicate across the various platforms . . . It will be less important that we have chosen to use Facebook or Myspace for example, than that we are participating in a variety of particular networks. . . . I simply cannot see how major changes in the way we communicate, collaborate, network, and trade are somehow irrelevant for lawyers and their clients. Nor, given the sheer scale of the [social networking] systems and the levels of their usage, can I conceive this is a passing fad.”- Richard Susskind, The End of Lawyers: Rethinking the Nature of Legal Services (2008)

Chances are if you’re not already participating in the social media conversation, you’re thinking about it.  And if you’re not thinking about it, you should be.  Social media is not going away.   In fact, in the last three years, its growth as a marketing tool among companies and law firms has grown dramatically.  According to eMarketer.com, by 2012 the growth of social media as a marketing tool for U.S. companies will reach 88 percent. That is more than double the 44 percent reach of social media in 2008.   What’s more, the ABA’s 2010 Legal Technology Survey reported that 56 percent of respondents use social networks such as Facebook, LinkedIn, LawLink, or Legal OnRamp, as compared to only 15 percent in the 2008 survey.

Most lawyers aren’t early adopters of new technology.  Ten years ago many of the lawyers we talked to were still deciding whether or not they needed to have a website.  Now, 81 percent of firms with 2-9 lawyers have a website, according to the ABA Survey.  As the number of attorneys using social media has more than tripled in the past two years, maybe now is the time for you to join the conversation, if you haven’t already done so.  We say “join the conversation,” because – at its core – that’s what social media is all about – conversation.  It is a natural adjunct to traditional referral-based, relationship marketing.  It’s all about conversations and relationships.  But now, those conversations and relationships can take place online.

While you might be ready to join the conversation, the sheer volume of social media opportunities can be overwhelming.  And the question can quickly become: Where to begin?  We suggest breaking things down to the three-step approach outlined below.   We also want to provide a brief caveat: You must know and comply with the Rules of Professional Responsibility in your jurisdiction.  At the same time, as noted by Carolyn Elefant and Nicole Black in Social Media for Lawyers: The Next Frontier, the “use of social media doesn’t transform otherwise appropriate conduct into something unethical.”   So get out there and start using social media to grow your networks, your relationships and ultimately, your bottom line.

Step 1. A Policy

First, your firm needs to have a social media policy setting forth the ground rules for everyone in the firm.  You need a social media policy regardless of whether your firm is engaged in social media. Why?  Because even if you’re not participating in social media, your employees are.   There are a number of online resources that can help you craft a social media policy for your firm, including www.socialmediagovernance.com.   We know that for most law firms the temptation will be to create a lengthy, policy filled with legalese.  But do your legal best to avoid this urge; a simple-straightforward policy may be more effective.

  • Be respectful.
  • Be authentic.
  • Don’t “friend” clients, attorneys or members of the judiciary.
  • If you discuss your employment with the firm on any social networking site, act professionally.
  • Don’t disclose any confidential or proprietary information.
  • Don’t give legal advice.
  • Don’t disparage the judiciary.
  • Don’t imply that you are speaking on behalf of the firm.

You also may want to create a policy that allows for social media time during breaks.  People have always chatted in the break room during the day, now some of those “chats” are taking place online.  If your expectations around your staff’s use of social media are clear and you have professional, responsible people on your team, they will not abuse this privilege.  If they do, then you’ll need to deal with that, but understand you’ll be dealing with a people problem, not a social media problem.

For a good example of a law firm social media policy, visit www.jaffepr.com

Step 2.  A Plan

Next, you need a plan.  Before you can effectively use social media, you need to create a plan around specific goals.  Is your goal to build your professional network?  Is it to establish your level of expertise in a particular area? Is it to reach out to past, current and potential clients by creating a virtual community?   Whatever your goals may be you need to get clear about them, then create a plan to achieve them.

Here are a few suggestions to get you started.  If your goals is to build your professional network, then LinkedIn is the right platform for you.  With over 100 million members, LinkedIn bills itself as the largest professional network in the world.  Build your profile and search for colleagues you already know on LinkedIn.  A great way to increase your visibility and credibility on LinkedIn is to join groups and contribute to the discussions that take place online.

LinkedIn is also a good platform to establish your professional expertise.  By engaging in discussions or starting your own group, you can begin to demonstrate your level of expertise in a particular area.  But be careful when setting up your LinkedIn profile which permits the listing of “Specialties.”  Many jurisdictions don’t allow attorneys to hold themselves out as specialists in an area of law unless they are so designate by the bar.  Be sure to check the rules in your state.

Twitter can also be a great way to establish credibility in a particular area.   You can become known for your knowledge in a particular area by sending out focused tweets designed to keep your followers apprised of the latest legal happenings in your particular area.   Both Twitter and LinkedIn allow you to establish yourself with your potential referral sources, as opposed to connecting directly with clients.

Finally, if your goal is to connect with past, current and potential clients, Facebook is the place to be. Facebook allows you to create a business page for your firm, and keep your personal Facebook profile – personal.  Your business page can include photos of firm events, updates on the law, and other information of interest to your clients and referral sources.   With a relatively small investment of time and money, you can build an online community of raving fans who’ll think of your law firm every time they or their family or friends need an attorney.

3. A Social Media “Power Hour”

What do we mean by a Social Media Power Hour?  We mean that you need to block time for social media.  While social media can be a wonderful marketing tool, it can also be a dangerous time-waster.  To make the most of your online time, schedule social media work only at specific times during the day.  Or consider taking short (5-10 minutes) “social media breaks” during the day to check in on your networks.  And here’s another caveat:  Don’t allow yourself to get sucked into the vortex or use social media to avoid other work!

How much time will you need?  It depends. If you’re starting a blog you may want to budget an hour a day or several hours a week.  If you’re developing your network on LinkedIn, you may need only 15-30 minutes a day to connect with colleagues and comment on group discussions. Regardless, block the time by creating a Social Media Power Hour.  Use your Power Hour to focus on reading, writing, tweeting, and posting valuable content to your social media sites.  Remember, you don’t have to write all the content you post.   Consider using a marketing assistant who can post content on a regular basis.  You may already have someone in your office, such as a young associate or law clerk, you could designate as your social media guru.

In addition to creating a Social Media Power Hour, be smart about how you use social media.  For example, use the onsite tutorials available at most social media sites.  These tutorials can save you a tremendous amount of time as you’re setting up your profiles.  And use social media utilities like HootSuite, NutshellMail, and Twinbox from TechHit.  These utilities make it simple to check in on your networks from your smartphone and allow you to push updates and content from one site to all your other social media sites.

Regardless of whether you’re already using social media to market your law firm or you’re just thinking about getting started, be smart.  And remember, social media will never replace the personal relationships in your network.  Use social media to support your personal marketing, not to replace it.

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