Whilst social media has been in the headlines for some time, it is usually with regard to marketers driving the communications systems for their firms. Cynicism – as well as hysteria in some areas - about its value to the legal profession is rife. Kim Tasso looks at the use of social media by the professions (including lawyers) in the context of selling – primarily in business-to-business relationships.
Having worked with lawyers for almost 20 years from a strategy and business development perspective, it was with great interest that I was teamed up in June 2010 with a leading digital marketer (Peter Abraham of econsultancy) to investigate the role of social media at the heart of the lawyer-client relationship – within the context of selling – for a conference in the Autumn. We conducted research (see below for general findings) and ran workshops with senior marketers and business developers in order to prepare a White Paper which is available at: http://bit.ly/fwbPLC
I should say up front that social media is not a panacea. There are lawyers who take to it like the proverbial duck to water and use it to great benefit for their own and their firm's profiles, connecting with many interesting people and establishing worthwhile dialogues - and even new business. But, like all tools and channels, it is best if it is used within the context of a properly constructed business development plan where an integrated campaign of activities can be focused on specific goals. Obviously, there are some legal markets and areas of work where it is unlikely to be helpful.
Legal Sector Perspectives
While the White Paper is aimed at lawyers, accountants and surveyors, the issues that are of particular interest to lawyers are as follows.
Lawyer vs Firm Brand
The legal profession is familiar with the concept of personal brands – or individual lawyer reputation management. In fact, this was the dominant – although sometimes accidental - method of promoting professional firms before deregulation allowed firms to promote themselves.
There has always been a dynamic tension between the profile and reputation of the individual lawyer versus that of the firm. But in the social media space – and when it comes to selling – the issue is more dramatic.
The professions need to be clear about their positioning and policies when it comes to personal brands versus the corporate brand image. There are many benefits to allowing individuals to develop their own 'brand image' – particularly where the firm is entering a new market or promoting a new service. This is commonly known as the "expert" or "rock star" approach to promotion. But there are also risks when a potentially maverick personal brand is too strongly linked to the firm brand. And some lawyers may be concerned that too much value is invested in another lawyer's personal brand which may mean client loyalty is to the individual rather than to the firm. So it is imperative that a social media strategy exists and social media policies are communicated.
The issue distils into the question "How do we encourage our lawyers to engage with tools such as Twitter and to promote their own opinions and personalities whilst also wanting them to operate within the umbrella of the firm's brand?".
Social media also means that the cumulative effect of many separate personal brands can be channelled and leveraged to raise and increase the value of the firm's brand overall. Social media allows personal brands to adapt to the needs of different markets and clients (and lawyer personalities) within the overall guidelines of the firm's brand.
The use of tools such as http://knowem.com/ can provide a good way of ensuring a profession captures its key brand terms on the more established social networks to prevent them being abused by others, either individuals or businesses.
The guidance in Figure 1 (see download panel) should be helpful to fee earners who are attempting to create a personal brand – and will ensure that they integrate into existing marketing and sales strategies at a departmental or firm-wide level.
A key concept in selling in the professions is that of trust. David Maister and Charles Green developed a formula for calculating your trust quotient and it is possible to calculate this using their online tool (see Figure 2 in download panel).
A critical issue from a social media perspective is that of the need to minimise the self-orientation – ie whilst lawyers need to be able to express their views and share insights about their day-to-day working lives in order to develop their personal brand and character they must remain alert to the dangers of "over sharing" and bombarding their clients and contacts with irrelevant (and sometimes irritating) trivia relating to themselves. Furthermore, whilst social media are informal, lawyers need guidance on how much information about their personal lives and views to share. Policies, education and case studies will support lawyers this area.
Exclusivity vs Giver's Gain
Most recognise the value in providing information to people – as well as positioning you as an expert and as someone willing to help, it can be vital in establishing contact and in the early stages of relationship formation. The idea of "Givers Gain" is well known within the professions. Many sales approaches advocate ensuring that some value is delivered to the prospect at every interaction.
And social media supports and encourages users to share their knowledge (eg SlideShare on LinkedIn), provide links to good quality content on web sites and/or blogs and even answer questions for free. Firms will be keen to ensure that their lawyers observe copyright restrictions and also that they are not exposed to risks of professional negligence for advice given "for free" through social media channels.
Yet Laurie Young's model of a strategy for developing a personal franchise for high margin work warns against "selling the family silver". Most firms would agree that there must be a balance in terms of what information is made available for all, what is made available for loyal/valued clients and what is the preserve of just a few, carefully selected key clients or prospects.
Whilst in the past it was standard practice to provide a beautifully bound hard copy of the firm's most precious knowledge to a cherished key client, the social media revolution means that firms will have to develop robust policies and guidance to fee-earners on what content may be freely shared and what needs to have its distribution carefully managed and monitored.
Lawyer or Firm Networks? Risk Management
Every young lawyer understands that as well as honing their professional knowledge and skills they must create and cultivate their own contact base. In the past they had business cards and more recently they used the contact management or CRM (Client Relationship Management) systems of their firms. Many firms encourage fee-earners to use Outlook to store their professional and personal contacts (with appropriate "hide" options) so that the relevant relationships for the firm can be stored and managed from a central database.
As the legal profession becomes more mobile, lawyers can walk out the door taking their list of clients and contacts with them (within reason and subject to restrictive covenants). The fail-safe mechanism for the firm was that the information was in the central system and, if they had good relationship management programmes, there would always be another lawyer within the firm who could maintain the individual client and contact relationships even though the originator of that relationship had left.
