Social media for law firm leaders

I recently had a conversation with Sean Larkan, my Australia-based colleague with Edge International, about what law firm leaders need to know about social media. That conversation led to a Q&A that Sean has now posted on his Legal Leaders Blog. It’s a lengthy post, so here are some of the highlights; if these look interesting, I encourage you to click through and read the full version.

1.  It seems that many leaders regard social media as something that should be left to “marketing” or “communications.” What role, if any, should leaders play?

Leaders who regard marketing and communications as not meriting their attention are either too busy for their own good or don’t fully appreciate the degree to which a law firm’s reach and reputation is linked to its business success. For social media to really catch on within a firm, there has to be clear buy-in from the top — not just from the managing partner, but to the extent possible, from senior rainmakers and other influencers.

Some firms talk a nice game about the importance of social media to their marketing and business development, but then delegate complete authority for social media to a young partner or a communications staffer. That will have exactly as much impact on the firm’s communications culture that you would expect it will. If you want social media to have a reasonable shot at success, you need to provide some visible leadership. A managing partner’s blog would be a nice start.

2.  Is social media “up there” as a strategic issue for law firm leaders?

Law firm leaders are not treating social media as a strategic issue, nor should they. There are only so many truly strategic matters that a law firm’s leadership can address and execute at one time, and issues like market reputation, talent retention, workflow redesign, and rainmaker management are going to occupy most if not all the available bandwidth. Those are the keys to firms’ survival and growth; social media may be more than just a “nice-to-have,” but it can’t be called “strategic” unless you seriously stretch the meaning of the word.

Two exceptions. One is if your firm has certain characteristics (e.g., start-up clientele, virtual offices, extremely strong consumer focus) that place a powerful social media plan at the core of the firm’s marketing and business development efforts. Two, we don’t yet know what social media is going to become. Social media can reasonably be said to be in its infancy, but this is a pretty massive infant. It’s correct to say that for most firms today, social media is not a critical strategic matter; it would not be correct, or wise, to say that social media will never come to completely dominate online interaction, or that such a development is decades away.

3.  What should leaders know about social media?

Law firm leaders should understand two things about social media. The first is to ensure they don’t swallow too much hype. I once told a conference of managing partners that they should have a social media strategy if they also have a magazine strategy and a billboard strategy. That is to say, social media is a communications tool, one of those in the toolbox their firms have been using for decades.

Social media should be part of a sophisticated and well-supported communications strategy — and this is where I’d say most firms are lacking. Firms that ask me about social media strategy quickly find themselves in a conversation about communications strategy, answering questions about how they approach their newsletters, websites, magazine articles, advertisements, media interviews and so on. Social media is a tool, and it’s not as important as the box it’s carried around in.

The second thing law firm leaders should understand is that they have never seen a communications tool like this. It’s true that magazines and billboards and social media are all communications tools; but no magazine in the world has 750 million subscribers the way Facebook does, and nobody uses billboards to issue hourly updates on legal issues, as Twitter allows you to do. Social media has something else that no other tool offers: two-way communication.

Social media allows the public to talk back to a company; more importantly, it also allows members of the public to talk to each other about a company. If social media provided law firms nothing else but the opportunity to receive instant feedback on their content, respond to public inquiries, and conduct free market research about their brand and the things that matters to the people who care enough about the firm to talk about it, social media would be a breakthrough technology. And that’s only one small part of what it does.

4. Some leaders would undoubtedly feel the social media landscape is awash with blogs, tweets and posts and that any further contribution their firm makes will get lost in this – any comments?

I’ve also come across some lawyers who feel that way. Oddly enough, they don’t feel the same way about a traditional media landscape already littered with advertisements, advertorials, and lawyer-contributed content: they’re more than happy to keep buying ad space and sending in articles to overstuffed magazines. This tells me that the problem is not with an overdose of social media content; it’s with the fact that social media is new and still developing and lawyers don’t trust it yet.

Far fewer law firms publish blogs than newsletters; far fewer have Twitter feeds than send articles to their local legal newspaper. Compared to the traditional sea of legal content, social media is as close to a “blue ocean” as lawyers are likely to find. But it’s not going to last forever, and the firms that wait the longest for everyone else to jump in will find that the pool really is too crowded by the time they arrive.

5.  What are the stand-out benefits that arise from a strategic and structured approach to implementation of social media that leaders should be aware of?

Here’s just one. There are no better, more effective and more affordable content publishing and distribution platforms than blogs and Twitter (or possibly Google Plus). It’s almost ridiculous how easy and cheap it is to publish a blog and create a specialized legal news feed on Twitter: much easier, faster, and less expensive than cranking out and mailing yet another printed newsletter (or emailing yet another PDF newsletter).

Law firms produce tons of content, and with some editing, most of it will prove very effective in building profile and attracting business — if it receives outstanding (defined in both quantitative and qualitative terms) publishing and distribution. No law firm in the world has an email database that can compare (either in size or in pass-along functionality) to Twitter, LinkedIn and Google Plus. Create blogs, as many as you can manage, as niched and as specialized and as client-focused as you can make them.

Trust your people to publish great content and give them the best and most advanced editing, publishing and circulation functionality to multiply the impact of that content a hundredfold. Then watch the marketing and business development payoffs begin to pile up.

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