Debra Bogaards is a self-proclaimed technophobe. The managing partner at San Francisco's Pave & Bogaards is not listed on Facebook, and she doesn't use MySpace or LinkedIn to market her insurance-defense practice. She shies away from such mainstream social networks, calling them "too public," but she has joined another online community: LawLink, a networking tool for licensed attorneys that launched in August.
"I'm very protective of my firm's profile and reputation," says Bogaards. "I don't do a lot of print marketing, but I do rely on word of mouth. Lawyers are known for networking. It is how most of us get our clients."
Like Bogaards, some California lawyers today are bypassing general-interest social networks in favor of those designed just for attorneys, including LawLink and Legal OnRamp, another site that came on the scene last year.
Online networks, characterized by profile pages where users can list professional and biographical information, let users socialize through tools such as instant messaging and email. Plenty of attorneys have long since joined well-established and extremely popular networks such as LinkedIn (for businesspeople), MySpace (initially popular with high-schoolers) and Facebook (which originally targeted college students). More than 1,000 Facebook user groups have "lawyer" or "law firm" in their title, and the top 20 groups have 11,500 lawyers or law students as members, says Mark Britton, founder of Avvo. com, a legal-ratings site that also includes some networking features.
Now, however, attorneys are starting to show interest in lawyer-only networks. "LinkedIn for me has not been very successful, because I didn't feel like it had an attorney angle to it," says Karineh Khachatourian, an intellectual property lawyer at Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney in Redwood Shores.
LawLink, founded by Oakland civil litigator Steven Choi, is open to any licensed lawyer in the United States and today claims about 2,500 users.
The invitation-only Legal OnRamp, meanwhile, connects in-house legal departments to law firms. Cofounded by law firm Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe; Cisco Systems; and attorney Paul Lippe, Legal OnRamp includes about 2,000 individuals at 200 companies and 200 law firms (such as White & Case and Allen & Overy).
A third site, Lawbby.com, appears to have folded. (An unaffiliated company answered calls to Lawbby's number, and visits to the site evoked the message "This account has been suspended.")
Meanwhile, LawLink and Legal OnRamp continue to draw fans. Fenwick & West Chief Marketing Officer James Stapleton, for example, says participation in Legal OnRamp has helped his firm's sales and marketing efforts. "I would call it a relationship accelerator," Stapleton says.
Bogaards uses LawLink search features to network with other female attorneys. And she says the site has already generated a few referrals.
To make the most of such benefits, however, says legal marketing consultant Peter Darling, lawyers should use online networks as a path to personal relationships. The personal touch, he says, should never be neglected.
"Basically, all these sites do is replicate the mechanism of conventional networking," says Darling, a nonpracticing attorney and founder of a business-development firm in San Carlos. "People network for one of two reasons: either to get information or to make contacts. And this just makes it more efficient."