Thursday, 24 February 2011

Social media strategies: #musthaves or #mya**e?

There is, at least in legal social media land, only one real legal issue of the day worthy of attention and debate.  Forget the Jackson reforms, access to justice, prisoner's voting rights, libel reform or whether it is right to require divorcing couples to mediate before they litigate.  These issues are but the froth on the top of any Tweeting lawyer's cappuccino.

The real issue du jour is this: should law firms have social media strategies (SMSs)?  Are they, in Twitter speak: #musthaves or #mya**e?

It matters not of the relevance of this issue to the man sitting on the good old Clapham omnibus.  What we, the legal Twitterati are concerned with, is what is on the mind of the Rainmaker sitting on his or her antique but refurbished sofa (think Cath Kidson meets Emma Bridgewater but with a bespoke limited edition Johnnie Boden twist) in the comfort of their Georgian Clapham townhouse (detached - natch).  Clearly, the issues dominating the thoughts of said rainmaker are not trifling ones such as leveraging PEP, improving associate retention, offering a better work-life balance, assisting on pro bono matters, ensuring lateral hires stay with the firm, to stay domestic or bet international or even about how to make that US takeover, sorry merger, work - these issues are, frankly, for the birds.

Any decent rainmaker on top of his or her Law 2.0 is a man or woman of focus.  Shut out the noise and consider only the following: should my Twitter avatar be photo or logo; what shall I call my blog; how often should I post; how many times can I Tweet the same link; which Tweeps offer the best return on investment in #ff and RT terms; and, the question of all questions: what is the firm's social media strategy.  Crack that one and forget the Magic Circle, it becomes a one firm club.

Thankfully we have as a reference point a historical work that has been described in almost reverential terms as the social media equivalent of the Chilcot Inquiry (well, someone made a wry comment along those lines over a drink after #LawBlogs).

I refer of course to Brian Inkster's Time Blawg.  If any reader can stomach yet another mention of Twitteratigate (cue shameless plug for my own blog post on Twitter use in the UK legal sector,  “just in case you missed it" as they say),  Brian's excellent and comprehensive summary of Twitteratigate certainly caught the imagination of the legal Twitterati.  Contained in the comments of Brian's blog are detailed snippets of various legal social media strategies used by Brian and the blog's commenter’s.  Phrases are used such as "Tweeting in convoy", "the destroyer and the battleships", “segmented streams and sub-brands”, “giving and sharing” and detailed analysis is given to the pros and cons of personal vs corporate logo usage within Twitter.  For any true believer in SMSs, this is comment stream nirvana.

But I must report that not everyone holds these views.  At #LawBlogs the well-known lawyer and New Statesman writer David Allen Green was asked for his also well-known views on social media strategies.  David's response was consistent with his previously Tweeted views on the topic: in summary, that they are misconceived.  Also at #LawBlogs, in response to a question I was asked, I used the phrase "brand ambassadors".  David made his feelings clear on that phraseology the next day in this Tweet using the hashtag that inspired the headline for this post:

David Allen Green (@DavidAllenGreen)
18/02/2011 15:19
There were 29 reliable witnesses last night to @legalbrat using the term "brand ambassador". #MyArse #LawBlogs

David does I think sit in the #myarse camp in the answer to the question posed by this post’s headline.

Such views might almost be considered blasphemy by other Tweeps I follow such as Julian Summerhayes.   According to Julian's website, Julian is a non-practising solicitor with a passion for excellence in professional practice and who regularly starts his day by Tweeting something along the following lines: "Good morning.  Read today's blog post on why lawyers cannot write very clearly, are not very good at social media and need to get better at it.”   A tongue-in-cheek summary, but Julian regularly articulates a strong belief in the need for law firms to prioritise social media by adopting a coherent strategy and approach to their use of it.  Julian is firmly in the #musthave camp.

So what do I think?  SMSs: #musthaves or, ahem, #myarse?  Hard though I know it is, forget temporarily the following concepts: the law, law firms and social media.  Put to the front of your mind: business, resource and profits.

This is a truism: most businesses have finite resource and exist to maximise profits.  In order to maximise profits, business must work out how best to deploy that finite resource to research, develop and sell its products and services.  Doing so requires a variety of strategies: research strategy; development strategy; marketing strategy; sales strategy; customer service strategy; and so on.

Company resource should not be able to approach any of those disciplines in anything other than a co-ordinated fashion.  Otherwise that finite resource is not being deployed effectively or efficiently.  Any business which does not formalise how it approaches each of these strategies is likely to #fail (or at least be less successful than it might otherwise be).  Why should social media be treated any differently?  In fact why should SMSs not just be a small part of a company's marketing strategy (apologies to any social media consultants charging a bundle for advice on this stuff)?

Back to the law and consider any law firm - what are the client-related issues facing it: how to win new clients; how to maintain existing clients; how to win more work off existing clients; how to improve brand presence in certain sectors; how to meet new people; how to build a qualitative network of contacts; how to demonstrate expertise in subject areas; how to look good compared to the competition.  The same issues of course face the individual partners and fee earners working in the firm.

