Social media trainer Rich Dibbins of Conscious Solutions outlines how law firms need to approach social media. (Updated 3 February 2020)
Many lawyers shy away from social media, worried about reputational and ethical risks or seeing it as a time-wasting stream of idle chatter.
But the truth is, your firm almost certainly already has a presence on social media, whether you like it or not. At the very least, you need to manage your reputation and make sure that partners and employees are using social media responsibly.
More than that, social media offers real opportunities to build your reputation and your professional network, and ultimately to bring new clients to the firm. In many ways, social media is the online version of networking – traditionally the lawyer's most important marketing tool.
"Creating the right balance between professionalism and personality can be a challenge. But it means that smaller practices can outshine firms with larger marketing budgets"
Luan Wise, marketing author and consultant
Social media opportunities
At its simplest, a social media presence makes it easier for you to be found online – by existing and potential clients, referrers and other contacts. And for anyone who has a LinkedIn profile and uses LinkedIn to instantly see who they are dealing with, a lawyer who doesn't at least have a LinkedIn profile may lack credibility.
Social media makes it easy to stay in touch with – and extend – your network of contacts with other individuals and organisations. What's more, you can use social networks to strengthen your relationships and build your reputation.
As a starting point, you can use social media as another channel for sharing information your firm already publishes elsewhere. A family lawyer might regularly add new pieces touching on different issues or commenting on recent articles in the news. A lawyer focused on a particular sector could share a weekly roundup of industry news and views.
And you don't have to restrict yourself just to the law. While lawyers are rightly concerned to maintain their professionalism, social media is also an opportunity to show a little personality and strengthen your brand. Your involvement with local community groups and business networks is a natural fit for social media. And if it turns out that key contacts share your love of racing or travel, why not show a little of that online?
Social media allows you to engage with your connections rather than just talking at them. Following what your contacts are sharing helps you understand what interests them. It gives you the opportunity to comment when you have something helpful to add. As in the real world, listening and showing an interest are powerful ways to build relationships.
Facebook, Twitter and Instagram can all help to show the human side of your firm. This helps to build trust even with people who you have never met, which is so important in areas such as family law. In contrast LinkedIn is aimed at professionals, so for example it can help you to build relationships with the accountants and estate agents who are in a position to recommend your firm to their clients. LinkedIn is also a powerful tool for recruitment.
Even when you aren't connected, monitoring social media lets you see what influencers, competitors and potential clients are talking about. Used sensibly, social media can be a useful tool as part of background research and due diligence, and for monitoring your own online reputation.
"Winning new business relies on personality and connections as well as legal expertise. People buy into people and take their legal expertise as a given"
Adrienne Halladay, marketing consultant, Symphony Legal
Social media policy
Your social media policy should set out what activity you are expecting from your team, while also setting out guidelines for what not to do.
Those guidelines can turn out to be crucial, as Baker Small found out back in 2016 when a tweet by the law firm's Managing Director led to disastrous national publicity and then client desertions. While Baker Small remains the textbook example of what not to do, lawyers continue to get into trouble over social media posts.
On a more mundane level, the continual checking of personal social media accounts can be a major distraction in any office. So you need to have a social media policy whether you decide to invest in social media or not.
- Set out who is responsible for managing the firm's social media accounts.
- Actively encourage fee-earners to have a full professional profile on LinkedIn. Get their agreement to use LinkedIn to support the firm's marketing efforts.
- Aim to limit personal use of other social media at work, unless there is a specific business reason for such activity.
- Make sure everyone understands how inappropriate comments on social media can harm the firm. In particular, individuals should be made aware of the need to avoid inappropriate comments about clients, colleagues or work.
- Make sure that any legal commentary provided on social media is restricted to broader insights rather than specific legal advice.
- Note that what you post on social media is considered by law to be published content even if it is shared privately.
- The golden rule is to avoid anyone posting anything that they would not want to appear in a newspaper, or get used against you in court, or be read by your mother.
Further guidance on the ethical and regulatory issues that need to be considered is available in the Law Society practice note on social media.
Social media strategy
Your first step to deciding your own social media strategy should be to familiarise yourself with the key social media platforms. As well as LinkedIn and Facebook, have a look at Twitter and Instagram. Try to identify any local, sector-specific or other online networks where you might want to have a presence.
Check how other lawyers and law firms are using these platforms. Search for key terms that interest you to get an idea of who is active and what they are saying on which platforms. Seeing how others are using social media should help you decide what might work for you – and what you would be less comfortable with. Think about your own firm's brand and how social media could enhance it.
