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Follow the leaders: The business case for social media

Follow the leaders: The business case for social media

Social media has well and truly taken off in the business world, so why are law firms still reluctant to join the flock? Briana Everett makes the case for building business online.

Social media has well and truly taken off in the business world, so why are law firms still reluctant to join the flock? Briana Everett makes the case for building business online.

The word is out: Social media such as Twitter, can be good for business
The considerable business development advantages of online networking channels such as Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and blogs have received widespread attention over the past few years.

However, many Australian lawyers and law firms remain reluctant to embrace social media, due to concerns about the effect on the firm's brand and reputation, the type of information being shared, the impact on clients and productivity, plus the inability to determine an exact figure for the value of online initiatives.

According to Aon's 2010/11 Australasian Risk Management Benchmarking Survey, a business's brand and image has been seen as the most important risk concern for Australian companies over the past four years, with the increased use of social networks pinpointed as a key risk factor.

"I see social media as a big issue. Someone could decide to use social media to make derogatory remarks about any number of elements associated with an organisation," said general manager of treasury, risk and insurance for Coca-Cola Amatil, Michael Braude, who contributed to the survey.

A 2010 Corporate Counsel New Media Engagement Survey launched by Greentarget revealed that 75 per cent of respondents shared negative opinions when asked to describe their general attitude towards social media tools such as Twitter or blogs. Respondents commented that "Social media is not for business", "Some blogs are informative and credible but many are not", "There is a tendency for overlap between personal and the professional" and "It's unreliable, self-serving, a security risk and a time drain".

A slow uptake

Although they acknowledge the potential risks of social networking to an organisation's brand and image, social media experts say the value these tools can add in terms of information sharing, business development and far-reaching professional networks is too big to miss.

"What goes through lawyers' minds is classic 'lawyer brain' thinking and that is risk-benefit analysis. They're obsessed about the risks and I don't think the benefit side is very clear to them," says Tim Martin, the director of internet strategy consultancy 2 Sticks Digital.

"They're not sold on a lot of this stuff because you can't quantify the benefit. I agree there are risks - there are risks to leaving your house in the morning - but that doesn't mean we all stay in bed and cower in the corner. There is more good from stepping out the door than staying in the house."

While the Australian legal industry is slowly beginning to appreciate the value social media has to offer, the level of adoption and frequency of use is far behind that of other countries. "The thing that surprised me a year ago in Australia was not that Australian firms were so far behind the United States, but that social media was so far out of their consciousness - it wasn't even on their radar," says Adrian Dayton, a New York-based social media expert and author of Social Media for Lawyers: Twitter Edition.

"Most of the firms in the United States - the innovative firms - have good social media policies in place that instruct not just on the things lawyers shouldn't do but also the things lawyers should do."

"Blogging shows people that it's possible to be professional and human all at the same time. You find people who share those interests - and often they're clients"

Natalie Hickey, Partner, Mallesons Stephen Jaques

According to Greentarget's New Media Engagement Survey, while in-house counsel in the US continue to rely on "traditional media" as their leading source of business-related news and information, 43 per cent cited blogs and 26 per cent cited social media sites (Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn) as their top "go-to" sources.

And it seems blogs are increasingly being considered the most beneficial among American lawyers in terms of business development, according to the survey, gaining broader acceptance as credible sources of information. Survey results revealed that as of March last year, 96 of the AmLaw 200 law firms in the US were blogging compared with 39 back in August 2007 - representing a 147 per cent increase. In addition, of the 297 blogs among them, 245 were firm-branded.

Even though blogging was ranked fourth behind referrals from trusted colleagues and website bios as a source of information, half of those surveyed agreed that in the future, high-profile blogs authored by law firm lawyers will influence the process by which clients hire law firms.

The case for social networking

Whether or not social media tools have a measurable, direct impact on business development for firms, the advantages they can provide for individual lawyers hoping to deepen their professional network are vast.

And while social media may not be the answer for every lawyer, platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn can be viewed simply as an additional channel for delivering content - another tool in the toolbox.

As well as the positive effect social media has on client relationships and business development, social media sites increase lawyers' information-sharing capacity, helping them to keep informed of any legal or business developments in their sector.

"The best way to communicate with clients or the industry is a mix of everything; it's not a one-stop shop," says Matthew Tracey, Allens Arthur Robinson graduate and author of the LexMedia Australia blog.

"I don't think social networking can ever replace meeting people face-to-face or having your name on a referenced article in a fantastic journal - it's not on the same level - but it enhances the other networking that we do. If you're speaking to clients face-to-face, you have that awareness and fluency about what's going on [in the industry]."

While lawyers are still largely relying on the traditional method of face-to-face networking, credentialing themselves through writing journal articles and speaking at industry events, many have recognised the potential to significantly increase their professional network and build their online profile through social media platforms - all without leaving their desk.

"Anybody operating in the business space should have a personal online presence," says Martin. "It could be LinkedIn or a blog, but at a minimum a website."

According to Martin, a LinkedIn profile represents a completely updateable business card for lawyers. "The profile transcends time, place, industry or sector. It's your personal brand, it's your network," he says. "Anyone in business who doesn't think a network is a valuable thing is just not in the game. With an online network you can be connected to a lot of people to get information - sending signals out to your community and receiving information back as a business intelligence tool."

Millions of lawyers agree. According to the New Media Engagement Survey, 1.5 millions lawyers represent the 50 million LinkedIn users.

