by Mark A. Cohen, Columnist & Featured Contributor
[su_dropcap style=”flat”]T[/su_dropcap]HE ARAB SPRING NOT ONLY had a profound impact upon global geopolitics, but it was also a wake-up call for those who thought that “social media” was principally a 21st century dating device or a way to buy socks without venturing to the mall. Social media is now firmly rooted in business and is an integral part of the way a company’s brand is positioned, pitched, and valued. Though, predictably, the legal field has been slower than other verticals to embrace social media, its prevalence has accelerated in recent years. For example, the ABA’s 2014 Legal Technology Report found that: (1) from solo practitioners to BigLaw, well over 90% of lawyers have LinkedIn profiles; (2) Facebook presence is maintained by nearly half of solo practitioners (the percentage declines as firm size increases but is still salient); and (3) conversely, Twitter accounts are more likely to be maintained by larger law firms (36% of firms of 100 or more attorneys) than smaller ones. Its not that lawyers have become Twit-o-philes or that hash tags have replaced “wherefore” in everyday legal practice and parlance, but law firms and lawyers are taking to social media in increasing numbers. How—if at all—is this affecting the legal vertical; how is its impact to be gauged; and what sorts of issues does its widespread use raise?
Suddenly, the Whole World is a Potential Client
Social media presents a grand stage for attorneys, an opportunity for law firms as well as individual lawyers to establish brand differentiation as well as to reach a potentially limitless client audience. This is not only reflected in the ever-rising lawyer participant numbers cited above, but also by the emergence of social media gurus– and even departments– at large law firms. This begs the question: how does a law firm/lawyer gauge ROI on its social media investment? Is this a BigLaw nuclear arms race or, to put it in Palsgraf terms, can social media be the proximate cause of increased PPP? The answer depends, in part, upon what the objectives of the firm are; what it is putting out into the social media community; by whom; as well as the time period for measuring success.
There is no question that many BigLaw firms are upping their social media ante because failing to do so would leave them at a perceived competitive disadvantage. As one Biglaw social media director recently explained, “I show the recalcitrant partners the exchanges their clients are having with lawyers at other firms on social media; that usually gets them to buy-in.” But there’s clearly more driving social media participation than “the arms race” defensive rationale. In an age where Biglaw differentiation is largely unrecognizable apart from: (1) a handful of brand differentiated firms who have separated themselves from the pack (the legal vertical’s “one-percent”); and (2) rock star lawyers in a particular firm (who are increasingly peripatetic and bolt to firms with higher PPP), social media can increase brand awareness, demonstrate an aptitude for effective communication, and establish thought leadership. And let’s not forget that social media presents a global stage for that story and brand—provided that it has relevance and is communicated effectively. At the end of the day, though, clients still generally hire lawyers, not law firms (far less so with service providers where the brand and price are often paramount). That is based upon reputation which, in turn, generally comes from achieving positive results over a period of time. Translation: social media can only go so far in driving business to a lawyer or firm. There must be substance—and, in the end, results—behind it.
How to Measure Social Media ROI?
The answer is that “one size does not fit all. ” Though the ultimate goal would appear to be the same across the board: to increase revenue, there are a number of other significant objectives which, to borrow from baseball, do not necessarily show up in the box score. Some of them include: brand enhancement; thought leadership; willingness to share (don’t be quick to dismiss this one as collaboration is fast becoming a foundational element in the new legal delivery model); and other hard-to measure elements. Since social media is still in its early days, it stands to reason that even experts in the area may not be certain exactly which metrics are truly relevant to measure ROI. And, paradoxically, though social media allows “the word to get out there” instantaneously, its impact—at least for lawyers—may not be seen for quite some time. That said, just as publishing a scholarly paper gave a practicing lawyer enhanced credibility years ago, especially if it was in h/is practice area, so too can relevant, thoughtful social media content provide a boost to its source today. It’s the “your reputation precedes you” situation. Here’s an example: a Biglaw partner I know told me she was recently asked by a firm colleague to show up at a dog and pony show. Before the meeting began, the GC told my friend, “ I read your blog post and loved it; I was looking forward to meeting you in person.” Any wonder her firm got the work?
Some Plusses and Some Minuses
As with most new things, there is an upside as well as a downside to social media. Who does not know by now what disastrous consequences “ill-conceived” emails can have even when a policy governing their use is in place? The stakes are even higher with social media, which can spread that damaging content faster and to a broader audience. It’s a matter of fashioning best practices for the use of social media and then ensuring, to the extent possible, that they are followed. As with any piece of information that has the potential to be shared with unintended and/or unwanted recipients, the biggest risks incident to social media usually relate to breaches of confidentiality, judgment, and the gamut of HR no no’s. And for large firms, there is the “rogue factor” where a lone attorney can cause great damage to a firm simply by noting the association and then putting out content on social media that in no way reflects the firm’s view. Just as print retractions seldom undo the damage, so too does the risk of unauthorized or thoughtless communication on social media—and the threat of it “going viral”—magnify the potential harm to a firm. And there are other potential—though less draconian– negatives. Establishing a presence on social media is like flossing; you have to keep at it for it to work. A languorous presence on social media for a firm can be worse than none at all. Then there is the emerging and oft-blurred distinction between sharing information/ideas and self-promotion. The latter, if done blatantly and with any degree of frequency, can also cause more harm than no social media presence at all.
On balance, the scales are clearly tipped in favor of jumping into the social media pool versus staying dry. That said, the instantaneous communication—and potentially broad reach—that social media confers militates in favor of exercising prudence as well as an objective underlying participation (especially for a firm as opposed to an individual attorney).
Social media is becoming an increasingly important element in the legal vertical, one whose significance is likely to increase, crystallize, and be subject to meaningful metrics in short order. It is a two-lane highway that provides a remarkable opportunity for the rapid exchange of information and ideas. To those who rue it as yet another notch on technology’s belt, consider that it is the human mind and the desire to communicate that drive its content and shape its function.