Australian lawyers and their firms have taken a conservative approach to social networking. Is it time to re-examine the merits of social media?
Lawyers are not generally known for throwing caution to the wind and embracing new and open kinds of technology. While social networking has experienced explosive growth over the past few years, lawyers have generally been conservative in adopting it. But the tide finally appears to be turning.
An Asia Pacific study, conducted by CCH in late 2008, found that 20 per cent of lawyers explore social networking sites for professional use frequently, while one third used Wikis frequently for professional purposes and 35 per cent of lawyers used blogs professionally. Furthermore, a global survey of lawyers, conducted by LexisNexis Martindale-Hubbell in 2009, showed a sharp rise in demand for online networks designed exclusively for legal professionals. The survey data revealed that more than 70 per cent of lawyers were members of an online social network - up nearly 25 per cent on the previous year - with 30 per cent growth reported among lawyers aged 46 and over.
"Like other professionals and all other businesses, lawyers and their firms are being increasingly exposed to social media and its business uses and benefits," says Walter Adamson, CEO of NewleaseG2M, which operates the Social Media Academy in Australia.
With respect to the most popular social networking tools, Adamson says it is important to bear in mind that online communities and blogs for lawyers have been around for a long time, and although most are not active, some are very active. "For example, in the US the Martindale-Hubbell community, and, some say, Legal-OnRamp, are popular," he says.
In the open or general social media, he says LinkedIn is popular, as is Twitter among lawyers. There are also more specialised closed communities such as those related to corporate counsel, for example. "I think that the basic reason any of these tools or communities are popular is that they contribute value to participants, are easy to use, and help build influence and recognition," Adamson asserts.
Benefits of social networking
A recent report, Social Networking for the Legal Profession, found that the adoption of social media within law firms can help facilitate problem-solving, knowledge sharing, learning, relationship building and business development - in a low-cost, simple and people-powered way.
Although the report, commissioned by Ark Group and conducted by social media consulting firm Headshift, states that there is no substitute for offline networking, it found that online social networks have enhanced the processes of supporting and extending existing face-to-face networks, helping lawyers efficiently find, gather and share information, find relevant people as well as integrate information and know-how to create quality work.
Michael Specht, a consultant who specialises in HR technology and the application of Web 2.0 tools and techniques, says that the true power of social networking is in being able to see, and leverage, connections within networks that were not possible before. "But remember that social networking online, just like offline, is about connecting and creating meaningful relationships between people, not directly about marketing or sales," he cautions.
There are a number of benefits for lawyers in using social networking sites, including increased brand (practice and personal) awareness, the demonstration of thought leadership and goodwill, enhanced communications with peers and clients and connections with university graduates, Specht says.
Social networking snags
Some of the challenges for lawyers in social networking can be related to the pace of change in technology, but also to the change and impact of new ways of communicating and collaborating which challenge traditional work processes and organisational cultures, according to Anne Bartlett-Bragg, managing director of Headshift Australasia.
She cites common social networking concerns in the report, including issues related to security of information being shared, time-wasting, or time to learn new systems and processes, potential breaches of ethical codes of conduct and privacy, and resistance to change.
Adamson elaborates on the issue of confidentiality, and says it is important not to expose "yourself or your firm or your clients to any nasty surprises. Googling about these kinds of issues will yield lots of useful reading ... I'd also recommend Googling 'horror stories social media lawyers' for some arresting reading!" he suggests.
There are a number of social networking challenges for lawyers and their firms, according to Adamson. These include balancing the efforts and content of a firm's blog with other newer or planned social media activities, being present in the most relevant social media spaces and places with respect to your firm or professional or personal objectives, and balancing the personal branding of individuals with the branding of the firm or corporation. "Those are the kinds of issues which require business thinking and consistent operational execution, and these are quite difficult ... This is not about just opening a Twitter account and going for it," he states.
Mallesons' social networking foray
Felicity Badcock, head of knowledge management for Mallesons Stephen Jaques, says social media tools such as Twitter, LinkedIn and blogs are creating new opportunities for Mallesons' lawyers and staff to network, share and find information and market their skills and expertise.
"A number of our thought leaders use Twitter to reach out to the broader legal community. As with other social media tools such as Facebook and LinkedIn, Twitter makes short work of the 'six degrees of separation' to connect people with common interests," Badcock explains.
"By monitoring Twitter, industry blogs and social media content, we can quickly respond to new developments, stay on top of trends and, in turn, keep our clients informed of important developments. With a low barrier to entry, we can self-publish blogs and tweets, and easily adapt our approach and style to target a specific audience."
One example of this is Mallesons' IP blog, called "IP Whiteboard", which was launched late last year. It's a ground up initiative from the firm's intellectual property lawyers, who wanted to speak directly to an audience in a forum they felt comfortable in, says Mallesons' IP partner Natalie Hickey. "Writing articles for academic journals had come to feel removed from what we think about day to day, and whilst email alerts can be important, it's a less enjoyable atmosphere in which to write. You are competing with every other firm to get in first," she says.
There has been a "fantastic reader response" to the IP Whiteboard blog, according to Hickey, who says it is very rewarding tracking the hundreds of hits received. "People actually want to read what we write!" she enthuses.
"It's also exciting to realise that we are self-publishers. We are in control of how we want to develop and expand our blog. This is creating significant impetus across all levels of the national IP team. People are finding the time to write, because they are passionate about what they are doing."