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The legal life, in 140 characters or less

The legal life, in 140 characters or less

Could Twitter be the platform that finally gets Australian lawyers networking online? Angela Priestley investigatesAustralian lawyers have been slow to get active online when compared t

Could Twitter be the platform that finally gets Australian lawyers networking online? Angela Priestley investigates

Australian lawyers have been slow to get active online when compared to their international counterparts.

There are very few legal blogs written by Australian lawyers compared to the thousands that are active in the US, and Facebook, LinkedIn and MySpace have typically been the last places Australian lawyers and law firms have looked to mark their territory.

But Twitter could hold more promise than other platforms. With 140 character updates to maintain, keeping active on Twitter can appear relatively straightforward, with few associated risks.

Peter Black, law lecturer at the Queensland University of Technology agrees, but says there are challenges in ensuring the platform is used effectively. "The true value of Twitter - and this is one of the things I don't think a lot of the mainstream media appreciates, or the legal community for that matter - is that it is still very much an interactive medium," he says.

Scratch at the surface and Twitter may seem like yet another place to post press releases. But dig a little deeper, says Black, and Twitter will offer a whole new medium of interaction and conversation engagement.

Still, there are plenty of arguments as to why the legal community should refrain from participating in social networking, particularly Twitter. Black says that engaging in conversation beyond the usual 140 character update becomes challenging. "Obviously you don't want to be giving legal advice over Twitter and you also need to be maintaining a professional stance over Twitter," he says. "You can be conversational, without losing your professionalism."

Communications consultant Lee Hopkins is not convinced that Twitter is the right platform for the legal profession. "I think it's because the issues are too complex," he says. "I don't believe that you can nut out an issue in 140 characters. When it comes to tweeting, there's a danger that you slip into sound bite-ism."

Nick Abrahams, Sydney office chairman at Deacons, and catalyst for the firm's active use of social networking, says lawyers need to learn about social networking for the sake of their clients, and the best way to do so is to get involved. So how does he ensure the firm gets the most of their Twitter profile? "The first thing we did was register our name - something we recommend clients do too - and then we spent time getting to understand the convention of the different communities," he says. "Once we felt comfortable we started participating, slowly at first. That was more than a year ago and we're still learning."

Abrahams adds that the firm uses the medium to offer added value service to clients and potential clients. "It's also about dealing with people on their terms," he says. "It's a mistake to always presume that someone looking for information on a given legal issue will know to come to the Deacons website."

But not all law firms have been as quick as Deacons to get online - nor to explore all available platforms of social networking available, as law firms in the US and UK do.

Black says it could merely be a cultural shift that's needed. "If you haven't grown up in the world of MSN messenger, text messaging, online chat-rooms, if you haven't grown up with that language and those norms, the way the conversation takes place on Twitter can seem foreign and very strange. There is a cultural learning curve that has to take place for the take up of Twitter and other social technologies."

Hopkins believes lawyers, and particularly their employers, might be best starting elsewhere before venturing on Twitter. "Facebook is perfect," he says. "It offers an opportunity to be more expressive, to link in video, to offer a point of view and a story."

Even before Facebook, Hopkins advises that blogging should be the first step. "Google loves blogs so much, and you're more likely to get traction out of a blog post," he says, noting that people can subscribe and fall into the blog off a search engine should they be exploring a particular interest.

Ultimately though, the true value for a law firm of Twitter and indeed most platforms is yet to be determined: "At the end of the day," says Abrahams. "It will be the Twitter community, and in particular our clients in that community, who determine whether it's a worthwhile tool or not."

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