Sep 14, 2009

Legal Marketing: Social Media Trends

So, how many lawyers use online professional networking and social media tools and which ones do they favor?  Interesting questions to be sure, but you're probably wondering why you should care.  After all, as a lawyer you're probably more interested in where and how potential clients are using social media rather than what your colleagues are doing with it. 

However, turning a blind eye to how your colleagues are using social media is a mistake.  Because social media isn't just a static tool -- like a newspaper ad or a website -- for direct generation of clients.  Engaging social media is also a process that enables lawyers to build meaningful relationships with colleagues, which in turn will produce referrals.

A just released study by Leader Networks shows why social media is critical to generating business in the legal profession.  Of the 1474 lawyers surveyed as part of the study (764 private practice lawyers and 710 corporate counsel), 56 percent identified peer referrals or recommendations as the most effective method for finding business, followed by in person networking events (33 percent) and conferences and seminars (15 percent).  Only three percent believed that blogging, listservs or other social media tools helped to generate business.

But here's the rub.  Despite recognizing the importance of networking with peers to generate referrals, most lawyers said that they simply don't have the time to leverage opportunities to network with peers.  And that's where social media can fill the gap.  Social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, the ABA's Legally Minded, Martindale Connected or Legal OnRamp, serve as a virtual water cooler, giving lawyers opportunities to exchange quick pleasantries, update colleagues on recent accomplishments ("speaking at national conference" or "just won SJ hearing") and share news of current events or developments in their respective practice areas.   As relationships evolve, you might find yourself consulting with a colleague on another matter or eventually passing on a case -- and vice versa. 

So not surprisingly, more lawyers are joining social networking sites.  According to the Leader Networks Study, 78 percent of lawyers polled reported membership in an online social network, up substantially from 59 percent in 2008.  And participation runs across all age groups, with 86 percent of lawyers aged 25-35 belonging to social networks, followed by 76 percent of those 36-45 and 66 percent of those in the 46-55+ category. 

Still, even though social networking can be less time consuming than traveling to a conference four hours away, it can easily become a time-sink unless lawyers are disciplined about participation.  So here are a few tips to engage social media tools efficiently so that you won't begrudge your participation if referrals don't come as quickly as you'd like.

1.  Choose your weapons

If this is your first foray into social media, you may want to proceed with some caution.  You are better off signing up for two sites and creating a robust presence rather than spreading yourself thin on eight or ten sites. 

However, with so many social media tools available, how can you pick the one that's right for you?  The decision depends largely on your intended targets.  If you're looking to build relationships with other lawyers, here's how various social media sites stack up according to the Leader Network report:

Linked-In - (used by 58% private counsel, 52% corporate counsel);

Martindale-Hubbell Connected, reading and commenting on blogs (42 % private counsel,
35 % corporate counsel);

Public social networks (Facebook, MySpace)  (37% private counsel, 25% corporate counsel);

Online Q&A and expert search services (e.g., WikiHow or Yahoo Answers) (13% private counsel, 19% corporate counsel);

Twitter (6% private counsel, 4% corporate counsel)

Other considerations in choosing a site include:

--Your personality.  If you tend to be shy or reserved, a site like Facebook, which is most interesting when colored by photos or light banter, may not be appropriate.  Instead, you may feel more comfortable at a more sites like Linked-In or Martindale Hubbell Connect, where the interactions are more focused on professional matters.

--Your schedule.  Some types of social media - such as blogging or regularly responding to online questions and answers may be too time consuming to fit into your schedule or to justify based on the resulting returns.  If you're busy, choose social media sites that don't require a large time investment.

--Your markets.  Are your competitors engaged in, or gaining stature at certain social media sites?  If so, you may want to dive in if only to keep an eye on them.  At the same time, don't avoid a social media site just because it's not populated with other lawyers from your practice area.  There's something to be said for gaining a first mover advantage.

2.  Recognize the process for building relationships

Because this post is focused primarily on use of social media as a way to build connections and generate referrals and business from other lawyers (as opposed to directly from clients), I'm going to assume that as your goal.  So how do you reach the point where you establish a relationship that encourages referrals?

In many ways, the stages of relationship building on social media parallel those in a traditional office environment.  For example, if you ever worked in an office, recall how you went about establishing relationships with colleagues.  During the first few weeks, you likely exchanged greetings and perhaps emailed each other about work related projects.  As you grew more comfortable, perhaps you went to lunch together or out for a cup of coffee and chatted about personal matters like your vacation plans or girlfriend or kids.  Finally, after more time, you may have gotten together outside of the office for a ball game or a tennis match.  Having established this level of camaraderie, you most likely tried to help your colleague professionally by referring him clients or making sure to sing his praises to management.

The same process takes place in the online world as well.  Initially, you may exchange greetings with a colleague whom you've "friended" on Facebook.  After a few weeks, you may comment on photos she's posted of family or offer some sympathy after she's posted about a bad day.  Finally, if you learn that your Facebook colleague will be visiting your city or speaking at a conference that you plan to attend, you might try to schedule an offline, in person meeting which will solidify the relationship.  Once you've grown comfortable with each other, your colleague will trust you enough to send contacts.  Plus, because you have a personal friendship, your colleague will make an effort to help you out, and vice versa.

3.  Don't dive in too quickly

You want social media relationships to evolve offline, but at the same time, you don't want to jump in too quickly.  Avoid friending 400 people whom you barely know all at once and then sharing 40 items with them daily.  Likewise, don't bombard Twitter with self-promotional posts or you'll just turn off followers.  You wouldn't like it if an office mate barged in to your conversation with a co-worker and began gabbing away, would you?  Turns out, social etiquette in social media isn't all that different.

4.  Set up a social media schedule

Some social media tools, particularly Facebook and Twitter can quickly become addictive.  If you spend too much time online, you won't get any work done - and worse, you'll create the impression that you're not very busy.  A realistic schedule might include (1) blocking off thirty minutes early  in the morning to log on to your social media accounts and return messages, send messages and tend to any updates and then (2) repeating the process sometime during the late afternoon or evening.   Or you might block out three to four 15 minute segments throughout the day to come online.  Of course, during really busy periods, you may not have any time for social media - so try to stick to the schedule when you can to establish a reasonably consistent presence.

5.  Do not outsource your social media! 

You don't need to read any further than my last post here to understand the dangers of outsourcing social media campaigns.

Conclusion:  Increasingly, lawyers are joining social media - but there's still time to get on board.   You just need to keep an open mind about the possibilities that social media holds to  build meaningful and lasting connections with colleagues that will provide both financial and personal rewards.

For more detailed information on how lawyers can use social media, take a look at my ebook on Social Media for Lawyers.