[This article was originally published on www.SLAW.ca in September, 2011]
We have been watching the ascent of social media in legal marketing for a few years now. Law blogs, once considered a frivolity suitable only for the technogeek outliers at the fringe of the law firm, are now recognized as legitimate business development vehicles at many, if not most, firms. Likewise, other social media channels including Linkedin, Twitter, YouTube and to some extent Facebook, have all been moving (at varying paces) along a recognizable continuum inside the law firm environment that looks a bit like this:
Derision >> skepticism >> grudging curiosity >> cautious adoption >> widespread use
As social media adoption continues to grow amongst lawyers and law firms, a few lessons have emerged. Social media is disruptive in the sense that it does not automatically reward firm size or lawyer seniority. Smaller, more agile firms and young lawyers can and regularly do play a much more prominent role in legal social media than their larger firm and senior lawyer counterparts. And interestingly, individuals regularly fare better in social media than their own firms do, even in circumstances where the firms are national in scope and have the head start of a multimillion-dollar organization, professional marketing department and a recognizable brand behind them.
Mid-size and large firms in particular seem to struggle when it comes to finding their “voice” with social media, with twitter being the platform where this weakness is most noticeable. To date, most of the larger firm twitter accounts tend to stick largely to a predictable regurgitation of their own firm news releases, new partner announcements and award or ranking achievements. However, when one combines the blandness of this approach with the fact that larger firms are of necessity speaking to a widely disparate group of clients and audiences (the tech startup, the mining giant, the municipal government client and the major bank all have very different information needs) you are a left with a situation where larger firms are using their social media presence to push out a series of almost exclusively self-laudatory items across a scattershot array of industries and topics. The vast majority of these updates are guaranteed to be of little or no relevance to most of the clients. Little wonder then, that social media users typically opt for the livelier and more useful flow of information to be found in a boutique firm or individual lawyer’s social media feed. That individual lawyer feed probably focuses primarily around a discrete legal subject area, includes both his or her own content as well as links to other news items relevant to that area from multiple credible sources, and throws in some commentary and personal anecdotes that let the reader know a little bit more about the person behind the post as well.
The good news for firms struggling with this dilemma is that there is an obvious remedy at hand. We’ve already seen this game play out in the context of blogging. Specific wins out over general. The client doesn’t care THAT much about you. They care mostly about themselves, and the legal issues that pertain to them. Except in boutique firms organized around a single subject area, the “firm blog” approach has largely withered away in favour of niche subject area blogs that cater explicitly to the needs of a specific audience. And just as happened with blogging, law firms need to begin adopting a practice and industry group approach to their other social media efforts. National firms don’t need a twitter account – they need twenty, or thirty. That way, as a client, I can tap into the one or two that are focused on my industry and my issues, and choose signal instead of noise. I can get a sense for the specific lawyers who work in my interest area. And I can ignore the completely irrelevant news from the 90% of your firm that has nothing to do with or for me and therefore is of no interest to me. (Harsh but true.)
From the firm side, this approach may seem daunting but it needn’t be. You already have a practice and/or industry group structure in place. You need to use it. Start with the handful of practices that are already self-sufficient in putting out newsletters, e-alerts or a blog and add social media tools to their arsenal. Divvy up responsibility, and take advantage of existing social media savvy within your teams. Let individual lawyers “sign” their tweets or updates by adding their initials to the end of their posts (and include a legend in the twitter or social media bio section that connects those initials to full author names). And then let them use social media the same way that successful boutiques and individual lawyers already do – by contributing substantive content on a discrete subject area, linking to relevant industry news from credible sources, and showing a human side to the firm and its lawyers.
Social media has moved past the “fad” stage – it’s here to stay. That being the case, it’s time more firms start putting it to work – the kind of real, specific, in-the-trenches work that happens every day at the practice group level.