At first blush social media would not seem to be the domain of leadership. It is however important that leaders understand enough about such developments, particularly where growth has been explosive and the impact wide-ranging, to appreciate potential strategic implications for their firms.

In this third Leadership Frame (introduced a few posts ago), I talk to my partner in Edge International, Jordan Furlong, a lawyer, writer and speaker based in Canada whose specialty is analyzing the changing state of the marketplace and forecasting its future. But in addition, as a former journalist – he served as editor of three of Canada’s foremost legal periodicals – he also consults to law firms on content, communications and social media in conjunction with Canadian company Stem Legal Web Services. It’s in that latter capacity that I recently engaged him in a conversation about what law firm leaders need to know about social media.

For social media to really catch on within a firm, there has to be clear buy-in from the top — not just from the managing partner, but to the extent possible, from senior rainmakers and other influencers (Sean Larkan graphic)

1.      It seems many leaders regard social media as something that should be left to ‘marketing’ or ‘communications’ – what role if any should leaders play?

Leaders who regard marketing and communications as matters not meriting their attention are either too busy for their own good or don’t fully appreciate the degree to which a law firm’s reach and reputation is linked to the firm’s business success. But leaving that aside, I do think that for social media to really catch on within a firm, there has to be clear buy-in from the top —  not just from the managing partner, but to the extent possible, from senior rainmakers and other influencers. Some firms talk a nice game about the importance of social media to their marketing and business development, but then delegate complete authority for social media to a young partner or a communications staffer. That will have exactly as much impact on the firm’s communications culture that you would expect it will. If you want social media to have a reasonable shot at success, you need to provide some visible leadership. A managing partner’s blog would be a nice start.

2.     Is social media ‘up there’ as a strategic issue for law firm leaders?

With two exceptions, I would say that law firm leaders are not treating social media as a strategic issue, and nor should they.

There are only so many “truly strategic” matters that a law firm’s leadership can address and execute at one time, and issues like market reputation, talent retention, workflow redesign, and rainmaker management are going to occupy most if not all the available bandwidth. Those are the keys to firms’ survival and growth; social media is more than just a “nice-to-have,” but it can’t be called “strategic” unless you seriously stretch the meaning of the word.

I mentioned two exceptions:

  • The first is if your firm has certain characteristics (e.g., start-up clientele, virtual offices, extremely strong consumer focus) that place a powerful social media plan at the core of the firm’s marketing and business development efforts. There are some firms that come close to living and dying by social media, and for them, you could call social media “strategic” without exaggeration.
  • The second is broader and will take some time to figure out, but it comes down to this: we don’t yet know what social media is going to become. Newspapers have been around for several hundred years and I think we know what to expect from (what’s left of) them. Social media, on the other hand, have been with us for fewer than ten and their growth has been stratospheric. Social media can reasonably be said to be in its infancy, but this is a pretty massive infant. It’s correct to say that for most firms today, social media is not a critical strategic matter; it would not be correct, or wise, to say that social media will never come to completely dominate online interaction, or that such a development is decades away. This jury has only begun to deliberate.

3.      As an award-winning blogger who is involved at the cutting edge of social media development, where do you feel it is heading?

We’re very early in this game. No one really knows what’s going to happen to these ridiculously high growth curves for social media, but this trajectory can’t be maintained indefinitely. We also don’t know whether and to what extent social media will catch on as a serious B2B communications and marketing tool, though I wouldn’t bet against it right now.

Today, Google, Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn as the dominant players in social media. In that group, Google owns the worldwide search market pretty completely and Google Plus has outstripped even Facebook with its early uptake. I still haven’t decided whether G+ is the future — I’m only on occasional user myself — but at this point, I’d say this race is Google’s to lose. Of course, there’ll be new entrants as well that we’ve never heard of.

The fundamental currency of the next few decades is going to be data — who collects it, who accesses it, and who turns it into actionable market knowledge. Whoever wins the data wars will probably also be the one to watch on the social media side, because those two arcs are going to intersect. Again, Google is the lead-horse here.

