A growing number of law firms are using social media to engage current and potential clients. There are rewards for those who know the risks.
Having a presence on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and other social media sites is almost a no-brainer in today's world. But for law firms, growing the client base and marketing their expertise using social media is trickier than for other businesses.
The American Bar Association's Model Rules of Professional Conduct spell out the guidelines that attorneys must follow when they're advertising, among other things. The ABA's Committee on Ethics 20/20 recently reviewed and updated the Model Rules that apply to social media.
"There was some question as to when social media posts become advertising. ABA clarified that Internet advertising was included in the existing framework, so the changes were tweaks rather than an overhaul," says attorney Michael Downey, a partner at Armstrong Teasdale in St. Louis. He's also the incoming chair of the ABA's Law Practice Division that helps lawyers build their practices.
To protect consumers, the ABA and certain government agencies delineate what constitutes ethical advertising. Lawyers must navigate issues such as the proper use of disclaimers and testimonials, keeping confidentiality, the unauthorized practice of law and the unintended creation of an attorney-client relationship. It's no surprise the ABA urges caution when using social media to advertise and grow one's client base.
"Social media is confusing, because a lot of things can happen all at once within one message," Downey says. "Attorneys who are careful, though, can do most of the things they want to do using social media. They just need to turn on their brains and use some common sense."
Some Central Ohio law firms and lawyers are more active online than others. Here's a look at how several use social media in their marketing and business development plans, with some practical advice on growing the firm and avoiding ethical pitfalls.
Blogs were the entry point to social media at Porter Wright Morris & Arthur. "We started the Employment Law Report blog about five years ago. After a while, other areas of the firm saw that we were getting good results. That led the firm to develop a unifying document we call the Interactive Media Policy. It guides us on using social media as marketing opportunities and how we can provide value on those sites," says attorney Brian Hall, a partner at Porter Wright Morris & Arthur and editor of the employment blog.
Porter Wright does not have Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn accounts for the firm. However, several practice groups have blogs and some individual attorneys, including Hall, use Twitter and LinkedIn to reach certain audiences.
"We're educating and demonstrating our legal knowledge, but if someone sees our name as a result, then it's great advertising, too. I'm aware of legal journals that monitor my posts, and I may get a call from them asking for more information. It's another opportunity to get our name out there," Hall says.
Benesch, Friedlander, Coplan & Aronoff saw that a number of its clients were active in social media.
"Since they value these networks, it's an additional way to communicate with them. Now we can reach out to them on these sites using a more interactive strategy," says Liz Boehm, the firm's interactive marketing manager and president of the Ohio chapter of the Legal Marketing Association.
Because of that direct interface, Benesch's ethics committee instituted a formal social media policy; Boehm is the sole employee who posts on behalf of the firm. "Since one person filters the messages, it's consistent and accurate across the networks. But I always ask myself, should I run this past someone else as a double check?" she says.
Spreading the Message
Benesch redesigned its website to facilitate increased interactivity via Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. "We wanted a similar brand across the sites, and we have an overarching strategy to tie it all together. Social media doesn't operate independently," Boehm says.
The firm tailors its message for each site. "I see Twitter as an immediate news source. We post our own blog posts and articles. I follow the industry news and share items of interest. I also watch what clients are posting and retweet what's relevant," Boehm says.
Facebook is the face of Benesch. "I want a human feel to our Facebook page. I post a lot of pictures of who we are and what we're doing," Boehm says. "We reinforce our brand on LinkedIn to current clients and those who are at least familiar with us and are potential clients."
James E. Arnold & Associates jumped into social media about 18 months ago. "Until then, we only had a website," says Sharron Peck, marketing director for the firm, which specializes in business law.
Now, it's active on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Google+. "Use of our LinkedIn group page has skyrocketed. What we post there, we cross-post elsewhere for consistency and greater reach," Peck says. "But Twitter is still our frontrunner site. We have a lot of retweets that spreads our message further." The firm doesn't expect as much from Facebook, but Peck says its reach is growing.
"The weekly metrics show how the social media sites are driving traffic to our website. We can see where the visitors came from and how they navigated through our site," Peck says. "Since we can see what others are talking about, we can post messages that are relevant at that moment and generate even more website traffic."
Online videos have been a successful tool, too. "They're trending upward every month, directing traffic to the website," Peck says. "People seem to like the videos. They're more personal, and that adds credibility. It's different than just reading an online bio."
Statistics from the ABA's 2013 Annual Tech Survey show that the percentage of law firms using social networks jumped from 56 percent in 2010 to 81 percent in 2013. Nearly 40 percent of lawyers who blog say they generate business through social media, as do 19 percent of lawyers and 24 percent of solo practitioners who participate in social networks.
"Absolutely lawyers are getting business through social media savvy," Downey says.
Hall echoes that sentiment: "It's not every day, but I can say we have gotten some new clients from our blogs and tweets."
The purpose of social media for some firms, though, remains awareness. "We want to be in front of our various audiences and have them recall a post or a tweet, so when they need a law firm they'll think of us," Peck says.
Peck is glad to see more attorneys engaging in social media. "If more firms as a whole used the digital space, law firms could be even more relevant to the digital audience than we are now. The legal industry is a latecomer to this kind of media."
"I think social media is the best way to keep clients aware of how and when the law is changing. We can communicate immediately to get the word out about what clients need to know," Hall says. "A few years from now, we'll be laughing about our concerns about social media, just like we did about using fax machines and email when they were new technologies."
Lisa Hooker is a freelance writer.