Illustratio by Daniel Iversen (Flickr/Creative Commons)

Get Social: Why the Legal Industry Needs to Embrace Social Networking

Editor’s Note: The author of this post is the founder of a social media platform for lawyers, Foxwordy. 

By Monica Zent, Founder & CEO of Foxwordy and Founder of ZentLaw

The U.S. workforce is undergoing vast changes. Companies are beginning to look at the workplace as an agile construction comprised of a combination of full-time and contract workers and lean outfits supplying services at a value.

The focus is on projects and curating a career portfolio, not necessarily on career longevity. No matter what the industry, a Hollywood model is taking root. That is, instead of just using the employees you have on hand to execute a project, you call on the best people you can find and then employ them on a contract basis.

This is happening in many professions, but some are moving faster than others. The legal industry is subject to the same forces as everyone else, but has largely resisted the lure of technology. That time is coming to a close, though. In an encouraging recent development this summer, the New York State Bar Association issued guidelines for lawyers who use social media. The organization called social media an “indispensable” tool for legal professionals. Clearly, it’s time for the legal profession to embrace the best of what technology has to offer, especially social networks.

Social Networking Has Changed the World

When Mark Zuckerberg created “thefacebook” in his dorm room in 2004, no one could have predicted how big it would get or how much it would transform society. At this writing, Facebook has more than 1.4 billion people, which means it’s more populous than any nation on earth.

One byproduct of this revolution is that we all communicate differently. Years ago, you might send out a letter after a birth announcement. Now you post a pic on Facebook. Relatives you used to see once or twice a year now know much more about your quotidian life events.

The effect on work-life has been just as dramatic. No one mails out resumes anymore, for instance. Cold calling has been replaced by harvesting second-level connections on social networks like LinkedIn. People form professional relationships on Twitter even though they never met in real life.

This has been a cultural movement that has largely bypassed the legal profession. As anyone who knows one can attest, lawyers love to talk but they’re also reasonably circumspect about doing so on social networks, where they leave behind a digital breadcrumb trail. In addition, law firms have generally been slow to embrace technology. This is understandable. Law is a profession based on leather-bound books and with a reverence for the past. It’s not a forward-looking occupation like computer programming, even though, like software, the law is actually constantly being updated and (in theory at least) improved.

That’s changing. At this point, the legal industry has no choice but to embrace the social media revolution. Here are six reasons:

1. Millennials Are Changing the Profession. Millennials – those individuals born sometime after 1980 and before 1995 – are an 80 million-strong force that’s rewriting the rules of most professions and seeing social media as a necessity, not an option.

As a recent PricewaterhouseCoopers report on Millennials in the workplace notes, this is a generation that is defined by technology. They have grown up with broadband, smartphones, laptops and social media and expect instant access to information. “This is the first generation to enter the workplace with a better grasp of key business tools than more senior workers,” the report notes.

In particular, 34% of Millennials prefer to collaborate online rather than in-person. That compares to 19% for older generations, according to Kleiner Perkins’ Mary Meeker’s 2015 State of the Internet report.

The upshot is that these new workers won’t accept the status quo and will question assumptions about how lawyers should behave in social media. On the other hand, they are not dumb and understand that there are risks to carrying out legal conversations on social networks like Facebook and LinkedIn that aren’t designed specifically with lawyers in mind. Young people entering the profession know the power of crowdsourcing to answer questions. They also are very comfortable using social media and technology in general to get to what they need quickly.

2. Law Firms Are Going Virtual. It’s all about #LeanLaw. Lean law is the leading business model in the legal industry today, but it wasn’t when I launched it in 2002 – people are finally getting it now. What is it? Think law firm pulled through a startup filter shedding all excess baggage and resulting in an agile, fast-paced, culturally modern, tech-centric place where lawyers perform great legal work under more flexible schedules. Back then, people thought the idea was crazy and told me so. They said clients would never go for it, major brands would never trust it and lawyers wouldn’t work for it. All myths were debunked like dominos one after the other. Today, it’s ubiquitous across the nation.

Lean Law is where and how lawyers want to practice, major brands have embraced it and the legal industry has taken notice. It has its own hashtag, people know what it means and it’s giving conventional law a run for its money.

3. The Rise of the Virtual Lawyer. Even as it has resisted digital transformation, the legal profession is now beginning to take advantage of the possibilities offered by the Internet. Culturally, technology has changed the way people across many industries work. Services like Upwork (formerly oDesk) have opened doors and created whole micro-economies where none previously existed. In recent years, a new type of law firm has emerged: the virtual office. Technology has freed lawyers up to be able to work remotely more often.

