How Facebook helps lawyers achieve their goals

By the time you read this, Facebook may count 700 million active members. More people use Facebook than most countries have citizens. It inspired a Hollywood blockbuster.

Facebook is a massive phenomenon. Are lawyers taking part? Should they?

The second question can be tricky to answer, given Facebook’s typecasting as a social (as opposed to business) network. Straight-laced professional services providers like lawyers and accountants may feel more comfortable using LinkedIn.

Yet many professionals undervalue the online social aspect. Given “its more casual tone, Facebook is analogous to business development activities like golf, ball games, or a wine tasting: all are enjoyable activities, unrelated to law, that enable lawyers and their clients to get to know each other on a personal level and in doing so, determine whether they can work well together,” according to Social Media for Lawyers: The Next Frontier, by Nicole Black and Carolyn Elefant, (American Bar Association).

“I write for a library audience and they like Facebook more than any other social site, so I’m there,” says consultant Connie Crosby, adding that while she isn’t a Facebook fan, “I check in daily to see what others are doing.”

“In my group, I am known as the real estate lawyer, so it’s a no-brainer that people come to me with questions and with their closings,” says Toronto real estate lawyer David Feld, adding “Why wouldn’t they? They know they can trust me and they know and like how I communicate.”

“Facebook is a great way to educate your ‘friends’ and provide links to useful legal information in a non-threatening, more palatable manner,” he continues. “Business can be social.”

Feld takes business enquiries off Facebook as soon as they arrive, following advice from the recently formed International Legal Technical Standards Organization (ILTSO) in its 2011 Guidelines for Legal Professionals. ILTSO also urges lawyers to check their jurisdiction’s ethics rules before promoting their legal practices using social media.

Business-savvy lawyers check those rules once they grasp Facebook’s value as an advertising medium. Members do things like posting information about themselves, public comments and photos and videos. The cumulative result of all this activity by Facebook’s hundreds of millions of members is information-rich territory that attracts advertisers.

(Note: Tech-savvy litigators already use Facebook’s “information-rich territory” to research clients, opponents, opposing counsel, jurors, even judges.)

“Social media sites aggregate all kinds of data on users’ employment, preference, geographic location, and family status. Thus, it’s possible to develop highly focused marketing campaigns that enable you to target your ideal clients,” according to Social Media for Lawyers: The Next Frontier.

Facebook advertising does suffer one weakness: members can access Facebook using smartphone apps and social media “dashboard” applications like Tweetdeck, thus missing ads on Facebook web pages.

But advertising isn’t enough — lawyers need to connect as people too. Feld keeps a Facebook window open all day, claiming it’s both a social outlet and business development activity.

The irony of his rising blood pressure at seeing Facebook on his employees’ screens isn’t lost on him. “It doesn’t further the firm’s aims, but employees need that outlet too,” he says.

Younger lawyers who are already on Facebook ought to stay on Facebook, since their current online friends may go on to found businesses and engage in matters that could cause them, down the line, to require a lawyer’s services. “They’ll turn to people they keep in touch with over the years,” Crosby says.

Older lawyers might want to join too, since Facebook makes reconnecting with old acquaintances easier than in just about any other arena.

Crosby reminds lawyers of the need for decorum in a “place” as public as Facebook. “Be careful who you friend,” she advises. “Self-audit your Facebook account. You can untag yourself from photos. Use a professional email address and an appropriate avatar, and continue to cultivate relationships.”

Nicole Black, one of the authors of Social Media for Lawyers: The Next Frontier, frets that even periodic self-audits might not be enough. “People can continue to post things on your wall,” she notes. “You can clean your profile, but by the time you do, the damage might be done.”

Getting a handle on Facebook privacy settings is a never ending exercise. “It seems they change every four to six months, each time they introduce a new service,” Crosby notes, adding that Canada’s Office of the Privacy Commissioner has highlighted ownership of content as an issue as well.

Fan pages, distinct from personal accounts, help businesses interact with clients. To be effective, fan pages must be updated regularly. A law firm might want to post notes about seminars, charitable events the firm sponsors, perhaps even staff bios and photos.

Feld has a fan page for his firm, but he doesn’t bother with it. “I’ve meshed everything into my personal page,” he says. “I like to unify all my social media input. It has to be quick and efficient for me to use social media.”

Black believes fan pages don’t work as well for law firms as they do for businesses whose clients interact regularly with them. She observes bands giving away show tickets and free song downloads or restaurants offering discounts via fan pages, but doesn’t see similar opportunities for lawyers. “What’s a lawyer to say? ‘Lawsuit sale! The next ten people to like our page get $200 off the next criminal charge!’”

Feld reiterates that interaction can be tricky for lawyers. “Even something as simple as congratulating a client on the purchase of their home can be a faux pas,” Feld notes. “You are disclosing their personal information to the public and you are their lawyer.”

“But what do you do when they thank you and your firm for great service, publicly? I click ‘like’ and secretly want to click ‘love.’”

Still undecided about whether to put your firm on Facebook? Black urges lawyers to ignore the phenomenon while they assess their firm’s needs. “What is your practice, your practice area, your geographic location?” she asks. “What are you trying to do? Locate clients, create a brand, network with other attorneys?”

“Then ask if you can accomplish your goals using Facebook.”

Originally published in Lawyers Weekly Magazine.

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