Law firms tiptoe into social mediaJanuary 27, 2011 6:00 AM
by Doug Childers
In the past two years, the Sands Anderson law firm has leaped into the world of social media.
“We have 10 active blogs with a managing editor for each one,” says Russell Lawson, the firm’s marketing director. “Our attorneys also have seven Twitter accounts, and the firm itself has two Twitter accounts.”
In addition, about half of the firm’s 70 attorneys have profiles on LinkedIn, a networking site aimed at professionals. The Richmond-based firm, with offices in Christiansburg, Fredericksburg and McLean, has even posted 14 videos on YouTube.
But don’t expect to see your own attorney starring on YouTube. While firms like Sands Anderson are trying out social media, overall participation in the legal profession “is thin at best,” says Lawson. That was the finding of a recent survey Sands Anderson conducted among top law firms in Virginia and North Carolina.
Several factors prevent many law firms from wading into social media. State bars, for example, strictly regulate attorneys’ advertising and communication. Several years ago, the Virginia State Bar announced that its rules governing those areas also cover websites and social media.
“Lawyers can’t share their client’s name or client confidences without a client’s permission,” says Leslie Haley, assistant ethics counsel for the Virginia State Bar. “And they can’t talk about specific case results without disclaimers.”
Even casual gestures in social media can pose risks. Say a lawyer specializing in mergers and acquisitions meets with the CEO of a publically traded company, and the lawyer mentions on Twitter that he enjoyed the lunch. “It could blow the lid off a big deal,” says Chris Gatewood, founder of Glen Allen-based Threshold Counsel, a firm that provides outside general counsel services in areas such as employment law, intellectual property and contract drafting. “Even where confidential information is not revealed, attorneys are subject to advertising regulations. Lawyers have to take heed that the bar doesn’t distinguish between what you say on a billboard or on Twitter.”
Attorneys also must take care about offering advice online. While posting general information might not cause objections, it’s smart to stay away from answering individual questions. It doesn’t violate the rules of the State Bar, per se, unless the firm of the lawyer giving advice is representing a client on the other side of the issue, Haley says. “Otherwise, it’s more a malpractice liability.”
Given those drawbacks, it’s not surprising that many attorneys who focus on billable hours hesitate to join a venture that offers only indirect benefits.
The upside of social media is significant, though. Legal business development is based on relationships, says Charleen Pine McManus. “And social media — and social networks in particular — are designed to create and maintain relationships.”
Until late January, McManus was website manager for Williams Mullen, a Richmond-based law firm that has Virginia offices in Charlottesville, Tysons Corner and Hampton Roads. She now is the marketing communications lead at Ironworks Consulting in Glen Allen.
McManus cites this example: A Williams Mullen attorney in Virginia recently reconnected with a college friend on LinkedIn. The friend is a real estate developer in Florida, and the attorney specializes in real estate. “The attorney said, ‘If you’re doing business in Virginia, let me know,’” McManus recalls. It turned out the developer was working on a Virginia project, and Williams Mullen landed a new client.
“LinkedIn is obligatory,” McManus says. “There’s no reason for anybody in the business community not to be there. If you can take the bio from your firm’s website and put it on LinkedIn, you just doubled your Web presence for free.”
About half of Williams Mullen’s 300 attorneys in its worldwide offices have profiles on LinkedIn. Williams Mullen also has found success with its three blogs, which it uses to demonstrate the depth and range of its attorneys’ knowledge within specific areas of law. The firm’s most popular blog — rocketdocketiplit.com — covers issues related to intellectual property litigation.
In the course of a week, a single blog post from the firm attracts 84 readers, on average. And in an average month, the firm’s blog posts and syndicated online articles (written by the firm’s attorneys) attract 1,650 readers.
Sands Anderson likewise uses blogs to showcase its expertise in niches such as financial recovery law and local government law. “It changes the public’s awareness of your skill set,” Lawson says.
Blogs also are attractive to firms just entering the world of social media. While it hasn’t waded deeply into Facebook and Twitter, for example, Reed Smith has 15 active blogs, “with a key attorney editor who accepts submissions from other lawyers,” says Mike Scherpereel, the firm’s director of branding and communications. “About 50 lawyers contribute.” Topics include laws governing employment, technology and finance.
While Reed Smith doesn’t have a timetable for moving into other social media in the near future, “we’re watching it closely,” Scherpereel says. “There’s still a lot of development that can happen there, and we’ll adjust to that as the environment progresses.” The firm has offices in Falls Church and Richmond and employs 1,600 lawyers worldwide.
To address potential dangers posed by social media, Reed Smith has established a social media policy, which Haley of the State Bar says is becoming common in medium-size and large firms. Some firms go further. In addition to having rules of conduct for social media, in-house counsels at Williams Mullen and Sands Anderson review every blog post to confirm that it doesn’t violate the State Bar’s rules.
To make the issue of time investment less daunting, Lawson encourages Sands Anderson’s attorneys to spend no more than 15 to 30 minutes a week on social media. “They need to feel like it’s not going to interfere with their work,” he says.
Gatewood of Threshold Counsel suggests attorneys work backward from their goals to the right platform “to make sure it’s worth your time.” He favors LinkedIn and Twitter because they don’t have to be time consuming. “You can be visible being on Twitter just five minutes a day,” he says, adding that his tweets have brought him client referrals as well as writing and speaking engagements.
Eventually, enough law firms will use social media to merit calling it a trend, Lawson says. In the meantime, he continues to expand his firm’s digital foray. “In 2011 we’ll try a few new tactics,” he says, including more extensive use of YouTube videos.