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Using Social Networking Sites to Connect to Clients, Lawyers, and Others

By Charles R. Beans

As social networking sites have gained popularity over the past five years, several sites that concentrate on business use have attracted a following from industry and legal professionals. LinkedIn, which has become a leading “social network for grownups with jobs,” claims 30 million users. Other sites of specific interest to lawyers include Lawlink.com, Legal OnRamp, Naymz, and Ryze. (See Wikipedia list of social web sites.) This year the venerable legal directory Martindale-Hubbell first introduced links to LinkedIn profiles on attorney listings, and later in 2008 rolled out its own site, Martindale-Hubbell Connected. Recently the ABA rolled out its own site—Legally Minded. Each of these sites provides for individual user profiles, some degree of connectivity to other users, substantive high-quality legal information, and various tools to enhance communication, such as email, recommendations, and blogging. Unlike Legal OnRamp and Martindale-Hubbell Connected, which cater only to lawyers, Legally Minded is open to other legal professionals; including paralegals, librarians, and law students.


Today’s litigators and clients who grew up with Facebook and MySpace are comfortable with this technology. This winter the ABA Section of Science & Technology Law, along with the ABA Young Lawyers Division, surveyed some 3000 members about social networking. 59 percent of those who responded said online social networking was an important part of their lives. Most veteran lawyers today have at least heard of these sites, and many have listings in one or another.


But what can litigators actually get out of these sites? Can they connect with existing clients, get new business, increase their competence, and “project their brand” among other lawyers and potential clients? Here are some secrets of a few power users.


Online Social Networking for Litigators
Dan D. Kohane is an accomplished trial lawyer and senior partner in Hurwitz & Fine PC in Buffalo, whose specialty is insurance coverage litigation for national and international clients. To Kohane, social networking did not begin with the Internet; rather, it has existed ever since organizations like the Knights of Columbus or the Rotary were referral sources for local professionals. For litigators with regional, national, or international practices, however, such local organizations may not do more to generate business than hang up a shingle. Kohane has been involved with electronic networking for years, starting with bulletin board systems (BBSs) like CompuServe, which had special interest groups. These included a Law Special Interest Group (LAWSIG), which in its heyday hosted tens of thousands of threaded discussions from thousands of users. He also was instrumental in taking a popular newsletter produced by his firm from a traditional paper-and-mail production to an electronic subscription that grew from a few dozen subscribers to more than a thousand today.


Kohane was first attracted to LinkedIn when he learned that people he respected were already involved. Kohane distinguishes this from the approaches he gets these days from proprietors of new competing sites. He “waded in,” found special interest groups, and got involved. Today he is a power user with over 500 connections, who makes active use of the tools LinkedIn provides.


How Clients Use Social Networking
Kevin Quinley is a leading authority on claims, product liability losses, and litigation management based in Fairfax, Virginia. In 25 years dealing with product liability claims, he has engaged in many forms of networking, and has become an enthusiastic convert to online forms as part of a comprehensive plan for business development and brand projection. In Quinley’s experience, attorneys are not always early adopters of new technology, in part because many do not see a benefit, and in part because litigators often feel they are just too busy to take time to learn something new. Like Kohane, Quinley uses LinkedIn extensively to make and develop contacts in his industry. He is definitely seeing more and more litigators catching on to the potential, but feels that most only scratch the surface.


Lawyers in private practice want to get new business and keep their old clients happy. Quinley believes that online social networking definitely has a place in the mix. In his opinion, where most litigator users fall short is in making full use of the capabilities to foster or cement relationships, increase brand awareness, and set the user apart from other professionals. For instance, LinkedIn offers several tools that cultivate awareness of the user among the user’s contacts as an engaged professional with unique capabilities. LinkedIn allows the user to note current professional activities, such as recent wins, speeches, publications, and other honors, as well as attendance at professional seminars and events. Another feature is the recommendation system, an offering that Quinley notes is better to give than to receive. Although clients are usually flattered and appreciative of the testimonials and will reciprocate in kind, Quinley says one should not shy from asking a colleague who knows one’s capabilities and experience for a recommendation.


Another area is the special interest groups in LinkedIn, the direct descendants of the old electronic bulletin board services. Active participation in these groups increases the profile of the user among a targeted group of members as a subject matter expert and resource in a particular geographic locale. Quinley recommends that the user get involved with posing and answering questions in groups, and by offering papers, presentations, and checklists that provide value and plant seeds to develop professional relationships with other members. Finally, LinkedIn makes it easy to search and connect to target companies and personnel by the “six degrees of separation,” which in many cases allows users to obtain an introduction from another contact, which turns cold calls into warm contacts.


Best Practices for Social Networking Online
The Internet has thoroughly permeated today’s lifestyle, and businesses must be present and take part. The social dos and don’ts primarily involve respecting the context of the communication that is taking place before getting involved. In this way online social networking is no different than any traditional gathering for communication.


Carolyn Elefant, whose firm practices regulatory law in the District of Columbia, runs the website myshingle.com and frequently writes about legal technology. Her website offers a white paper, “Social Networking for Lawyers—The What, Why and How,” which lists the following necessary “e-tiquette” for online social networking on any website or medium: Don’t ever link to people you don’t know; Don’t link to people for the sake of gathering links; Don’t set up social networking groups and then spam them; Don’t spam your email box with invitations to join your group; Don’t spam other users; and Don’t give testimonials for the sole purpose of obtaining reciprocal testimonials or offer testimonials about aspects of the lawyer’s work with which you are not familiar. Elefant recommends care and planning to make one’s profile as active, communicative, and search-engine-accessible as possible.


Kohane and Quinley emphasize that online marketing is no different from any other form of marketing—the same rules apply. The first rule is that you get out of it what you put into it. Quinley likens marketing to planting seeds; some will fail, but some will grow, and persistence and dedication are vital to success. Kohane describes some lawyer marketing attempts as shooting off a flare that is bright, but fades and is forgotten. Both see online social networking as a valuable tool to increase visibility, but only if the litigator takes the time to use it and keep up with it. Quinley recommends at least five minutes a week to keep the content and tools timely and sharp. Kohane says he spends some time each day checking to keep his online effort current. Both said independently of the other that those who make a consistent effort project to others that they are the type of professional with whom others want to associate.


Charles R. Beans is a partner at Goodman McGuffey Lindsey & Johnson LLP in Atlanta.


 

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