Can a full-service law firm use Twitter?

When you try to be all things to everyone, you run the risk of winding up as nothing to anyone. That simple truth still eludes many businesses and organizations that consider their target market to be “everybody” or think that they can survive with a “general” mandate in a relentlessly diversifying world.

When I was running a national lawyer magazine, we recognized that we simply couldn’t provide reasonable coverage of every type of law practice and every sort of law-related issue potentially germane to the readership. So we decided to focus on business and client service issues for law firms and to track developing changes in the marketplace. Our choice wasn’t any better or worse than any other; what matters is that we had to choose to concentrate on some areas and only occasionally touch on the rest.

A similar strategic challenge faces “full-service” law firms. We sometimes refer to such organizations as “big firms” or “BigLaw,” but I think that’s misleading: I’ve seen firms with as few as 30 lawyers and firms with as many as 2,000 both describe themselves as “full-service,” meaning they offer a range of legal services that meet the vast majority of marketplace needs. But here’s the problem: the more you try to do and the more markets you try to engage, the thinner you stretch yourself and the harder it is to identify just what you’re all about.

This dilemma is currently manifesting itself in, of all things, the debate over whether and to what degree full-service firms can use Twitter. My friends at The Lawyer newspaper in London started the ball rolling with an article about a marketing agency’s ranking of major UK law firms on Twitter. The agency’s report raised, but perhaps insufficiently emphasized, the unusual spectacle of Norton Rose’s 10th-place position in the list despite having Tweeted exactly zero times.

Brian Inkster’s The Time Blawg has an excellent summary of the enormous debate that has ensued among lawyers, marketers and social media advisors. The commentary on Brian’s post poses the fundamental question raised by the report: can a large law firm use Twitter at all? There’s a developing sense that the answer to that question is no, for a variety of reasons. My contribution is to suggest that a large (or full-service) firm faces challenges in using Twitter, but perhaps not the ones we might think.

Some commenters believe that big firms can’t use Twitter because a faceless corporate entity can’t engage with its followers: it can’t answer questions, participate in dialogues or otherwise affix a personality to the logo. I’m not sure I agree, because I don’t think Twitter is primarily an engagement tool. Using Twitter to have conversations is like standing at the front of a room with a microphone holding one-on-one discussions with individual audience members: everyone else has to endure one half of a dialogue in which they likely have little interest. Those who’ve experienced overly interactive CLE presentations will know what this feel like.

Instead, I think full-service firms struggle with Twitter precisely because they are full-service — their mandate is to be all things to everyone, or at least many things to many clients. Successful Twitter accounts are always about something in particular, whereas full-service firms are about legal services in general. Faced not with the problem of having too little to say but the challenge of having too much, full-service firms make the same error on Twitter that they often make in other marketing efforts: fear of committing to a narrative, fear of focus, fear of failing to regularly remind everyone that they’re available to do everything. As a result, the firm’s Twitter feed ends up focusing on the firm itself; hence the endless line of big-firm Twitter feeds that do nothing but link to the firms’ own announcements and articles.

The solution, I believe, is for a full-service firm to develop a range of Twitter accounts, each devoted to and operated by a practice or industry group. As I’ve written before, I think Twitter is a publishing vehicle, and as noted above, it’s difficult to publish coherently about a massive range of topics. But a practice or industry group can provide that level of focus and specificity, and as a result it will attract readers (aka potential clients) interested in that focus while still carrying the firm name and reinforcing the firm brand.

What the UK Twitter report didn’t point out, but should have, is that boutiques and smaller firms produce many of the best law firm Twitter feeds — not because they’re more “personal” and “engaging,” I believe, but because they necessarily pursue a narrow focus: they’re restricted in the type of work they offer and/or the marketplaces in which they offer it. That restrictiveness used to be a marketing drawback; nowadays, in a billion-channel long-tail market in which people can find precisely what they’re looking for, that focus and restriction has become a marketing advantage.

