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How attorneys should navigate the confusing world of social media

By Michael Layne
Dolan Media Newswires

Social_media_Along with the Internet, for most professionals social media is an aspect of the way we do business.

Despite its name, its effect isn’t just social. The term “social media” encompasses a whole spectrum of information delivery systems and is no longer just the bastion of downloadable puppy pictures. It is now a marketing tool for savvy businesses, including law firms.

As a business tool, social media presents some daunting questions for professional services, especially attorneys. The biggest question is how to best utilize digital resources to the betterment of the firm.

First we need to understand what it can’t do. Using social media is like having a website: it’s necessary, but it is only as good a tool as you make it. At this point, every law firm has a website that is likely in its third or fourth reiteration. But most don’t know how to make the website work for the firm and how to integrate it with social media.

Some firms still have the attitude of “if we build it they will come,” when it comes to their websites; they thought they would deliver their firm news and expertise via their website. That isn’t what happens.

The bottom line is that, yes, existing and prospective clients will look at your website. But no one is going to go there for thought leadership. That needs to be broadcast out via the intelligent and deliberate use of social media. Social media will also further your goals of client and employee retention and recruitment.

To illustrate this point, we can point to the New York Times model. The publication has lost 50 percent of its homepage traffic in recent years, though it hasn’t lost readership. How? Individual Times reporters are encouraged and expected to post on their individual Facebook and Twitter sites and build followers. This is happening across the board. Social media is becoming the primary source for news distribution. And it works: half of all Twitter and Facebook users report getting their news and information via social networks.

The first step toward an intelligent social media program is content generation. The good news is that most lawyers are prolific writers and are rarely lacking in content. This content can be a blogs, trade articles or briefs written within the firm. It can also be links to articles NOT written by the firm, but with commentary, inviting others to engage in dialogue. This is a leap a lot of firms don’t make, but which positions them as thought leaders

Who should be posting? Ultimately — and eventually— all attorneys at the firm should be empowered to share content and build their own social media sites. This is a much different tactic than many law firms take. Some firms even go as far as to establish geofencing software to prohibit social media usage among its attorneys. This would be a mistake and a huge missed opportunity.

Law firms can safely take advantage of the marketing opportunities available via social media by following a few caveats. Law firms in particular can get into some dicey areas, so it is especially important to proceed in an orderly and intelligent fashion.

For one, the social media usage policy at the firm must be crystal clear and disseminated broadly throughout the firm. Obviously, the firm can’t speak about clients or current cases. Nor can legal advice be given. There is a lot of treacherous territory here.

Another step is that the approval process needs to be streamlined. Law firms can be very thorough when it comes to approving content disseminate. That lengthy thoroughness won’t serve them well in social media, which is about speed and timing.

My suggestion to streamline this process is to assign a point person or committee to approve content. This person needs to be empowered to approve content, post on the company’s social media sites, and make the content available for other attorneys to post. This can be an in-house marketing person or committee or public relations agency experienced in social media content management.

The next step is crucial in order to achieve maximum impact. Every attorney should be encouraged to build their own social media sites and followers. Their followers may consist of existing and past clients, referral sources and even media. When the approved content is distributed through multiple sites, viewership is of course multiplied.

When many within a firm are sharing thoughtful and thought-provoking content, it blazes a path for the firm to reach its goal as thought and industry leaders.

Michael Layne is president of Marx Layne & Co., a Detroit-based public relations and digital media firm.

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