A Commentary On Social Media In The Legal Profession

Matt Givner of Agency 33 had a piece published on LawWeek Colorado online.

As social networks have become an increasingly integral part of our daily lives, organizations across industries have eagerly taken to these platforms as a new way to spread their marketing messages and to connect with clients.

Of course, not all organizations have reacted with the same gusto. Case in point: lawyers. For various reasons and with some exceptions, the legal profession has only tentatively explored the possibilities social media has to offer. Whether this is due to an intrinsic distaste for change among attorneys or confusion regarding the rules they must follow on social media per their ethical rules – it’s a tad unclear.

What is certain, though, is that more and more lawyers are taking the social media plunge, and these lawyers are by and large discovering a largely untapped resource for promoting themselves and their firms while interacting with potential clients in novel ways.

Although many lawyers have yet to employ social media professionally, they are increasingly in the minority. Indeed, according to a 2013 American Bar Association Technology Survey 81 percent of US attorneys report using social networks for professional purposes, with 98 percent using LinkedIn, 33 percent on Facebook, 19 percent on Twitter, and 27 percent maintaining a blog. Truly the only surprising thing about these numbers is that it took so long for them to reach these levels: as recently as 2010 only 17 percent of firms reported maintaining a presence on social media.

Legal professionals have found numerous benefits from using social networks for business purposes. At its simplest, social media is merely yet another channel for firms to disseminate materials promoting their firm. As a piece of “owned media,” law firms can use social media to distribute whatever information they like (including media clips) according to a timetable they set for themselves.  There’s no need to rely on traditional media sources to pick up a story about the firm.

Similarly, social media usage provides a sort of “poor man’s SEO”, creating back links from high-ranking websites that direct traffic to firm pages.

However, there are many more ways lawyers can benefit from proactive and regular engagement on social media. Unsurprisingly, creating and maintaining new connections is one of the major upsides. Through platforms such as LinkedIn and Facebook, attorneys can build relationships with other lawyers, B2B partners, and potential clients.  Alongside Twitter, these platforms also provide an excellent way for lawyers to listen to what people are saying about their firm as well as questions people have about their areas of expertise.

Once it’s clear what kind of information people are searching for, web-savvy lawyers can employ social media to engage in “content marketing.” By producing materials that users will find helpful and informative, the lawyer demonstrates his/her expertise in the field and establishes his/her authority. While this may not translate into immediate business, content marketing draws users to a firm’s website and, in so doing, builds trust that will bring the user back when they need legal representation down the line.

Lawyers can listen to more than simply potential clients, of course. Using social media, law firms can keep tabs on what their competitors are saying and emulate them if they appear to be using more effective strategies. Social media is also a great way for lawyers to stay abreast of trends and news in their industry, especially for lawyers operating in niche fields. Finally, lawyers have found social media to be a gold mine of information about defendants, plaintiffs, witnesses, and potential jurors. Some casual Tweet may contain telling or even incriminating evidence that could be used to strengthen a case.

Nevertheless, social media use by lawyers is not completely risk-free. While lawyers can mine social media for information to help their case, the way a lawyer gains access to that information makes all the difference. For example, a mother fighting for child custody claims the father has a bad temper, which the father denies. In response, the mother produces a Facebook status update written by the husband in which he threatens to beat up anyone who “gets in my face.”

The situation is different, though, if the attorney must interact with a represented party in order to access the party’s social media post. A lawyer seeking to friend an opponent represented by counsel could be found in violation of ethics rules forbidding such interaction.

It is because of the potential for such violations that, while social media is something modern attorneys can no longer ignore, lawyers must take care when using these new platforms. It often helps law firms to engage professional marketers with legal backgrounds who can help design a comprehensive strategy that both meets a firm’s goals while maintaining ethical integrity.

Social media may seem like it’s not worth the trouble, for there are no easy victories and always a potential for missteps. Yet, lawyers ignore social media at their peril if only because their competitors are undoubtedly socializing, already.