Will 2012 Be The Year Law Firms Begin To Engage?

Originally published in the The National Law Journal on December 22, 2011

A LexisNexis survey of 110 international law firms discovered that while 77 percent used at least one social network, fewer than 3 percent engaged in conversation.

There are two excuses for such a minuscule degree of engagement. First, firms are so concerned with controlling the message that their social sites — whether LinkedIn pages, Twitter or Facebook sites — are far too impersonal. The second is that allowing individual lawyers to participate will dilute the brand.

I predict that 2012 will be the year this mindset begins to change.

According to the same survey, even though 85 of the 110 of the surveyed law firms had a registered LinkedIn page, many of them didn’t recruit or handle client development through LinkedIn. They have official profiles, but they aren’t using the tools.

The way firms are using social media is like owning a fighter jet but rather than flying it, rolling it around on a dolly. Firms need to stop using social media sites as billboards and start using them to connect with people who would be difficult to reach otherwise.

Firms fixated on controlling the message silence their best messengers — the lawyers themselves. Firm managers rack their brains trying to figure out how to micro-manage a handful of accounts when they should be providing their lawyers with strategies to get out there and engage in a meaningful way. To extend the metaphor, firms have grounded an entire fleet of fighter jets for fear that someone will make a wrong move.

If managers are wondering how to engage, they can start small. Firms I have seen make the jump successfully started with a small pilot group. This allows them to do two things. First, to see that the sky won’t fall if they allow lawyers to tweet and otherwise engage. Second, once they realize the benefits of having a few lawyers use social media, it will be far easier to sell the idea up the chain of command.

Firms are beginning to wake up to the absurdity of the restrictions they impose on their lawyers. Placing a blanket limitation on Twitter or blogs is analogous to banning lawyers from chatting at cocktail parties. “But this is so different,” the firms tell me. “This is all recorded.” Yes, it is all recorded, but it is the recording of the information that makes it so powerful. It allows potential clients to find you in a way that wasn’t possible five years ago.

For conscientious lawyers to use social media to discuss law, policy and economics — where is the harm? If your lawyers tend to engage in racist, hateful and offensive language in polite company, you may want to restrict them. For everyone else, let them speak.

Will 2012 be the year that all law firms wake up and start using social media the right way? This is an extremely conservative group, but we are seeing a shift in the way lawyers talk about social media and in the begrudging respect even the most senior lawyers are beginning to show for these tools.

We may not see all firms jump on the bandwagon, but 2012 may be the year that many overcome their fear.

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