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Law firms taking a half-hearted approach to social media

LinkedIn predominates, firms hesitant to engage with clients

19 January 2012

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By Manju Manglani, Editor (@ManjuManglani)

While many law firms have registered a presence on social networks, these channels are often not being used well to actively engage with other users or for business development and recruitment.

LinkedIn is by far the most popular social media platform among law firms ?(with 77 per cent penetration), followed by Twitter (31 per cent), Facebook (29 per cent) and YouTube (10.9 per cent), according to a LexisNexis Martindale-Hubbell (LMH) global survey.

Over the past year, adoption of LinkedIn by UK firms has increased dramatically. The number of partners and employees at mid-sized UK law firms that have LinkedIn accounts has typically doubled from under a quarter in 2010. In addition, the number of people following top 50 law firms on LinkedIn has almost doubled to nearly 50,000, according to Kelso Consulting research.

However, much of the increase in registrations may be related to brand protection rather than brand promotion, to prevent unauthorised online usage of firm branding by third parties. A significant proportion of firms have simply registered company pages but not fully developed them. Similarly, individual profiles have been registered on LinkedIn and other social media networks but are not being actively used.

Although the magic circle have the greatest representation by numbers in LinkedIn, it is the mid-tier firms that have the highest penetration. Among the UK top 50, Olswang (68 per cent of personnel) and Charles Russell (64 per cent) have the highest proportional LinkedIn usage, followed by Allen & Overy and Hogan Lovells (both 62 per cent), according to Kelso.

The lowest users of LinkedIn are Berrymans Lace Mawer (21 per cent), just ahead of Slaughter and May and Beachcroft (both 27 per cent).

Usage of other forms of online networking is low. The LMH survey found that Twitter is mainly being used by ?firms as a broadcasting channel, rather ?than as a tool to hold conversations ?with followers. Similarly, YouTube ?remains largely unexplored by firms as ?a communications platform. In addition, less than a tenth of law firms have official firm blogs or have integrated social media tools into their websites.

Ethical considerations

Part of the hesitation involved in UK firms fully utilising social media may be explained by the fact that the ethical implications are still unclear.

On 20 December 2011, the Law Society of England and Wales issued a practice note warning that solicitors adding clients as ‘friends’ on social media sites such as Facebook may be in breach of ethical obligations.

“Your professional integrity could be questioned if details of your private life are revealed, while the client could unwittingly post sensitive information on your page, which would compromise confidentiality or impact ongoing cases,” notes Law Society president John Wotton.

“You may think your profile is reasonably innocuous but you cannot always control the information other ?people share, such as comments or ?photo tagging,” he adds.

Wotton advises that solicitors keep their professional lives separate from their personal social networking activities.

The Law Society recommends that networking sites that are specifically geared toward professional use – such as LinkedIn, Biznik and Focus – are more appropriate for solicitors looking to add clients or colleagues as contacts.

It notes that if a solicitor first forms ?a relationship with a client through social media, there is no reason for the solicitor and client to cease interacting via ?social media.

However, the practice note also states that if a solicitor continues to have an online relationship with a client or forms an online relationship with a client via LinkedIn, the solicitor should consider whether he might be in breach of the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s Code of Conduct 2011.

In particular, it queries whether chapter four of the SRA code (on confidentiality and disclosure) would be applicable if a client got in touch with a solicitor via LinkedIn and they become ‘contacts’ on that channel.

In this situation, the practice note advises consideration of chapter one of the code (on client care) and whether contact with a client via social media may affect the solicitor’s obligations to provide a proper standard of service. Also highlighted as potentially applicable are chapter eight (on publicity) and chapter 11 (on relations with third parties), along with the SRA Principles 2011.

Global variations

Worldwide, North America is leading the way among law firms for social media engagement, with the highest registration of social media profiles and overall engagement, according to the LMH report.

Firms in Western Europe are also fairly active, although usage and depth of engagement across the continent varies greatly. UK and Amsterdam-based firms reportedly have the highest levels of social media adoption.

In Africa, Johannesburg-based law firms tend to have a more proactive approach to social media, with many visible on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. This contrasts with those surveyed in Dubai and Lagos, where LinkedIn is the only channel where the surveyed firms had a notable presence.

Reflecting the prevalence of traditional marketing methods, Latin American firms tend towards profile registration on various networks, with a much less notable level of active engagement.

Social media usage among law firms in the Middle East and Asia Pacific (with the exception of Australian firms) is also relatively low. In countries such as India, this may reflect local bar association restrictions placed on law firm advertising. Non-access to networks such as ?Facebook in China also prevents widespread engagement.

The low adoption may also be in part explained by greater usage of local language social networks, such as Orkut ?in the Middle East, QQ in China and ?Mixi in Japan.

Measurable returns

Over the coming year, law firms will likely continue to develop their social media strategies. However, return on investment will need to be a priority for veterans ?as well as for those venturing into ?cyber networking. Many law firms ?continue to enter social media domains without clearly defined objectives or measurable outcomes.

Firms that are new to social networking should focus on one aim at a time, rather than attempting to address multiple business needs at once, suggests the LMH report. Once dedicated resources have been allocated and the success is being measured, the firm can then expand to work on other objectives.

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