Some equity partners may think social media doesn't affect them, but everything your colleagues do online could have a lasting impact on your firm's bottom line because, in today's competitive legal climate, the bottom line rises and falls in parallel with reputation. And, with the average American spending 1.72 hours per day on online social networks, social media is playing a large role in shaping the reputations of lawyers at all levels.
Most social media users link to their employers in their online profiles. (See LinkedIn, Facebook, Google+, and others.) And some firms encourage their lawyers to utilize their individual accounts on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and other networks in an effort to publicize the firm. This means that whatever they say or do while social networking is eternally linked to the firm. Even if an offensive post or photo is later "deleted," it never disappears entirely from the World Wide Web. At some point someone is likely to stumble across the item associated with your firm's name. Photo uploads that display personal successes with putative discretion--a phenomenon known as #HumbleBragging--have their pitfalls.
A strong online presence is certainly beneficial, but it can be risky for a law firm to give any lawyers free rein with what's come to be known as an "open network" policy; the potential arises for things to go very wrong very quickly. Case in point: One lawyer serving a public interest externship landed in the "Above the Law" blog after joking about a client's drug use on Facebook. Sharing viewpoints on upcoming elections (views that perhaps don't align with the firm's) could be equally problematic. As could photos of big nights out and mornings hung over--mornings when your clients know the lawyer was handling their case.
Worse (perhaps better, depending on various factors) might be an incident where an associate or partner accidentally uploads an inappropriate photo that gets spotted, copied, and texted around the office and beyond, like wildfire. In an era when entire websites are dedicated to exposing the inner workings of law firms and capitalizing on law firm gossip, it is only a matter of time before a screenshot of your attorney's blunder lands before a broad audience. #Oops.
MODULATING THE MEDIUM
A demand that lawyers refrain from utilizing any and all social media is unrealistic. But encouraging associates and partners to incorporate their professional lives (such as verdicts, firm news, and settlement numbers) into their personal accounts also could backfire. Clear policies and substantive firmwide training can turn online social networks from minefields into opportunities.
Here are five key steps:
1. Get to know social media yourself. At a minimum, you will be able to understand when something's going wrong. But they're also incredibly powerful tools for developing business and establishing oneself as a thought leader.
2. Build a strong marketing team. Ideally, you have an in-house or third-party communications staffer handling your firm's online presence as part of an overall marketing strategy. Work with marketing professionals who understand social media and its potential upsides and have a plan for handling a firm employee who goes rogue online. Marketing professionals also can help maintain the firm's social media presence and keep it fresh.
3. Steer clear of intellectual property overreach. The online world is awash with copyright and trademark misuse. But some use is fair. Refresh your team on intellectual property laws.
4. Provide social media training for your whole staff. Many tech-savvy attorneys know plenty about social media, but using it for professional purposes is very different from maintaining a personal profile. Your firm brand is crucial to your firm's long-term success, and each associate, partner, and support staffer represents your brand just as much as you do. So training them about effective, ethical, and professional social media use--and thinking before they update--is essential.
5. Be transparent. You might be inclined to have a member of your staff monitor your lawyers' and other staffers' social media use, and that actually might produce helpful information. But it's time-consuming, it isn't failsafe, and it can lead to mistrust: Your colleagues and staff are guaranteed to find out sooner or later--just as your kids know exactly which "friend" on social media is actually their high school guidance counselor.
GOING FOR THE #WINWIN
You can see that demanding a social-media-free workplace is not recommended: It could open a Pandora's box of bad press, lawsuits, financial loss, and assorted related headaches. By judiciously but actively adapting to the modern practice of law--which includes developing business online--a firm will be able to capitalize on the "buzz" created by Internet-savvy lawyers.
CREATING THE RIGHT SOCIAL MEDIA POLICY FOR YOUR FIRM
Here are a few points to consider when crafting your firm's social media policy:
* If your firm wants to encourage lawyers and staff to blend their person and professional presence online, it's essential to specify the content, including images, that the firm considers appropriate. And lawyers and staff should know their posts are their own.
* Adidas has a good policy: "Employees are allowed to associate themselves with the company when posting, but they must clearly brand their online posts as personal and purely their own."
* Best Buy is even more explicit: "Dishonorable content, such as racial, ethnic, sexual, religious, and physical disability slurs are not tolerated." The company says employees are "not allowed to disclose information that [is] financial, operation and legal in nature, as well as any information that pertains to clients and customers."
* If your firm wants its attorneys to keep their work and social lives entirely separate online, consider a policy that clearly states employees are not prohibited from utilizing social media in their free time but are not encouraged to showcase their personal life in conjunction with their professional persona.
* A clause in the National Labor Relations Board's social media policy reminds employees: "Do not use social media while at work or on company equipment, unless it is work-related and authorized. Do not use your company email to register on blogs, social networks, or other forms of social media."
* Just make sure that your policy does not include language that could be interpreted as interfering with employees' rights to act collectively.
Kristen Marquis Dennis is an attorney and founder of the digital media marketing firm WebPresence, Esq. She is a frequent lecturer on social media for lawyers.