Decide what your key objectives are and which audience you are trying to reach. While some lawyers can use social media to directly reach out to potential clients, in many cases social media works best as a way of building relationships with referrers. Be clear about what you are trying to achieve, and if possible how you will measure success.
Think carefully about how much time, effort and money you are willing to invest. Social media marketing is typically a 'slow burn', with a minimum of three to six months before it has a meaningful impact. Bear in mind that social media works best if you take the time to build a strong presence and engage with your contacts. You are better off using a small number of platforms well than spreading yourself too thinly.
"Involve all the key people in your firm in deciding your approach – from senior partners whose commitment is essential, to younger employees who may be given responsibility for your firm's social media accounts"
Paul Hudson, marketing director (Europe), Travelers
Avoiding potential pitfalls
Using social media well doesn't have to be difficult, provided you avoid the most common mistakes:
- Self-promotion. Think of your social media posts from your audience's perspective. What's in it for them? A bit of self-promotion is acceptable, but too much and you will lose their interest.
- Legalese. If you are using social media to reach clients and referrers, you want to share content that will interest them, in language they understand: "conveyancing" means nothing to most people selling their house.
- Inauthenticity. Trying to create an image that isn't a realistic reflection of yourself and your firm is very difficult to maintain.
- Oversharing. A bit of personality creates a much more engaging online presence than bland professionalism, but don't overdo it. Do your contacts really want daily updates on the football team you support?
- Time-wasting. It's easy to waste time on social media, particularly if you get in a habit of endlessly checking updates for fear of missing out. Instead, establish set times: for example, schedule content on a weekly or monthly basis and check your accounts for interaction twice a day.
- Inactivity. Dormant social media accounts and a failure to engage with connections mean that you quickly lose impact. Worse still, it can even be interpreted as a sign of a firm in trouble.
"We recommend that firms post an equal measure of business-specific content, general business content, and social content. Stick to what's of interest to your target audience, including how you can help them, while showing the human side of your firm"
Gavin Ward, director, Moore Legal Technology
Making social media work
Individual fee-earners may want to maintain their own social media presence, reflecting their personalities, interests and areas of expertise. At the same time, you may want to have social media accounts for the firm as well. Larger firms sometimes maintain separate accounts for particular practice areas or locations, or for graduate recruitment.
You may find it helpful to use external consultants to help set up and manage your social media. Specialists can be particularly helpful in handling technical issues such as setting up tools that make social media easier to use, making sure accounts have the right settings, and keeping up to date with new features.
Unless your own partners and employees have some day-to-day involvement, it can be almost impossible to create the sort of authentic personality you should be aiming for. Make sure that everyone involved has the time and inclination to be effective. If unenthusiastic staff see contributing content as a chore, the whole exercise can quickly get bogged down.
Create an 'editorial calendar', planning ahead for the sorts of content you want to produce as well as reacting to the news and whatever your connections are discussing. Each time you create a piece of content, think how you will share it across the different social media platforms.
Likewise, have a plan for how you will build your networks and a budget for promoting your content. Then regularly review whether you are hitting targets and getting a good return on investment.
Finally, regularly review all your social media profiles. Think about the sort of impression they make and compare them to your competition. Make sure they are achieving what you want and identify any opportunities to improve.
"Social media should be viewed as an extension of your offline networking efforts. Use social media to set up meetings with key individuals and to follow-up afterwards."
Rachel Tombs, legal marketing specialists, Orion Legal Marketing
Social media tools
There is plenty of choice when it comes to social media tools, and new ones keep appearing. Here are a few established tools to consider:
- Hootsuite – which many firms use as their main platform to schedule posts, monitor accounts and run social media generally. The free version allows up to three profiles. An alternative platform is Sprout Social.
- Google Trends – reveals what is trending and what keywords to target. Hasshtagify.me does this for hashtags.
- Social Rank – allows you to identify the influencers in your Twitter and Instagram audience, so you can then focus on them.
- Twitonomy – gives an array of information on your Twitter accounts, as well as account management tools.
- Planoly helps with visual planning if you use Instagram.
Social media top ten
- Don't stick your head in the sand – you must control your social media presence.
- Be realistic about how much time and effort you are prepared to invest.
- Focus on a small number of networks where you can build a worthwhile presence.
- Share content that will interest your target audience; strictly limit self-promotion.
- Allow some personality to show through to help differentiate yourself.
- Actively listen and engage with your contacts.
- Use a social media platform such as Hootsuite to create a listening dashboard and to centralise your social media accounts.
- Encourage partners and employees to share postings using their personal accounts as appropriate.
- Tie social media in with your other marketing activities.
- Set measurable goals and monitor how well you are achieving them.