Following on my two previous entries that talked about how law firms can use Facebook and Twitter, respectively, it’s time I turned to the last of the Big Three social networks, LinkedIn. Once again, my focus won’t be on how individual lawyers can best use LinkedIn (although I will spend some time there), but rather, on how law firms at the enterprise level can make the most of this platform.
Speaking generally, I’m much less bullish on what LinkedIn can do for law firms than what either of the other two networks can offer. I’ve come to view Facebook and Twitter as dynamic platforms that offer interesting and even exciting possibilities for law firms to tell their stories and shape their online personas. LinkedIn, by contrast, is more a place where your firm should have a presence, in order to cover off all your online networking bases and to support your individual lawyers who are generating contacts. But it’s more limited in its scope and in the benefits it can deliver. LinkedIn is a place you need to be; Facebook and Twitter are places where you want to be.
LinkedIn’s enterprise vehicle, the way in which corporations and organizations appear on the site, is the Company Profile. Here are a few random examples of corporate Company Profiles: Warner Brothers, British Airways and Research in Motion. And here are a few random examples of law firm Company Profiles: Gowlings, Alston & Bird, and Simmons & Simmons. Click through to view them, and the first thing you’re likely to notice is that they all look pretty much exactly the same. LinkedIn doesn’t provide the ability to customize the appearance or even, from what I can tell, the functionality of each Profile: they’re all very slight variations on a single template. That probably has its advantages, but saying something interesting or differentiating about your firm isn’t one of them.
Moreover, the features that the Company Profile does offer won’t provide a great deal of value to law firms in terms of generating client interest. Once you get past the Overview tab at the top (which in most cases reproduces or summarizes the “About Us” page of the firm’s website), the Company Profile splits into two columns, one focused on individuals within the firm and the other focused on the firm itself. Leaving aside the former for a moment, the latter provides information like number of offices, headquarters location, industry (“law practice” — who’d have guessed?), number of employees, and year of founding, data that qualifies more as trivia than actionable knowledge. “Common job titles” hardly varies from firm to firm, “top schools” matters not even slightly to clients, and “median age” is not only useless but also misleading — is the median age at Cravath Swaine & Moore really 29? That illustrates a fundamental drawback: these aren’t statistics about the firm itself, but rather about those members of the firm with LinkedIn accounts.
Turn back to the first column, where the focus is on individuals, and you do get some more interesting information — although not necessarily the kind the firms will enjoy. “Current Employees” is helpful for finding out which members of the firm are in your LinkedIn network (and it can be amusing, in a Six Degrees of Separation way, to see how many different people connect you to a given law firm). “New Hires” is nice-to-know information, nothing more — any really important talent acquistiion will have been trumpeted elsewhere. “Former Employees” can be more illuminating — in our highly mobile profession, it’s interesting to see who used to work where — but it also serves as a public display of Who’s Left The Firm, and that may not be something a firm likes having advertised. (The “Activity” tab at the top of the page is even more problematic: I saw one firm’s “Activity” page that consisted entirely of people who’d left the firm, sometimes for rivals.)
These differences bring out an important point: LinkedIn is a social network built primarily for individuals, not businesses. The focus, the connections, and the interesting facts are about specific lawyers and other professionals within a firm, not the firm itself. The firm is noteworthy only as the common denominator that these particular LinkedIn members share for the moment. Now, that might in fact reflect reality to an uncomfortable degree in many firms, but it doesn’t serve any organizational interest to emphasize it. As I’ve written before (and shortly will again) about blogs, LinkedIn is first and foremost an individual vehicle, not an enterprise one. It’s hard to use LinkedIn to advance your firm’s profile or to engage your clients — to communicate as a “firm qua firm” — in a substantial way.