Full-service firms can copy that advantage by giving their practice groups (or preferably, industry groups, with a client viewpoint) the opportunity to develop their own narratives on Twitter, not to mention through blogs and other social media vehicles. So far, I’ve found only two full-service law firms that maintain practice group Twitter accounts: Winston & Strawn’s advertising law group and Perkins Coie’s privacy and security group (courtesy My Corporate Resource chart) — I invite you to let me know about other examples in the comments section. These accounts direct readers to interesting and useful information, sometimes their own and sometimes others’, exactly the way a good Twitter feed should.

Full-service firms can use Twitter effectively by harnessing the power of their practice groups to dive deep into a subject, engage readers on the specific issues that concern them, and demonstrate a mastery of the subject area at hand. Firms with many such niche Twitter feeds, in turn, will realize that they’ve found a way to explain to a 21st-century marketplace what “full-service” now really means.

Comments

  1. Laurie A said:

    Thank you for the post Jordan. This is certainly a hot topic here in the UK.

    I am an enthusiast for the splitting of law firm Twitter streams along practice group or industry lines. I look after the Twitter accounts for my own firm, Boyes Turner (http://www.boyesturner.com), which maintains a central Twitter stream and seven segmented streams across different practice areas. There is a full list (along with individual lawyers’ accounts) here: http://twitter.com/boyesturner/boyes-turner

    Other firms are experimenting with this approach. For instance, the large Scottish firm MacRoberts (http://macroberts.com) runs a separate employment/labor law stream here: http://twitter.com/macr_employment

    I would be interested to hear of firms which are splitting Twitter streams into different industry sectors – which is arguably a more client-focussed approach than splitting them across practice areas.

    Laurie

    @ 11:56 am
  2. One of the first examples I saw of the practice group approach twitter was Texas-based Jackson Walker LLP which has had approximately 20 different practice-group feeds for more than a year that I’m aware of.
    You can see their list of feeds here:
    http://www.jw.com/site/jsp/twitter.jsp

    The frequency of posts to some of the streams is probably insufficient to gain significant traction, but I believe this is the correct strategy for larger firms and that we will see more examples of this approach in the future.

    @ 5:17 pm
  3. On the money, as usual. It has long been true-even before online marketing became the norm- that Firms did their best with narrow gauge client alerts and newsletters.

    I agree with your and Laurie’s preference for industry focused data streams. When we were building our media and communications transactional practice (in the ’80s) we attended every national trade convention-cable, radio, television, wireless, making good friends and learning their businesses. (Our attention to this type of marketing prompted amused jibes from colleagues who saw our efforts as boondoggles. Silly us…) For years, amazingly, we were the only non-FCC lawyers in a room. And we would have been early tweeters too.

    I think the core value of Twitter for the industry-specialized lawyer is in the quality of the online dialogue it makes possible. In a world in which personal interaction is at a premium, tweeting (like blogging) may well be–for some lawyers– the only available substitute to the rich social mix of a trade convention. It is an informal, inexpensive, collegial and highly efficient way to engage with clients, prospects and influencers within their business communities.

    By participating intelligently –and in true voice, the lawyers tweeting for a practice group can be recognized for their business savvy –perhaps even as “thought leaders”. Just as importantly, a tweeting attorney can convey a distinctive style, personality and –notably–sense of humor. No website or wide angle newsletter ever really communicates the human beings behind the firm’s letterhead. Split stream twitter will. An entrepreneurial lawyer should be able to see this–but may need professionals like Laurie A. to drag them into the modern world.

    @ 7:17 pm
  4. Nick Holmes said:

    Things are a lot calmer here than on the Time Blawg!

    Of course focused practice/industry group Twitter streams will be more effective than a single full service firm stream and you’ve made a good case here and previously for how firms can effectively use Twitter as a publishing/broadcasting vehicle. It’s perfectly valid and good to use Twitter like this and others (me included) shouldn’t get too excited that firm/group Twitter accounts don’t create engaging conversations; if they provide a quality stream of useful information, with links and the odd comment, then they’re doing a good job for the firm.

