Wednesday, 7 May 2014
Book Review: Social Media in the Legal Sector
Long before getting to grips with content, a new or prospective user needs to acquaint themselves with the technology and the appropriate platform. They need to be confident in their social media abilities, and comfortable that they are not going to destroy a hard won professional legal reputation by a misplaced tweet or a badly written blog post. Social media for business is a commitment of time and money so you need to know whether it is for you.
But if you’re not internet savvy, how do you take that first step? If I need to find out about a new product or unfamiliar social media network, I would search for a quality blog about it, read relevant trade press reviews, or ask my twitter or librarian network. This requires you to be able to identify trustworthy online sources. If you are unsure, then an expensive book published by a reputable legal publisher might be the answer for many lawyers.
This attitude to the online world is part of what Nathan Smith would call the legal industry’s ‘shadow side’, which he says manifests itself in ‘rigidity, conservatism, over caution, and a general unwillingness to try new things’. Certainly the legal industry has been cautious in exploring and exploiting social media but there are some good reasons for that. However it is a sign of how far social media has come that Smith’s new book ‘Social Media in the Legal Sector’ has been published by the Law Society.
The blurb on the back of this slim A4 volume states that ‘the use of social media has expanded rapidly and changed the way people communicate, engage and collaborate. Law firms and individual lawyers are rapidly catching up with a proliferation of law blogs - or 'blawgs' - and networking sites, particularly LinkedIn. The potential of these media for law firms, particularly in reputation management and marketing, is immense.’ This book sets out to give practical guidance to lawyers who are yet to be persuaded by their business development departments that social media is a good idea.
Split into three main parts, the first section covers the importance of social media and why you should be cultivating an online persona. He bases much of his practical, ‘common sense’ advice on extensive interviews with solicitors and marketing staff at prominent law firms. The large middle section goes through the various types of social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, with more practical instructions on writing a successful and productive blog. Finally it offers some interesting case studies demonstrating how various law firms around the country have implemented social media as part of their business development strategy.
I have a few minor niggles. Firstly, the price. Does the Law Society not realise that everything in this book can be found online, for free? It is useful to have everything in one place for reference but that doesn’t justify £125. The pricing is not the fault of the author.
The next issue is currency, which is a major issue with books about technology. As this book will be out of date in 6 months, then is it a worthwhile investment? I wonder whether the decision to include screen shots was a good idea, for instance the section on Twitter already requires amendment because Twitter profiles have changed. Having a LinkedIn group associated with the book is a good idea and may help circumvent the currency issue, however there are numerous groups which discuss similar topics so it could get confusing. I wonder whether an associated webpage or even an app would have been better?
I'm not keen on the A4 format. Although the short chapters and underlined headings make it easy to follow, there is a lot of white space. So much white space that it could be shrunk down into a small pamphlet, which would have been easier to carry around. It didn't need the Law Society social media policy included because that is freely available online.
However my main issue with the book is that there is a presumption that social media is entirely a ‘good thing’. Though drawbacks are given for Google+, YouTube, Flickr and Vine, none are given for Facebook and Twitter. With the exception of LinkedIn which is the safest and most popular professional network, Twitter is most likely the place where people will experiment with social media and they should be aware of its downside. Reputation, discretion, trustworthiness, confidence are crucial to clients, so the last thing they want to see is their solicitor being controversial or confrontational on an open time line. There are good reasons why certain areas of law are better suited to social media and those partaking should be aware of the risks.
As I said in a previous post, 'a combination of safe distance, online anonymity, controversial viewpoints and human nature has resulted in outbreaks of disturbing hostility directed at various vulnerable classes of people. Every social media network has collided with the so-called internet troll' and lawyers aren't immune to harassment and hostility online. Not all online exchanges are positive experiences. I'm sure that these negative aspects are stressed in Smith's workshops.
Having now stressed the downside of social media and warned that there may be risks, I want to re-join the book and its positive outlook. I like the case studies because they demonstrate social media in practice, and emphasise the importance of developing a coherent firm wide strategy. Many lawyers see some social media platforms as an unnecessary distraction, a waste of time and money, and firms may even block certain social media, e.g. Facebook and YouTube. Therefore business development and information departments need to demonstrate measurable ROI to sell social media as a realistic additional way of getting the firm's name out there.
The point he makes about firm’s websites being static brochures is spot on; they got a website in the late 1990s ‘in the hope that people would come along and look at it’. I agree that many law firm websites (and to be fair, many other companies) that still operate like this. He briefly explores the history and concept of Web 2.0 and explains that these sites allow users to do more than just retrieve information. Instead of merely 'reading', a user is invited to 'write' as well. It is clear that interactive, user generated content is the future of the web. Law firms could be doing more with their online presence to engage existing and potential clients and furthermore, it will be the law firms who have committed to this new way of advertising that will reap the benefits.
I am not the target audience for this book, although I enjoyed reading it. It is well written and makes some good points. It is primarily directed at exasperated business development departments who are trying and failing to get their firms engaged in social media, as well as cautious managing partners. Let's hope that it encourages lawyers to communicate effectively online and as a consequence improve legal websites and blogs.