Sunday, March 2, 2014

Social Media Matters for Small and Solo Firms

Social media is no longer new. This month, Facebook turns ten, joining LinkedIn, which hit the decade mark back in May. Lawyers have been blogging even longer than that, with the earliest lawyer blogs launched fifteen years ago.

Yet after all this time, social media still has limited traction in the legal profession, with few firms using social media for its “best and highest use”: engaging and interacting with colleagues and clients. Instead, large firms treat social media as another marketing channel to disseminate firm news and press releases, according to a recent ATL study, while solos and smalls treat social media as a poor man’s search-engine optimizer.  It’s no wonder that many practicing lawyers deride social media generally as a waste of time and counsel their colleagues to focus on traditional in-person networking, like meeting colleagues for lunch or getting involved in bar associations, to generate visibility and referrals.

Still, I wouldn’t give up on social media yet. The fact that so few lawyers understand how to use social media correctly makes it a powerful tool for solo and small firm lawyers. Here are three ways to use social media to get the most out of traditional, in-person networking, and to create new opportunities for yourself:

1. Social media as an express ticket out of the association basement.
Most of the bar associations that I belong to are dominated by large firms with the manpower to populate committees and advance to the upper ranks of leadership even if they didn’t do much. Likewise, most associations have a distinct pecking order, which can make it difficult for a new member to receive decent assignments.

Social media is a quick way to short-circuit all of the association bureaucracy. For example, years ago when I started my practice, I was appointed to a citizen’s committee that advised the county government on air quality and energy efficiency. As a new lawyer with limited knowledge of the committee’s work, I was often overlooked by the others on the committee. So I decided to create a blog (though at that time, it was really more of a website) highlighting the committee’s activities and serving as a resource for electric consumers in the county. I created the site, which was lauded by the committee.  Ultimately, the county decided to sponsor the site, and I was placed in charge of the transition. Soon, I was nominated to an officer position, which gave me added visibility and opportunities (such as testifying to the legislature and meeting with the county executive) — which helped me build my résumé at a time when I needed it, and eventually led to paying work.

2. Social media can help you start your own group.
Maybe the bar association or existing groups don’t have anything to offer. No worries – with social media, it’s easy to start your own organization. Currently, I’m counsel to the Ocean Renewable Energy Coalition, a national trade association that I co-founded nearly eight years ago. The opportunity came along in part because of my legal knowledge related to offshore renewable activity, but also because I knew how to set up a blog, which gave the organization an online presence and credibility from the outset. Today, you don’t even need to know how to set up a blog; a Facebook page is a cost-effective and easy way to set up a site that can be used to announce events and communicate with members.

3.  Social media can facilitate interactions.
There are multiple ways that social media can facilitate interactions. One tip I picked up from Ari Kaplan is to search your LinkedIn before you visit a city and find one of your contacts to meet. I tried this tip when I spoke at a conference in London two years ago and wound up not only meeting an interesting colleague but also seeing the Magna Carta at the British Library where we met.
Twitter can also jump start connections and conversations.  For example, if you’re attending a conference with a speaker whom you’d really like to meet, why not tweet his or her presentation? Speakers are always flattered by the extra exposure, and if the tweets are well received, you can pass that information on to the speaker.  And there are plenty of other ways to use Twitter before, during, and after a conference.

So what if social media hasn’t gained traction in the legal profession? That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t work, but rather, that there’s still a wide-open playing field for solos and smalls to use social media to our advantage. And it’s still not too late to enter the game.

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