    @ 3:12 am
  5. Jordan,

    In response to your request for information about other practice gorup bloggers—

    In researching a blog post on blogging for law students and young lawyers I happened upon this guest post by Mark Herrmann on Above the Law. Herrmann is a former partner at Jones Day who for three years — from October 2006 through December 2009 — while a partner at Jones Day, co-hosted the Drug and Device Law Blog with Jim Beck, of Dechert. They wrote almost exclusively about the defense of pharmaceutical and medical device product liability. It’s an interesting post for many reasons–first because it sets forth the many ways in which blogging helped the authors development a high profile reputation in their field, cause a change in the law (no less), get a book deal and so on.

    Despite these substantial accomplishments , Herrmann contends that the dollars that came in to his firm were negligible, as only a couple of cases were sent to him becuase of the blog. I actually find this conclusion rather strange–since very few clioents seek out lawyers based on publiscation. Rather, the dramatic branding success these two lawyers had while and thriough blogging, constitutes an overall business tat does not easily translate into hard statistics,.

    new busincases.http://abovethelaw.com/2010/12/inside-straight-business-development-part-3/

    @ 8:07 am
  6. CORRECTED FINAL PARAGRAPH OF PRIOR COMMENT

    Despite these substantial accomplishments , Herrmann contends that the dollars that came in to his firm were negligible, as he received only a couple of new matters as a direct result of his blog. I actually find this conclusion rather strange–since very few clients seek out lawyers based on publication. Rather, the dramatic branding success these two lawyers had while and through blogging, certainly enhanced business generation in ways that do not easily translate into hard statistics.

    new busincases.http://abovethelaw.com/2010/12/inside-straight-business-development-part-3/

    @ 8:12 am
  7. Check out Sheppard Muillin, which has 22 separate practice group/industry blogs. However, all of them are distributed via one Twitter handle.

    http://twitter.com/#!/SheppardMullin

    @ 8:33 am
  8. Gavin Ward said:

    Great post Jordan; a whole new perspective on what “full-service” does and should mean.

    Best wishes,
    G

    @ 10:04 am
  9. […] Mid-size and large firms in particular seem to struggle when it comes to finding their “voice” w… To date, most of the larger firm twitter accounts tend to stick largely to a predictable regurgitation of their own firm news releases, new partner announcements and award or ranking achievements. However, when one combines the blandness of this approach with the fact that larger firms are of necessity speaking to a widely disparate group of clients and audiences (the tech startup, the mining giant, the municipal government client and the major bank all have very different information needs) you are a left with a situation where larger firms are using their social media presence to push out a series of almost exclusively self-laudatory items across a scattershot array of industries and topics. The vast majority of these updates are guaranteed to be of little or no relevance to most of the clients.  Little wonder then, that social media users typically opt for the livelier and more useful flow of information to be found in a boutique firm or individual lawyer’s social media feed.  That individual lawyer feed probably focuses primarily around a discrete legal subject area, includes both his or her own content as well as links to other news items relevant to that area from multiple credible sources, and throws in some commentary and personal anecdotes that let the reader know a little bit more about the person behind the post as well. […]

    @ 11:36 am
  10. […] Furlong writes in a January 25, 2011 StemLegal.com  Law Firm Web Strategy Blog blogpost entitled: Can a full-service law firm use Twitter?:  ”Full-service firms struggle with Twitter precisely because they are full-service — […]

    @ 5:05 am
  11. […] Furlong writes in a January 25, 2011 StemLegal.com  Law Firm Web Strategy Blog blogpost entitled: Can a full-service law firm use Twitter?:  ”Full-service firms struggle with Twitter precisely because they are full-service — […]

    @ 11:53 pm