For those of us who are early and eager adopters of new communication platforms, it’s easy to forget that the rest of the world may not “get” Twitter or talk about their RSS reader of choice while socializing with friends at happy hour.
Sometimes it seems like people who work in the legal profession are particularly backwards. Are they?
Kevin O’Keefe, CEO of LexBlog (full disclosure: I work there) and a legal social media expert (I first met him as a guest speaker in an MCDM class), believes the idea that lawyers don’t use social media stems from the public perception that social media is limited only to sites like Facebook and Twitter. While lawyers may shy away from Twitter and Facebook, many are active users of blogs and Linkedin. The popular lawyer (and doctor) rating site AVVO can also be considered social media.
In one study its shown that lawyers are actually ahead of other professions in adopting social media. Compared to Fortune 500 companies, for example, law firms as a whole use social media more. For example 62% of AmLaw 200 law firms had blogs in 2010, but only 23% of Fortune 500 companies could claim the same.
While 54% of all companies block social networking sites, only 45% of law firms do. According to Greentarget’s 2010 Corporate Counsel New Media Engagement Survey, 1.5 million lawyers are on LinkedIn and 76 of the AmLaw 100 have a Twitter profile–though only 39 update theirs regularly.
The main reasons lawyers do not use social media, says O’Keefe, is lack of access to the appropriate technology and understanding of how to do it.
So maybe, the question should really be, “why aren’t some lawyers using social media?”
Ethics and client confidentiality
The legal profession is guided by a strict code of conduct set by the bar association in each state. These sets of ethics are guide lawyers through a profession that, as the New York Lawyers Code of Professional Responsibility says, “assumes various roles that require the performance of many difficult tasks.”
Most codes of ethics include a section on Lawyer Advertising designed to protect the attorney client relationship. A sign on a park bench or side of the bus is obviously advertising, but blogs and other social media are often seen as a legal grey area.
Invitations sent directly from a social media site via instant messaging to a third party to view or link to the lawyer’s page on an unsolicited basis are solicitations in violation of Rule 4-7.4(a), unless the recipient is the lawyer’s current client, former client, relative, or is another lawyer.
Plus, client information is privileged; many lawyers are concerned about crossing lines and disclosing information that they shouldn’t. And once they rule out what they’re working on as sharable content, they worry they won’t have anything at all to say.
You can’t get clients from social media
Many lawyers don’t use social media because they don’t think they can get clients from online activity. Others start using social media thinking that this will attract clients, and give up because it doesn’t.
Traditional law firm marketing is designed to increase business, and this runs counter to the information- and relationship-based principles of social media. Social media isn’t the side of a bus or a late-night TV spot, but many lawyers treat it like it is.
Sam Glover, lawyer and founder of Lawyerist, addresses this notion in a post on re-thinking social media marketing,
“I am highly skeptical of claims that every lawyer should be using social media for marketing,” he says. “In fact, I am convinced that most lawyers cannot use social media effectively for marketing, no matter how many social media gurus they follow on Twitter.”
So, lawyers can’t discuss their work online, and it’s difficult to get clients, but social media is a fun way to learn and connect with other lawyers, right? Well, maybe. Law is a hierarchical profession that emphasizes experience. Because of the “anyone can do it” nature of Twitter, people who say the right things can become very popular, even if they do not have the work history to prove their words.
Scott Greenfield of the popular Simple Justice blog notes this particular phenomena of lawyers who are popular on Twitter:
“There’s harm being done here, and that’s why it’s necessary to point this out,” he says. ” The lawyer who has tried ten cases is being “mentored” by the Twitter lawyer who has never tried a case. The lawyer who has tried 100 cases, but poorly, is a Twitter rock star. The Twitter lawyer isn’t a lawyer at all, but someone “passionate” about something he knows nothing about.”
Social media is all about trust, and it can be difficult to develop this when it’s not obvious who the person behind the account is.
I’ve noticed that age means nothing when it comes to the success of a law blog, though conventional wisdom is that younger lawyers would be better at it. In reality, older lawyers understand traditional networking concepts, and are able to work them into their blogs and online interactions more effectively. Older lawyers also have more experience and insights into the profession.
However, there is still a generational gap in other social media use among Millennials, Generation X and Boomers in the legal field. Older attorneys may not feel the same push to use social media because they have functioned without it for so long.
This is changing. The 2012 In-House Counsel New Media Engagement Survey found that “counsel in their 40s, 50s and 60s are consuming more content online than they did two years ago,” and the trend carries through to other legal fields as well.
So why are lawyers using social media?
Social media has its advantages and limitations in any profession. Despite the numerous reasons not to, lawyers sign up for Twitter accounts, author blogs, post on Facebook and connect on LinkedIn.
Why? Lawyers blog because it’s fun. Lawyers blog because it gives them a legacy. Lawyers can use Twitter to monitor, connect and share, and a variety of other reasons. Given that Lawyers are finding ways to embrace online activity more than ever even the most skeptical sources agree that, despite the potential dangers, the use of social media by lawyers will certainly increase over the coming years.