4.      What should leaders know about social media?

Law firm leaders should understand two things about social media:

  • The first is to ensure they don’t swallow too much hype. I once told a conference of managing partners that they should have a social media strategy if they also have a magazine strategy and a billboard strategy. That is to say, social media is a communications tool, one of the tools in the toolbox their firms have been using for decades. Social media should be part of a sophisticated and well-supported communications strategy — and this is where I’d say most firms are lacking. Firms that ask me about social media strategy quickly find themselves in a conversation about communications strategy, answering questions about how they approach their newsletters, websites, magazine articles, advertisements, media interviews and so on. Social media is a tool, and it’s not as important as the box it’s carried around in.
  • The second thing law firm leaders should understand is that they have never seen a communications tool like this. It’s true that magazines and billboards and social media are all communications tools; but no magazine in the world has 750 million subscribers the way Facebook does, and nobody uses billboards to issue hourly updates on legal issues. as Twitter allows you to do. Social media has in its favour the indescribably powerful growth spurt I mentioned previously, as well as incredibly low maintenance costs; but it also has something else that no other tool offers: two-way communication. Social media allows the public to talk back to a company; more importantly, it also allows members of the public to talk to each other about a company. If social media provided law firms nothing else but the opportunity to receive instant feedback on their content, respond to public inquiries, and conduct free market research about their brand and the things that matters to the people who care enough about the firm to talk about it, social media would be a breakthrough technology. And that’s only one small part of what it does. I repeat: we’ve never seen anything like this before and we don’t know where it’s going. “Irresponsible” would be one word to describe a firm that doesn’t recognize this and keep at least one eye on social media’s rapid rise.

5.     Some leaders would undoubtedly feel the social media landscape is awash with blogs, tweets and posts and that any further contribution their firm makes will get lost in this – any comments?

I’ve also come across some lawyers who feel that way. Oddly enough, they don’t feel the same way about a traditional media landscape already littered with advertisements, advertorials, and lawyer-contributed content: they’re more than happy to keep buying ad space and sending in articles to overstuffed magazines.

This tells me that the problem is not with an overdose of social media content; it’s with the fact that social media is new and still developing and lawyers don’t trust it yet. Far fewer law firms publish blogs than newsletters; far fewer have Twitter feeds than send articles to their local legal newspaper. Compared to the traditional sea of legal content, social media is as close to a “blue ocean” as lawyers are likely to find. But it’s not going to last forever, and the firms that wait the longest for everyone else to jump in will find that the pool really is too crowded by the time they arrive.

6.      What are the stand-out benefits that arise from a strategic and structured approach to implementation of social media that leaders should be aware of?

Here’s just one. There are no better, more effective and more affordable content publishing and distribution platforms than blogs and Twitter (or perhaps Google Plus). It is ridiculous how easy and cheap it is to publish a blog and create a specialized legal news feed on Twitter: much easier, faster, and less expensive than cranking out and mailing yet another printed newsletter (or emailing yet another PDF newsletter).

Law firms produce tons of content, and with some editing, most of it will prove very effective in building profile and attracting business — if it receives outstanding (defined in both quantitative and qualitative terms) publishing and distribution.

No law firm in the world has an email database that can compare (either in size or in pass-along functionality) to Twitter, LinkedIn and Google Plus. Create blogs, as many as you can manage, as niched and as specialized and as client-focused as you can make them. Trust your people to publish great content, and then give them the editing, publishing and circulation functionality to multiply the impact of that content a hundredfold.

7.     What are the key risks around social media that leaders should be aware of?

Many of the same risks that attend other communications, marketing and business development efforts: errors flowing from poor judgment, bad timing, useless content and tone-deaf interactions. None of these is unique to social media, although perhaps the magnification of mistakes is far greater. But these are all manageable risks. Create an implementable communications strategy that includes social media; train your people in good communication skills; supervise social media content producers as necessary; refine strategies and tactics as indicated by monitoring feedback; these and other steps are no different than good firms would take before sending their lawyers out to speak at a CLE or submit an article for publication.

As for the separate social media platforms, there are extremely few risks that can’t be countered or minimized through a healthy dose of common sense. Don’t put anything over the social media wire that you wouldn’t want published in a national newspaper; don’t accept connections from complete strangers with no indication of a business purpose; and don’t post any photograph of yourself taken after a couple of pints. These are rules we give our teenagers before they log into their social media accounts; if lawyers aren’t able to follow these rules themselves, the faulty hardly lies with social media.

I would welcome other views and experiences from readers!