Social Media can be effective for legal profession

By Cherie Curry

Legal News

Social media has fast become a powerful tool to connect the world.

Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn....just to name a few social networking sites....are viewed by millions of active users daily.

Wikipedia defines the social phenomenon as media for social interaction and use of web-based technologies to transfer and broadcast media monologues into social media dialogues. It can take on many different forms, such as web blogs, social blogs, podcasts, and Internet forums.

But these networking sites are not only being used for social purposes. A growing number of legal practitioners and other professionals are logging on.

Just ask Tiffany Buckley-Norwood, an attorney specializing in labor and employment law at Dickinson Wright in Detroit.

"I see it as having many benefits, both from a personal and professional standpoint. I am able to reach so many other people through this medium and keep up to date on what's going on in the lives of those people," Buckley-Norwood said.

She visits her Facebook page almost daily to contact friends, colleagues, and family members and uses LinkedIn every couple of days.

Buckley-Norwood said she has created a professional site on LinkedIn that provides information about herself.

"If potential clients are looking for information on me, I refer my site to clients. Also, if I'm doing significant professional development activity, I may post the activity on LinkedIn," Buckley-Norwood said.

Career Management Coach Elizabeth Jolliffe encourages this type of social media usage for her clients.

Jolliffe, who served as a partner and commercial litigator for 19 years at a large Detroit law firm, has launched and operates her "Your Benchmark Coach" business. She now provides career management and business development coaching to lawyers and other professionals. She said a lot of lawyers in the area have Facebook pages, but more for social reasons than professional. She also remarked that more and more attorneys are using LinkedIn and joining the site, but speculates that the number of lawyers using Twitter in Southeastern Michigan are low.

"I think lawyers are using social media as a supplement...using it in addition to the traditional tools to market their brand and expertise and develop their business," Jolliffe said. "Traditional tools include writing articles, giving presentations, attending events involving your target market, websites and advertising.

"Social media gets their name out there, it lets them highlight and demonstrate their area of specialty, their niche practices, and lets them show more of their personalities," she said.

Jolliffe believes that LinkedIn tends to produce more lawyer-to-lawyer referrals, while a blog format tends to generate more business from direct clients.

Construction law attorney Peter Cavanaugh knows this all too well. He's been blogging since 2006. As a partner at Cavanaugh & Quesada, he contributes weekly to the firm's blogs.

"I started blogging because it was a way to get past the logjam of a firm newsletter," Cavanaugh said. "Blogging proved to be a great way to immediately get new information out. I now update the blog in the mornings before I go into the office. You have to make it a part of your routine. It has to become a habit."

Cavanaugh publishes two blogs: "Michigan Construction Law Update," which follows developments in Michigan law affecting design professionals and contractors, and "DWSD Update," which chronicles upcoming contracts with the Detroit Water and Sewage Department.

He describes it as less op-ed and commentary and more educational, providing relevant information to clients and other lawyers about issues and events relating to his practice. So far the efforts have paid off.

"It's been very helpful. We get up to six inquiries or referrals a month from people who have found our firm on the Web through the blog, and up to 500 visitors a month based on the data collected through Google Analytics. I've also had lawyers call from out of state who have read an article and ask for help with a legal issue specific to Michigan," Cavanaugh said.

But while blogging has generated business for Cavanaugh, he is careful to avoid the so-called social media pitfalls.

"I think all lawyers are concerned their blog will be interpreted as rendering legal advice. A blog is not legal advice and is not a substitute for talking with an attorney about the facts in your specific case," he said.

Social media experts also caution about the type of content that is placed on the Internet.

"With Facebook, you must be careful because the things you put up could affect your reputation. The more friends you have, the more you're at risk of private information getting out," Jolliffe said.

"It is a great resource and something to take advantage of, but it has to be used carefully," Buckley-Norwood said. "You could be communicating improperly with other employees and that may put your company at risk."

"Ethics rules apply to attorneys using social media and in the same way rules would apply to their daily conduct," said Todd Mendel, a partner at Barris, Sott, Denn & Driker, which handles a large amount of commercial litigation, corporate transactions and real estate cases.

Mendel, who is also the firm's in-house ethics attorney and ethics committee chair, believes ethical standards must be maintained when using social media.

"While the medium of communication has changed, the ethics rules and principles governing those rules still apply to the medium," Mendel said

Mendel advises attorneys to pay close attention when it concerns maintaining confidentiality with prospective clients, establishing attorney-client relationships over the internet, making communications or representations about their legal services, or issues involving online solicitation and advertisement.

"All these ethics issues should give people some pause," Mendel said.

"Once in a while, lawyers should pull the ethical rules off the shelves and read the basic rules. It's a good way to keep them in your mind. It keeps your senses alerted."

Mendel also suggested consulting an ethics attorney, or a firm outside of one's practice, if questions persist.

Proposed safeguards to help lawyers navigate their way through the ever-expanding and ever-changing social media channels that continue to attract more practitioners in the legal field.

"I think with time, more attorneys will use social media. I think the younger generation will use this medium more and more. Lawyers tend to be slow to adapt to new technology. There may be a sense of giving the information away, but I think providing information is a good thing. I'm not afraid of showing information. It's a way of giving value to a prospective client," Cavanaugh said.

Published: Mon, Jul 19, 2010

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