March 19, 2012 | last updated June 4, 2012 11:53 am
FOCUS ON LAW

A case for social | Law firms increasingly using online tools to connect with current, potential customers

PHOTO/KRISTINA FALVO
PHOTO/KRISTINA FALVO
Dan Schwartz, an attorney with Pullman & Comley in Hartford, says social media tools are invaluable to his practice.
Ryan McKeen, attorney, Leone, Throwe, Teller & Nagle
Randall Beach, partner, Whiteman, Osterman & Hanna

By now, most businesses have started to use social media in some capacity — and the ones who haven't are probably thinking seriously about it.

To date, the legal industry has watched mostly from the sidelines citing privacy concerns and a sense that social media wouldn't benefit them.

It appears that times are changing.

A recent survey indicates that social media is now delivering a financial boost for U.S. law firms, with nearly 50 percent of those polled reporting that social networking and/or blogging initiatives have not only generated new leads, but have actually led to new business.

Also telling was that more than half of law-firm respondents said they plan to increase their spending on social media this year.

"Social media is no different than traditional ways lawyers have attracted business in the past namely through meeting and connecting with other people," said Ryan McKeen, an attorney with Leone, Throwe, Teller & Nagle in East Hartford. "Social media is just another venue for that to happen. I can source business directly to my blog (aconnecticutlawblog.com), Facebook account, and Twitter."

McKeen says that new technologies are changing the very way lawyers work, particularly in their ability to process and organize large amounts of information rapidly from any location — eliminating the traditional reliance on paper.

While many lawyers see social media as just another marketing tool, McKeen says it is much more.

"Marketing is the wrong way to think about how to use social media," he said. "Be it a blog or Twitter or Facebook — it's about connecting to your audience and them connecting to you."

One increasingly popular way to connect is with blogs such as McKeen's. Blog posts not only allow lawyers to reach an enormous potential customer base, but also allow them to position themselves as thought leaders.

McKeen believes firm leaders should wholeheartedly promote the sharing of ideas.

"I'm all for unstructured,'' McKeen said. "Leadership should let its talented lawyers do great things across platforms and benefit from the results. The worst blogs are boring blogs. Rules make for boring blogs. Many lawyers write well and are uniquely situated to share insights on issues that benefit others. Lawyers should do that and firm leaders should encourage them to do so."

In general, standard codes of ethics and rules of professional responsibility apply to all of a lawyer's activities. The American Bar Association and individual state bar associations are always tweaking existing rules and guidelines to address questions presented by changes in technology. Lawyers must ensure that they understand the expectations and requirements.

A very common — and important — question is how do law firms monetize the use of social media?

"It is harder than it might seem, as most relationships are not confined to any one single medium, or, hopefully, to simply cyber space," said Randall Beach, a partner and member of the social media team at Whiteman, Osterman & Hanna in Albany, N.Y. "I view social media as one piece of an overall marketing/relationship strategy, and the challenge is to be able to assign a dollar value to that piece. What is obvious, though, is that social media has become a critical component and will remain so."

Beach is quick to add that social media tools shouldn't be seen as a replacement for traditional in person interactions.

"I find social media useful for growing initial relationships, learning more about a person and their interests, and understanding more about how our firm can respond to our clients' changing needs," Beach said. "To be effective though, use of social media has to lead to increased personal contact."

Dan Schwartz, an attorney with Pullman & Comley in Hartford, agrees.

"I think social media is just one tool that can be used to build relationships," said Schwartz, who has a widely read blog (ctemploymentlawblog.com). "No longer does an attorney need an office with a library full of books to succeed. An iPad and a bar association membership with free legal research can go a long way."

While it may be too early to tell exactly where the intersection between social media and the law will go, Schwartz feels it is a relationship that isn't going away anytime soon.

"Social media has gotten a lot more sophisticated over the years. People aren't really sharing what they had for breakfast anymore. Instead, they're sharing knowledge," said Schwartz. "For learning and staying up to date on new developments, tools like Twitter are invaluable to my practice now. Start small, experiment and don't be afraid."

"Social media is just that — SOCIAL. Like all relationships, they still require time, effort and ideas. It may not be right for everyone, but ignoring it is just not an option anymore."

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