Even as it has resisted digital transformation, the legal profession is now beginning to take advantage of the possibilities offered by the Internet.

Gone are the days in which a face-to-face negotiation is needed when you can Skype or videoconference the meeting. Gone are the days when you needed to courier documents for signature when you can e-sign them over to the other party without ever leaving your desk. Electronic filings have been around for a while and are the default now. Gone are the days when you needed sophisticated analog conference equipment when we have GoToMeeting or WebEx. Gone are the days of scans and faxes in favor of electronic imaging of everything. Gone are the days of leather-bound, wood-paneled libraries when a cloud subscription to those resources can be purchased for a monthly fee. And gone are the days of lawyers needing administrative assistants when you have virtual assistants you can hire or tech-based ones that are not even human.

Lawyers can track their time, bills, matters and calendars all from their phone. They can affiliate with Lean Law firms by checking into a shared workspace from time to time or working from home the rest. All of this has revolutionized the practice of law, released lawyers from the shackles of their offices and allowed them to work when they want, where they want and how much they want. All of this has led to an exploding freelance legal workforce the likes of which we have never seen in this industry.

These firms can be completely distributed. That is, there’s no centralized office; everyone works from his or her home office. There is space for attorney or client meetings, but that’s it. Virtual assistants provide administrative support. The cloud allows everyone working on a case to have the same access to information, no matter where they are.

For clients, the advantages of going with Lean Law or virtual are obvious: you save on overhead that would be spent on pricey rent, support staff and office supplies, among other expenses. In theory at least, you save on reimbursing lawyers for business travel for your matters. You get faster work more conveniently delivered, and your lawyers are more accessible to clients, regardless of their location.

The only downside for lawyers — until recently at least — is the lack of direct access to co-workers. Email often doesn’t provide instant access and is inappropriate for discussing sensitive legal matters. Since you’re not working in a physical office, there is little chance for those kinds of serendipitous conversations that can result in a creative solution to an issue. The virtual lawyer and Lean Law require social media tools that are now readily available.

Email often doesn’t provide instant access and is inappropriate for discussing sensitive legal matters.

4. New Business Is Being Generated by Social Media. Today, cold calling has been supplanted by social selling – the process of building relationships with customers and clients via social networks. So, how do you drum up new business or forge new connections that could lead to your next client or position?

With social media, geographical boundaries are irrelevant. The size of your firm, practice or office is also irrelevant. Social media is the great equalizer — it places everyone on the platform on largely the same playing field. Instead, social media opens up a powerful channel by which the firms with the best ideas and the best expertise, regardless of size or type, can win business.

The firms (and lawyers) that evolve are the ones that will thrive in the changing legal market. Law firm marketing and prospecting is different than it used to be. Now, it had better include a social media strategy or it will be a huge waste of marketing dollars. How clients find their lawyers and law firms is also different than it used to be. Attorneys need to realize that the way people find law firms is much different than in the past.

Years ago, clients might browse the Yellow Pages or ask around a bit. A decade ago, they would google it. Now, clients are most likely to look at who is showing up in their feed and if they want to research the firm, they will google it, but then cross-reference via a social network. The firms that are completely absent from these platforms, both mainstream and relevant legal industry social platforms, are the firms that will be left behind. Having a seat at the table, being present in the dialogue, with clients and prospects is what is key for firms now, and social media provides that vehicle.

Social media provides firms with another valuable touchpoint with their existing and prospective clients. As we all know, a personal contact makes a huge difference. If a friend or colleague of yours had a good experience with a firm, that firm becomes more than just a name on a website. Social media is often how we get such recommendations. We now gather most of our intelligence from social media.

What is our network saying and how is that relevant to us? Millions of people get their daily news fill via LinkedIn or Twitter feeds. Millions more pick up valuable tips about topics such as parenting, health or travel via their Facebook feeds. Passing up the chance to have a meaningful touchpoint with a client, prospect or candidate is a missed opportunity for firms.

5. Recruitment Is Happening on Social Media. Similarly, candidate selection and recruitment – especially for Millennial workers – is no longer taking place in want ads or via conventional recruiting firms, but in social networks often by the employers themselves. LinkedIn is a natural first place to try to find new talent, but, compared to a social network specifically devoted to the legal profession, it may not fill in the whole picture. If you want to get access to recommendations about a certain type of candidate, how they actually think or work, then a dedicated social network might provide deeper connections, clues and more relevant recommendations.

