5 years in: my thoughts on social media in legal

Five years ago this week I walked into the law offices of Jaeckle Fleishmann & Mugel well rested. I had just finished a 4-day surprise birthday cruise my wife had put together for me to celebrate my 30th birthday. I had a great job at a well-respected firm in town. I was tan, relaxed and had no idea how much my life would change in the next few days. The partners were very polite when they came in, closed the door and explained to me that they had to let me go. They let me work the rest of the day and get all my files in order, and that was it. I had no idea my life as a practicing lawyer was over.

That night my friend Noah who had joined a very successful growing company was in town, “You can come work with me!” he offered. True to his word, after a couple of phone interviews, I received an offer from his company. I could make more than I was as a lawyer, but I would have to leave the legal industry. It was a very good job opportunity and at first, I was very persuaded to take it.

“They’re going to give us full health care benefits,” I explained to my wife Natalie, “as well as a laptop and a projector.” The healthcare benefits were especially important. We had an 18-month-old baby and a growing family. Then my wife asked me a question that stopped me in my tracks,

“Are you trying to talk yourself into taking this job?” She continued, “you don’t need to take the job for me.” And that was all it took. I had seen the potential social media had for the legal industry, I had already brought in business to my firm through Twitter and I had the sense that social media was about to explode. Over the next month, I wrote the book Social Media for Lawyers: Twitter Edition. I just wanted to get it written, I didn’t care if I had to give it away for free. I was fortunate enough to meet the ARK Group in the UK who immediately decided to publish the book and distribute it internationally.

I started out with a goal to change the legal industry. Truth is, it didn’t really need much help from me when I started out Twitter had fewer than 8 Million users worldwide and LinkedIn was much smaller. Now there are over half a billion Twitter users and LinkedIn has gone public. I’ve been fortunate enough to ride the wave and enjoy some pretty amazing experiences along the way, including working with some of the most respected firms in the world as well as opportunities to speak in Australia, New Zealand, Italy, Switzerland, England, Canada, most of the United States and next week I fly for my first time to Taipei, Taiwan to give a talk on innovation in the legal industry.

So what has changed in 5 years of talking and writing for the legal industry? Firms in large part have embraced social media as a relevant part of the marketing mix. At the very least, most firms now have some sort of online presence beyond just the website. A firm Twitter account, a group LinkedIn page and maybe a couple of token blogs. What surprises me most is that engagement in social media continues to be very low by individual attorneys.

The formula for success online for attorneys is still very simple. Write about what you know, share it online, build your reputation, bring in more business. Repeat. I’ve been preaching this gospel of social media for a while now and although the idea of social media is inspiring to most lawyers, far too few turn that inspiration into action. Based on my experience analyzing multiple firms, in a given month at the average law firm, less than 10% of the partners ever share articles on Twitter or LinkedIn. It’s a simple formula, yet it hasn’t seemed to catch on.

It requires work and diligence to share updates on a regular basis, but so does everything that brings in business at law firms. I guess what is somewhat discouraging to me is when people don’t understand: Not everybody can be the smiling rainmaker that knows people, but anybody at a firm can share quality content, write useful information, and gain credibility in their industry. You don’t have to be the extrovert, in fact, you can be completely introverted and still find success using social media. Yet few lawyers seem to be taking advantage.

Social media has exploded globally—it’s everywhere. But insides law firms, for the vast majority of lawyers, it hasn’t caught on. Having a LinkedIn profile is not enough. I’m talking about daily active engagement. Firms are just starting to scratch the surface. Once social media reaches a critical mass within law firms, with hundreds of active, engaged users, only then do I think we will really see the potential of social media. Social media isn’t about controlling the message, it’s about empowering the messengers. Will firms ever get there?

Lawyers will eventually catch on, they just aren’t there yet. To all the innovators out there working to move the ball forward, keep preaching.

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