With social media, fee-earners can have several networks of clients and contacts – Facebook friends, Twitter followers, LinkedIn contacts and so on. And these contacts are unlikely to be integrated into the firm's central databases. So when the individual lawyer leaves, he or she takes those clients and contacts. So how do firms ensure that they keep track of those relationships that are mission critical to their business? There are promising signs that new CRM solutions will tackle the issue, but in the meantime the firms must have clear policies and training programmes.
More sophisticated lawyers may take things a step further and create groups, promote discussions, share knowledge and ideas and develop a leading on-line community for their area of practice or market. With effort, such communities can become more valuable to the members than anything that the firm itself might develop or operate. So what happens when these lawyers depart? Who "owns" the group? Again, intellectual property and employment experts are best placed to address these types of emerging issues.
When we tackled the research, the first challenge was to assess the level of sophistication amongst marketers and business development staff in legal, accounting and surveying firms in two areas: social media and selling.
Questionnaires were issued in advance of the workshops. As we anticipated, most people felt that they were beginners in the area of social media, but we were surprised to learn that the majority felt that their knowledge of selling (ie creating new client relationships) was only at the intermediate stage whereas there was much more confidence in their use of relationship management (ie existing client management). Further discussion revealed that this may be because many business development staff were often not involved in day-to-day sales activities in their firms – with the lawyers themselves taking the lead in this area. Some of the larger firms have addressed this issue with the recruitment of specialist sales and relationship management staff to work closely with partners.
As we suspected, Facebook was very much the preserve of personal use rather than at work (although it should be noted that in the United States Facebook is more commonly used for business purposes). We were encouraged to see a high degree of use of Google, blogs and RSS feeds. Social bookmarking sites were less popular – reflecting the broader market trend (see the econsultancy paper on "Social sites used by companies in 2010") of moving away from these tools. As expected, the most popular work-based social media tool appeared to be LinkedIn.
Other questions indicated that little use was made of these tools for driving traffic to web sites and lead generation – most common use was of Google Alerts for intermediary management.
There was a wide variety of automated CRM and pipeline management systems in use by those participating in the research. From our perspective, there is a potential challenge ahead in terms of integrating information from central and personal CRM-like databases and social media channels – although some mainstream systems (eg SugarCRM) and systems being developed (eg Connectegrity) appear to have addressed this issue.
Developing Best Practice Models
At the workshops, we developed best practice guidelines for how beginner, intermediate and advanced lawyers might use social media in their general marketing activities in terms of:
- the absolute minimum that a lawyer should know and do with social media to generate new or support existing relationships (develop knowledge)
- what the average lawyer should do and know (develop presence)
- what a real star performer lawyer should know and do (develop contacts).
Another set of guidelines addressed how lawyers might integrate social media into their activities for managing and developing existing client and referrer relationships. The most difficult task was in the area of selling; we developed a best practice framework covering pre-relationship, relationship creation and relationship development stages that can hopefully be tailored to different firms' practices.
Our intention was to develop a model to provide guidance to marketers, business developers, sales people and the lawyers that they work with to integrate social media into their selling processes. With the caveat that it is such a fast changing field, our thinking was summarised in the diagram at Figure 3 (see download panel).
We established a LinkedIn group (http://www.linkedin.com/groups?mostPopular=&gid=2079375&trk=myg_ugrp_ovr) in the hope that people will contribute their thoughts and ideas in an ongoing dialogue.
11 Key Lessons
We drew out 11 key lessons from the exercise to guide business development staff and their lawyers:
1. Develop objectives and a clear strategy for social media
2. Adopt or develop some standard policies and procedures
3. Understand the present sales behaviours
4. Start a programme of sales training
5. Provide introductory training on social media tools to selected groups
6. Work with human resources to integrate social media into a framework of selling competencies
7. Look at how social media impacts on existing sales processes, systems and behaviours
8. Adapt, depending on the extent to which sales professionals are involved
9. Promote the successes of "early adopters" internally
10. For particularly cautious firms, test technologies internally
11. Prepare to modify your processes and systems to encompass the latest best practice and to allow a degree of creative freedom to "trusted" social media users.
The final section of the White Paper looks briefly at "What's trending?" and provides a review of materials on social media available from the various professional bodies and a list of articles and books for further reading.
Other Law Firm Issues
Whilst not addressed in the White Paper, numerous other issues arise where law firms are developing their social media understanding and policies. The following are examples.
Confidentiality – Whilst it sounds obvious, lawyers need to provide guidance to their people about what may be disclosed in public or private networks about clients, colleagues and activities. For example, when is "checking in" to a client or potential client's premises on FourSquare or Gowalla appropriate?
Time use – Many are concerned at the potential for lawyers to invest a huge amount of time in social media which is not chargeable and where there is no immediate return in terms of business. But this is the same as any other marketing or communications tool, it needs to be within the context of an agreed plan with clear goals. There are particular issues relating to where lawyers are at client premises and seen to be engaging in social media use.
Sensitivity – Common sense isn't so common. Some firms have had to put in place guidelines for what people may share and disclose in social media channels to avoid clients and contacts becoming offended with comments relating to alcohol or "excessive" entertaining.
Kim Tasso is the founder and principal consultant of Practical Marketing Consultancy (firstname.lastname@example.org). She co-wrote the White Paper with Peter Abraham of econsultancy (email@example.com)