Certainly, sensible use of social media will help individual partners or fee earners achieve any of these aims.  By way of example, two partners from media law practices are now Tweeting useful content regularly who were not so visible on Twitter a few months ago: Mark Owen at Harbottles and Rob Bratby at Olswang.  I've not asked Mark or Rob if Twitter is helping them achieve their aims in some small way, but my bet is that it is, which of course is a good thing for their firms too.  And the impact for any firm will be increased for the better if there is a co-ordinated approach of sorts between different fee earners.  If *speaking quietly* the firm has a social media strategy.

I’m not a SMS evangelist and disagree with Julian’s assertion in a recent blog post that social media should be the number one priority for all law firms.  Any managing partner who has social media at the top of their priority tree is either (a) running the most successful law firm in the world that has solved all of the other pressing issues identified by Julian in his post or (b) in serious need of a rethink about his or her firm’s priorities.  But nor am I a SMS cynic.

The right answer for most firms in my mind lies somewhere in-between these two extremes.  Social media strategy is another form of sales strategy.  If law firms remember this, focus on what they are trying to achieve through their use of social media, ensure that fee earners act in a more or less co-ordinated manner and with the same aims in mind, then their use of social media is far more likely to benefit their business – and their clients - than if they don’t.

So yes, I’m in the #musthave a SMS camp.  But law firms don’t need to engage McKinsey’s finest to write a forty page methodology on this with interactive charting to boot.  Clear and simple guiding principles should do the job equally nicely too.

I hope, for the sake of the UK legal sector and indeed the greater good of the economy in these difficult times, to have shone a light on the answer to what must be one of the most vexing legal issues of modern times.  Whilst some might say that this issue is treated too seriously and with no sense of irony, there is no place for such complacency.  Law firms: it's time to step-up and sort out your SMSs.  Remember, no firm ever survived on expertise, a decent client base, market leading work and a sound business plan.  It's time that SMS ROI replaced PEP as any firm's key metric of success.  You heard it here first.  Next stop, The Time Blawg. Thank you and goodnight.


  1. Great post Tim... I have to confess to coining the "tweeting in Convoy" phrase (although in my defence it was really only my take on running a corporate Twitter feed and individual ones for lawyers - I don't claim any particular expertise or that it will magically replace all other business development).

    Some of the lawyers on Twitter appear to get quite a bit of work from it, but largely it seems to be those who are moving in the tech / internet client circles to begin with.

    I have had some instructions through Twitter, but in all honesty I could bring in more work per hour spent by going out and doing pretty much anything else.

    Part of the problem on this front is that the businesses which have really embraced Twitter (at least locally) tend to be the micro-entreprises which have the flexibility to do so and appreciate Twitter's value as a low cost way to engage with their customers. It has been great for some of them, but in reality they are not the type of businesses with any significant legal spend.

    I do think that this will change though as use of social media "creeps" up the ranks of the kinds of organisations which do provide us with referals or instructions.

    I do find it extremely useful for legal updates and know-how, networking with other professionals and local businesses (and to be honest for fun!). There are a lot of blogs (including yours) which I would never have come across if I wasn't active on Twitter and for me the (personal) return on investment is sufficient to keep me interested.

    I don't think a law firm (as opposed to an individual who happens to be a lawyer) can really justify measuring ROI so loosely though.

    As with any kind of marketing there needs to be a level of strategic thinking behind it so to this extent I think a "social media strategy" is necessary.

    There is no point considering an SMS in isolation though. It needs to be part of a coherent marketing strategy to promote a firm which has all of the other item's on Julian's list sorted (or reasonably so) - otherwise what's the point?

  2. Great blog. I have little further to add!

    I tweet because I think it's like a big networking club. I don't think I'll get much roi, but if my name gets thought of by someone somewhere in the future then I've succeeded in my reason.

  3. Good post sir. I'm in the #musthave camp, with the same caveats mentioned above.

    Ps I just fed your fish ;-)

  4. I must say, as a Twitter newbie and general social media recluse, I continue to find your posts enlightening and thought-provoking Tim.

    All I would add in response to the above blog are two factors which, as a PR practitioner, I think could be added into the mix:

    (1) To my mind, for most law firms, there is another important audience in social media not mentioned above: graduates. Firms continue to fight for the best talent and a decent profile/ level of market awareness on sites like Twitter and Facebook will be part of the mix of attracting the next generation (and indeed continuing to communicate the firm's successes/ qualities once they are through the door). For that reason alone, I am in the #musthave camp.

    (2) Having worked in PR for several years, the argument of 'I don't get instructions from Twitter' is a familiar one to the question "why don't I get instructions from appearing in the FT?". In my experience, its rare that instructions can be traced back to one particular media source or channel. Good marketing communications raise awareness and profile which help generate leads (as distinct from sales) and provide reassurance to purchasers.
    Its a well-worn example that private practitioners can't exactly send out a 'free sample' of legal advice as you might with a product, but what they can do is demonstrate a quality of thought and commercial awareness which a client would- in theory- find attractive and/ or reassuring.

    Anyway, those are my rudimentary thoughts, such as they are!

  5. As the author of the social media equivalent of the Chilcot Inquiry it may come as some surprise that I do not have a detailed SMS. Nor do I think that one is necessary. An effective SMS, if one can call it that, can be distilled into one word "engage". Whether you do this in convoy, in duplicate or on your tod matters not - what matters is that you do it.