For potential employees, meanwhile, the reality is that what you do on social media matters. A recent study by Jobvite found that 93 percent of recruiters are likely to look at a job prospect’s social media profile. Another study from CareerBuilder found that more than half of recruiters who checked out a possible hire on social media found reason not to consider them. This cuts both ways. Potential hires can get a sense of what the leadership is like by following them on Twitter. There, it’s easy to see if they’re funny, serious, provocative or boring. Likewise, employers can gain valuable insights about a candidate by what they post, how they express themselves and what they like.

6. Law Departments Are Resourcing Their Needs Differently. Law departments are looking at their needs differently, as well. In-house law department budgets continue to stagnate, forcing in-house teams to get creative with how they resource their needs. One way is the breaking apart of work into projects and then leveraging freelancers. This means there may be fewer opportunities for large firms to grab huge chunks of work. Instead, firms may have access to smaller workstreams supported by flex members of their team, instead of partners and associates.

There may be fewer opportunities for large firms to grab huge chunks of work. 

Because of various factors, the legal profession is undergoing a switch from the standard full-time model to one in which freelancers are brought on for projects or on a contract basis. An Intuit study predicted that, by 2020, more than 40% of the U.S. workforce will be independent contractors. The study predicts that small businesses “will develop their own collaborative networks of contingent workers, minimizing fixed labor costs and expanding the available talent pool.”

In her annual State of the Internet report, Meeker also noted that more Millennials are choosing this option. According to the report, 38% of Gen Y-ers are freelancing now versus 32% of those over the age of 35. Some 32% of Millennials believe they will be working flexible hours in the future. These freelance lawyers, disparagingly called “Starbucks lawyers,” may find the lifestyle and the money to their liking, but they might also find it lonely and lacking in professional support. For such workers, social networks will become a natural vehicle for letting them feel more connected and getting answers to un-Google-able questions.

Additionally, in-house teams are changing their composition and behavior. There was a time when in-house teams were expected to be generalists. In the very small law departments that remains true, but with the current phenomenon of ballooning legal departments, in-house counsel are becoming more specialized, falling into narrow segments of work and reducing their depth and expertise across many areas. This results in increased dependency on each other and those outside with expertise they may not have.

This produces an opportunity for firms, but the in-house behavior is changing, which means firms must adapt to that. In other words, in-house law departments are becoming far more do-it-yourself on their legal issues than they once were. In-house counsel are less likely to call a firm and incur a billable charge or play phone tag now. Instead, in-house lawyers are flocking to social media to connect with colleagues and get quick intelligence or answers to what they need, all without ever picking up the phone or having to walk down the hall. 

The firms that push out content onto social platforms, including those most relevant to the legal market, are the firms that are going to get access to the in-house need for outside support. We are not just talking blogs here, either. While blogs, if well done and short, can be very useful to clients, what is more useful is engagement on social media that is relevant, pragmatic and real-time.

Law firm lawyers — whether of the BigLaw, Lean Law or Virtual Law variety — who engage on social media with their in-house clients and prospects have opportunities to interface with them at a time when those clients or prospects need them most. It is an incredible opportunity that few firms, still today, fully grasp. Aside from showcasing what you or your firm can do, you are unlocking the potential to build relationships with clients and prospects in a way that is, oddly, more personal.

It’s Time for Lawyers to Get Social

All these factors lay the groundwork for a new mode of communication among lawyers. An influx of younger workers, the emergence of lean law firms, the rise of the virtual lawyer, the popularity of social networks as a tool for new business or recruiting and, finally, a growing segment of freelance lawyers all point to one thing: smart and savvy lawyers need to get on social media. Now.

Some attorneys continue to flinch at social media — even a social network created for the legal market. This is wrong thinking. I was speaking at a major law firm marketing event earlier this year. A number of law firm partners (and, shockingly, some of the law firm CMOs) in attendance were questioning social media with suspicion and acknowledging they didn’t even have a LinkedIn profile or company page. Really? Are we still having this conversation? We are 10 years into the social media movement, people. It’s time to get with it!

Social media is a powerful tool. Each lawyer has his or her own opinions and ideals that set them apart and constitute their particular brand. Attorneys and firms should take advantage of all the tools that let them hone their voice and build their brand. Social media is the ideal way to let others know what you bring to the table. For the changing face of today’s legal professional, social networks are fast becoming a natural vehicle for letting them feel more connected, getting more done — faster, and by tapping into what their colleagues know.

It’s time that the law leverages the full potential of technology — and, in particular, social media — to advance these dialogues. The law firm segment of the profession has resisted the lure of social media long enough. To evolve in the current legal market, all law firms, whether Lean Law, Virtual Law or BigLaw, need to take full advantage of all of the benefits that social media has to offer. The law may never be as glamorous as Hollywood, but it can be smarter.