Beyond LinkedIn, Martin says lawyers should also employ other credibility indicators, such as a blog, to build trust with their existing and potential clients. "As a credibility indicator, I think a blog is probably the next most important factor [behind an online profile]," he says.

"A blog is a way to show the world how much you know. You've got an opportunity to position yourself as a subject matter expert and that pulls a whole lot of people into your space. People want to do business with people based on a deep, credible knowledge base."

Publishing a blog or update should not be thought of as a waste of time, adds Martin.

"You're actually investing in an online asset. The more you invest into it, the more you'll get out of it."

"The best way to communicate with clients or the industry is a mix of everything; it's not a one-stop shop,"

Matthew Tracey, lawyer, Allens Arthur Robinson

Mallesons Stephen Jaques partner Natalie Hickey has noticed the return on her social media investment as the editor of the firm's blog, IP Whiteboard. Developed about two years ago as an alternative means of communicating with time-poor clients - in addition to email alerts and journal articles - the firm's blog now boasts close to 3,000 visits a month, having jumped 1,000 visits over the past month alone.

"We weren't sure who was actually reading journal articles any more, bearing in mind they do have their place, but we were conscious that it was unlikely to be clients," she says.

While it's been a "slow burn", Hickey says the blog - which has up to 20 contributors, depending on the workload of each team - has been a success and has provided a key means of strengthening existing client relationships.

"Blogging shows people that it's possible to be professional and human all at the same time. Given you're writing in a more informal way about things that interest you, you find people who share those interests - and often they're clients," she says. "There's a club-like atmosphere of writing about something and sharing that interest with your client and vice versa."

One advantage, not envisaged by Hickey initially, is the increased industry exposure of contributing partners with respect to their particular area of expertise as journalists contact them for comment regarding specific blog posts.

Another benefit is the significant interest from university students and the impact the blog's following can have on graduate recruitment rates. "University students are reading it, so it's a really great way of encouraging recruitment," says Hickey, referring to the recognition she receives from graduate lawyers who have keenly followed IP Whiteboard.

Given the potential risks of the blog to Mallesons' brand and reputation, Hickey admits there was a rigorous internal approvals process that had to be undertaken before the blog received the go-ahead from management. That said, the firm had mechanisms in place from the outset to address any sensitive client alignments.

"The biggest risk is simply making clients uncomfortable with what you're doing," she explains. "But we have a double sign-off system for our posts. A media partner will sign off, then it comes to me and I make sure that it's in keeping with our overall blog voice and it's not mucking up with client alignments."

Hickey says a lot of planning went into the blog before it was launched, with the team blogging internally for at least six months as a trial. "We decided we had better plan it because we'd seen a few blogs already out there where there had been a wave of enthusiasm in the first month or so and then it just died," she says. "We were very careful with the structure we set up."

According to Allens' Tracey, whose blog LexMedia Australia is independent to his firm, any risks involved with social networking can be easily managed. "You can never reduce that risk altogether, but I guess the easiest way is to be clear with what you're writing, what perspective it's from as well as who you're writing for," he says.

Taking the leap

Whether it's Twitter, LinkedIn or a blog, social media experts say the biggest mistake lawyers can make when venturing into the social media space is to set up something and then do nothing. "Setting up a blog and then walking away is the most ridiculous thing," says Martin.

"To build a network and nurture a network - putting yourself out there as someone who is credible and knows what they're doing - is a lot of work. If you're not prepared to put a lot of time and energy into it, it's not going to work."

To most lawyers, the time and energy involved in social networking is understandably one of the biggest turn-offs, but those who have taken the leap say it takes just an hour or two each week - and it's well worth it.

"The challenge of social media is about changing the habits and behaviours of lawyers, because currently they don't have the extra hours every week to blog. It's going to take better time management for them to make the time to blog and use Twitter," says Dayton, suggesting lawyers "batch" their emails by only checking them at certain times of the day.

"Lawyers are obsessed about the risks and I don't think the benefit side is very clear to them"

Tim Martin, Director, 2 Sticks Digital

Emphasising the long-term nature of any online networking strategy, Martin warns lawyers not to give up. "I'd say you don't see anything back at all for the first 12 months. It just sucks your time and that can be a bit disheartening, but then all of a sudden it kicks in and that's pretty exciting," he says.

According to Hickey, who helps manage Mallesons' Melbourne trademarks practice while also juggling the firm's social networking responsibilities, blogging successfully involves a lot of planning as well as sharing the workload. "It's getting the structure right and getting lots of people to write because we all get really busy from time to time. The idea is to make sure you've got sufficient spread, so when one group is busy you've got another group who will have the time to post," she explains.

"We've always been reasonably unambitious with our aims deliberately, with three to four posts a week."

She adds that lawyers hesitant about blogging don't have to be a journalist to be a good blogger. "Your audience will return to you because of the insight that you can offer over and above the news of the day," she says. "Blogging is fun. We all take being lawyers very seriously, but we all became lawyers for a reason and that was because we are passionate and energetic about the subject matter of what we are doing."

Tracey, who suggests linking blog posts with a Twitter account as a quick and easy way to build readership, says the most important thing is to be engaging. "Don't talk to your audience," he advises. "Ask questions of them. It's very easy for people to stream out a whole lot of content, but to be engaging is different and I think that's what makes things interesting."

Regardless of the online platform is chosen, Martin reminds lawyers to keep it simple and position their online content for people in the real world - potential clients. "Some professional services firms use industry words or jargon. It's called 'fishbowling' - when you represent the world from your perspective. It's not about you. It's about the people looking for you."

Related article:

>> Social media: Five tips on building an effective online profile

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