There’s the principle, there’s the theory, and then there’s the reality.
The principle is that the only reliable way for a law firm to build a lasting positive presence on the web is through the steady and timely production of relevant content: no amount of SEO gamesmanship will outperform good content that builds links with other websites. The theory is that law firms are filled with expert content producers who collectively can generate a tremendous amount of knowledge to fill the growing number of available vehicles (web pages, newsletters, blogs, Twitter, and so forth). The reality is that this is often more difficult to achieve than it sounds.
I’ve spoken with a few law firms recently about ways in which Stem can help them promote their presence online, and on each occasion, I’ve brought up the critical importance of content. What I’ve often heard back is that lawyers are surprisingly (to me, anyway) reluctant to commit to content contribution. It might be that such efforts are unbillable and therefore unattractive to busy lawyers under pressure to produce revenue. It might be that the firm has failed to sufficiently motivate and prioritize lawyer content production. Or it might simply be that lawyers want to practise law and leave the content to non-lawyer staff.
But whatever the reason, this reluctance constitutes a major roadblock to firms’ chances of using the web to successfully promote themselves. I’ve read a lot lately about how law firms are poised to essentially become legal publishers, and it’s certainly true that the potential is there. But it seems to be the rare firm whose lawyers are both willing to regularly produce content and are able to ensure that content is readable, compelling and engaging. This is more than a minor annoyance; this is a fundamental challenge to the execution of a marketing strategy.
It’s not hopeless, however. If this sounds like your firm, there are ways out of this bind. Here are a few measures you might consider.
1. Help lawyers prioritize content production. No outside consultant is going to successfully motivate your lawyers that producing content is a good thing; politically and culturally, this message can only be delivered by colleagues. How should the message be packaged?
- Evangelize the benefits of content for increased prestige and prominence — if some lawyers aren’t yet sold on content’s virtues, show them how their competitors get attention and influence from content and encourage them to become “thought leaders” in their areas.
- Ensure that senior or influential lawyers lead by example — you need champions (a managing partner, a practice group leader, a rising rainmaker) who consistently produce articles for a newsletter or posts for a blog to set the tone (and create expectations) for others.
- Create financial and career advancement incentives for content production — if your firm doesn’t recognize non-billable contributions to marketing efforts, change that now. Offer weekend getaway packages for the most prolific authors. Make it cool to produce content.
- Remove the hassle and complications of content production — create editorial schedules that call for a lawyer to write every second Wednesday, or what have you. Assign “beats” or specific topics to lawyers. Make it easy and quick for lawyers to produce content.
2. Bring in professional content assistance. Even lawyers who’ve drunk the kool-aid and are ready to write will need help organizing their thoughts and creating client-focused content. And virtually every lawyer, enthusiastic contributor or not, will need editing help to turn typical lawyer prose into something that clients would willingly read. On this point, I echo the advice of Dion Algeri at The Great Jakes Blog: hire a director of content,
a full-time employee who can help attorneys take dry legal thinking and turn it into compelling, readable stories that will attract a loyal following. Perhaps this person has a background as the editor of a magazine or trade publication. … [S]ocial media tools and tactics are relatively easy to learn. In my opinion, the tough part is creating the kind of content that will rise above the clutter and help build the reputations of your attorneys.
At the very least, you should engage professional editors who can chart the content mandate, help guide lawyers’ contributions, edit the content (or in some cases, interview the lawyers and write it themselves), and package it in a readable fashion. Just make sure, however, that the lawyers are the source of the content: don’t let them delegate the choice of topics or the expression of opinions to staff. That leads us to a third, related point:
3. Approach social media with caution. From time to time, I’ve been asked (indirectly and otherwise) if in addition to advising law firms on blogging strategies and recommending an editorial direction, I would also be prepared to write the blog entries themselves. My response is always the same: I’m happy to review a draft post or brainstorm ideas, but the whole point of a blog post is that it’s personal and authentic. What is published under your name and your photo must come from you. Avoid “ghostblogging” in the law unless sincerity and trustworthiness aren’t important reputational assets to you.
This position rapidly bumps up against the problem of lawyer reluctance to produce content. Is it better to have a law firm’s blog posts composed by a professional writer under the lawyer’s name, or to have no blog at all? I’m a huge believer in law firm blogs, but not at the cost of the blog’s claim to authenticity. If your firm really can’t persuade lawyers to contribute their own content without having it basically written for them, then blogs are probably not for you.
E-newsletters, sure: articles don’t even need bylines, and they can be professionally written with a lawyer’s input. Twitter feeds under the firm’s logo (but not under a lawyer’s name and photo) can and probably should be manned by professional communications staff; ditto a Facebook page. But blogs are a different animal. Bring in all the help you need to make a law firm or practice group blog timely, engaging and must-read. But the author and the voice of the blog must be the lawyer or lawyers behind it, or else all the relationship-, reputation-, and profile-enhancing aspects of blogging will be wasted, or worse.
Make no mistake: your law firm needs lawyer-generated content if it hopes to compete for attention and respect on the Web. So if your lawyers don’t think content matters, if they don’t have the right incentives to produce it, or if they think it’s something they can delegate to a staff person and forget about, you need to correct those misperceptions, and fast.