LinkedIn’s real problem, in this sense, is that it doesn’t offer companies much more functionality than they can get from their own web page or, increasingly, from Facebook. A firm’s home page communicates far more information about the firm in a much more engaging, unique format — most law firm LinkedIn pages feature excerpts from the firm’s home page. A greater challenge is coming from Facebook, which as I’ve noted before, is taking business users far more seriously these days. There’s not much that a company can do on LinkedIn that it can’t do on Facebook, and there are a growing number of things it can do on Facebook that LinkedIn just isn’t built for. It reminds me of Homer Simpson’s complaint when he learned he had to travel to Canada: “We already live in America. Why do we have to go to America Junior?”
Now, it’s appropriate to point out here that Facebook has its own share of problems these days. For one thing, I think they took a major step backwards by switching from “Fan Pages” to a simple “Like” button — fandom is far more visceral and committed than mere liking. But Facebook’s biggest headache these days concerns privacy issues. This New York Times article underscores the fact that Facebook is uncomfortably close to pushing its users too far in this regard (although it’s also worth noting, as did a wise person on Twitter the other day, that Facebook users get all the privacy they pay for).
But these privacy issues, serious as they are, concern individuals, not corporations — from an enterprise point of view, in fact, the more information about itself that it can circulate, the better. A company or firm that exploits Facebook for its data-gathering and market research uses is bound to suffer some blowback from the privacy controversy; but a firm that uses Facebook to connect with members, clients and “fans” and to relate its narrative should have much less to fear. And in any event, Facebook has a vested interest in maximizing organizations’ return on investment in the site, which leads me to believe it will continue to encourage apps and features that further this goal while trying to satisfy basic privacy worries. This will probably cost Facebook some users, maybe a lot, but it’s a choice the platform needs to make if it wants to graduate from a pastime to an actual going concern, and it’s not one that should discourage firms from exploring its potential benefits.
Now, despite all my foregoing issues with LinkedIn and law firms, I still do counsel firms to create a Company Profile on LinkedIn — but I do so with the caveat that they’re covering off a potential liability rather more than opening up intriguing new frontiers. I can almost guarantee that, no matter what size your firm, at least some of your employees have LinkedIn accounts (one million lawyers populate the network, at last count). If the firm for which they work doesn’t also have a LinkedIn account connected to their pages, then they’re essentially orphans, and that’s a problem. Your firm isn’t getting any of the network benefit of having its employees build profiles and make connections — all the potential clients and recruits and recommenders that they’re acquiring aren’t able to link through to your firm and learn more about it. Not only that, these connections, all of whom are themselves evidently adept at social media, draw adverse conclusions about your firm from its absence on LinkedIn, and could well transfer some of those inferences to your employees.
And the fact is, certain benefits can be gleaned from maintaining and paying attention to a Company Profile for your firm. Larry Bodine points out a new “Follow” feature that can allow you to monitor what your corporate clients are up to. Guy Kawasaki notes 10 advantages for small businesses using LinkedIn, including using the “Answers” feature to promote your firm’s expertise and finding potential lateral recruits. Kevin O’Keefe’s own list provides five benefits, like using the “Buzz” feature to see what people are saying about your firm. Adrian Lurssen at JD Scoop links to several useful articles about how lawyers can maximize LinkedIn’s potential. And it’s true that while Facebook is coming on strong, many executives are still very uncomfortable using the same platform both to conduct business and to check in on their teenagers (see Larry’s summary of Hubbard One’s enlightening social media survey in this regard).
So LinkedIn is useful for law firms (and very useful, I still think, for individual lawyers). But overall, I’d still place it third behind Facebook and Twitter as a social media platform with the potential to power up your firm’s online presence and tell an effective and unique story. The irony is that the conventional wisdom describes Facebook as the frivolous personal site and LinkedIn as the serious business one. But Facebook is figuring out ways to let companies and organizations carve out their own identities and communicate as stand-alone entities, whereas LinkedIn still appears to be the sum of its individual member parts and not too much more. Both platforms are still evolving, of course, and this battle is far from over, but I think LinkedIn has some work to do.