Unsexy and I Know It: Don’t Believe the Hype about Social Media for Attorneys

Long post; skip it if you aren’t in the mood.

About 18 months ago I had the honor of co-presenting a survey of social media for attorneys to a section at the Maryland State Bar Association’s Solo and Small Firm Conference.  My survey was droll and I ran on too long, to the detriment of my much more qualified co-presenter Bradley Shear, Esquire, who unlike myself is a bona fide expert on the topic who has had real-world impact on social media legislation in this state and elsewhere.  In short, I gave a long-winded 101-level survey while he gave a concise 300-level analysis of some of the social media pitfalls facing attorneys. Back then Twitter and Facebook seemed interesting (and to some extent still do), but not for the hype-marinated reasons, or axiomatic creedal claims in lieu of reasons, offered by some of the strongest advocates of social media marketing for attorneys.

Facebook has been good (mostly) for keeping in touch with old friends and acquaintances, but it has not generated one dollar in fee revenue for my practice.  Twitter ditto, and that’s fine.  I have done some pro bono work for clients who contacted me through mutual friends or acquaintances on Facebook.  (Sorry if the friends/acquaintances distinction seems cumbersome; perhaps it’s from my faux self-awareness as a German-American that I divide the world into Bekannte whom I siezen and echte Freunde whom I duzen, Facebook’s indifference to the differences between friends and acquaintances notwithstanding.) It’s also good to get the latest news or word from colleagues, particularly when active parenthood and professional pressures make it harder to socialize.  But as a “gamechanger”?  Give me a break.

Does any attorney “need” any social media platform professionally.  Perhaps Twitter or LinkedIn is useful for some attorneys in certain industries where the attorney is more than just an attorney, such as some general counsel attorneys or sports agents, where the attorney has a significant non-attorney duty set de facto.  Maybe it’s good for attorney-activists (for principle or for hire) such as lobbyists or public policy law firms – again, when the client is using the attorney for non-traditional purposes or even when “the client” does not necessarily exist.  For us solo and small-firm attorneys, I do not see it as useful whatsoever professionally except as a news filter or for an occasional much-needed laugh.

A read through the tweets from hashtag #sml12 for a current (6/20/2012) social media conference was instructive.  A read through those tweets yielded a lot of bold, axiomatic statements like “if you aren’t on social media, you aren’t relevent/are risking irrelevance” and “the return on investment in social media doesn’t matter, [law] firms not using it will become ‘irrelevant.’ ”  Really?  Why?  Return on investment always matters, especially when the investment is more than de minimis.  What legal client is fascinated by an attorney who tweets the whole day?  A politician, lobbyist or community organizer? Maybe, and a lot of them are attorneys (and some go on to do some really interesting things in their careers….) but what does this have to do with the actual practice of law?  The strange creed- or even cult-like tone in the tweets really haunted me, reminding me of one controversial religious organization with a well-funded legal team which I will not here name.  Maybe Amway would be a better comparison, but without the redeeming value of pretty-good soap, cleaning products and cosmetics.  Go check out the tweets for yourself and see if you agree or disagree with me.

How does tweeting about antitrust law make an antitrust law firm more effective?  What, crowd-sourcing the brief or deposition and putting the litigation strategy all over Twitter and exposing the CEO of your client to federal prison?  How does Twitter help an attorney win – not get, WIN – the multi-vehicle accident case in a jurisdiction with contributory negligence and last clear chance doctrines?  Can Twitter help me get my overtime collective action certified in Greenbelt under FLSA?  No?  Will the “thought leaders” prepare my monthly escrow account report?  What, NO??? Then it’s of secondary importance or lower.

If “social media” is so great for attorneys, there should be some metrics to prove that fact, whether under a return on investment model or another model.  Even though we don’t have metrics for paying my bar dues, we know that not paying my bar dues suspends the law license, so we pay them.  We pay Bar Association dues because the Bar Association provides a great deal of information about actual law practice, from news, CLE, the Maryland Lawyers’ Manual, a place to grab a cup of coffee, etc. I don’t know the stats on malpractice, but profession-wide the risk is non-zero and most institutional referral sources mandate a malpractice dec page as a condition of doing business.  So there is a large “delta” from not buying malpractice insurance.  Twitter?  LinkedIn?  Pinterest?  What would we put on Pinterest or Instagram – a picture of gorgeous old me sealing a Tyvek envelope?

You know what actually keeps an attorney “relevant”?  Being a knowledgeable resource in “meatspace” i.e. offline.  Not a “thought leader” but a mentor.

Relevance – going to meet your mentee at an attorneys’ lunch in Columbia even when it’s 100 degrees out and you have a pile of mail to review.

Relevance – speaking to a room full of your colleagues in Ocean City as a presenter, then the next day getting to discuss your practice area’s developments with a law firm who is opposing your client on a case and a former chief judge of your state’s highest court.

Relevance – taking the call from your mentee who is about to make a serious escrow mistake, and you guide her through to get the funds handled the right way.

Relevance – when you are in command of your practice enough to be able to help an impoverished worker get her unemployment benefits, and write off the bill pro bono publico because the one percent of you that won’t make peace with the 99% atheist part of you remembers once learning, “The righteous is concerned for the rights of the poor; the wicked does not understand such concern.”

Does using social media as an attorney induce or constitute an ethical violation per se?  No – not per se, but per quod it sometimes does.  There are plenty of non-social media advertising violations online and of course offline by attorneys.  About a month ago I sent a friendly email to an attorney who claimed in her Google Adwords ads – appearing on my own personal Gmail account, no less! –  to be specializing in several practice areas in flat violation of Maryland Rule 7.4.  Shortly before that, I faxed a similar letter to a warm acquaintance who, regrettably, had outsourced marketing and therefore (pace Eric Turkewitz) ethics to her online marketing company who likewise claimed she “specialized” in multiple practice areas, in depraved indifference to Maryland’s black-letter rule on the subject.  Neither of these ad copy fit a narrow definition of “social media” as generally conceived.  With social media bogosity the hype factor gets a lot more concentrated and the risks of other ethics violations, such as ethical conflicts, breaches of confidentiality and even privilege, even identifying the actual client (!) become a lot harder to avoid.

In short, social media as a business generation tool for attorneys welds extremely questionable return on investment with multiple layers of ethical and possibly professional liability exposure.  Perhaps those risks can be managed like other risks, but taking on such risks without some metrics for the upside payoff seems foolish, especially when the unsexy work of getting good at a practice area (you know, boring reading, consulting with colleagues, testing and buttressing your knowledge by attending and even giving continuing ed, co-counseling on cases, etc.) remains to be done.  We wouldn’t tell our clients to take a bet this bad.

Lots of cases come up on PACER (federal court case search database) every day.  It makes a bit more sense to spend time, in lieu of social media trolling for “leads” or some goof-bang Generation-Y existential quest for “relevance”, looking instead at PACER (or a local equivalent) and finding interesting cases.  Then, it makes sense to call one of the attorneys in question on that interesting case (on a Tuesday, not a Monday or a Friday) and inquiring – politely and gently – about your interest in the practice area and inviting the attorney for lunch.  There’s a decent chance that you will get a not only the lunch bill paid but also an invite to join the case formally or unofficially as second chair (if otherwise appropriate and with client consent, etc.) or a referral to an ally or partner of hers/his for something similar.

If you don’t do federal court,  replace the PACER docket with your local worker’s comp docket, etc.  What role you might have is going to depend on a lot of details including your experience level but there’s no ethical rule against contacting an attorney about joining on that attorney’s case (assuming no conflicts, etc.)  I have been on both sides of that mentor-mentee case split, as the first and second chair.  Not that complicated if you hit it off and you observe the general ethical principles starting with competence, client consent and conflict checks.  This beats the best tweet you will read or write all day.

If you don’t want to contact an attorney who does litigation or administrative practice, then find out who is giving the local estate planning/tax law/transactional practice CLEs from your Bar Association or seminar companies like NBI, PLI or the other alphabet soups of companies that sell seminars, and contact her for a lunch chat.  These, not consulting services from a “social media professional” if such a creature exists, are more likely to give you actual social contact rather than social media.  The return on investment of such efforts is not guaranteed, but it’s about as good a guarantee as you are going to get in these hard times and beats the hell out of trying to bootstrap professional development 140 characters at a time from your vendors.  Never forget that vendors, like Carlo Rizzi in The Godfather, do NOT get a place in the family business or at the table; they deserve payment on time as agreed but only you have the law practice and license too lose. We do not “duzen” them and they are not our professional peers.

Early in my career as an attorney, I was intimidated about getting to meet other attorneys.  I bought into the misleading  law school hype about big firms being the standard for, well, everything.  I didn’t want to be part of a big firm, but somehow felt like less of an attorney for it and felt very self-conscious at Bar events, etc, because my career hadn’t taken off.  Even attending a meet-and-greet networking event seemed too difficult for me then.  Later I learned that while big firms did have a lot of influence over law schools (they ran on-campus recruiting, named the building wings that they funded, etc.), they didn’t have all the wisdom.  Plenty of highly-rated practitioners who were solos or small-firm attorneys, including a large plurality of Bar leaders in my state.  But inside the “thought leader” bubble of law school, I’d have never learned that fact that remains true largely to this day.

Alas, law school isn’t the last reality-distortion chamber.  Social media merchants, I fear, will stunt many (hopefully fewer) new attorneys’ growth by playing to their insecurities (compounded by an even worse economy than one encountered in the mid-90s), selling them useless buncombe and NOT helping them actually improve their hard and soft skill set – especially if social media acts as a substitute for getting out there and meeting people.  This is particularly true for that subset of attorneys most likely to be attracted to online communications in the first place – my fellow NERDS (please bury me with my 20-sided dice and my decaying D&D goods).  How big a problem this might be with the newer cohorts isn’t clear to me as my sample isn’t representative of the nation as a whole.

Among my mentees, it’s not a major problem but my mentees are local to Maryland and Maryland is a small state with two law schools for a state of nearly 6 million people.  It’s worth noting in a spirit of irritation and bemusement that the local FindLaw rep has been lingering at the Solo and Small Firm monthly lunches I attend in my county’s Bar Association.  He sometimes picks up the tab; he literally now has a seat at the table.  Pity, as it would be nice to talk just with my fellow attorneys monthly instead of with (sigh) a vendor there to make his sale.  No sale here, my friend.

Developing as an attorney is NOT about “doing epic sh*t now” but about earning an honest, ethical living while doing useful things and developing a broadening and deepening skill set – in mostly “non-epic” (i.e. routine but still important) work.  It’s unsexy and in itself has little “style” but methodical, unsexy work can make a big difference in a client’s life.

Here endeth the long rant with an offer and challenge to new Maryland attorneys who are thinking about using a social media consultant, online media consultant or other such consultants.  Before you spend money or sign the billion-year contract, join me for lunch.  It’s lunch on my dime if it’s in Baltimore County or if you are far away we can split the bill near you.  If you have dietary restrictions, we can go where you can eat.  Serious offer, good indefinitely.  Give me an hour over lunch.  Even if you don’t agree with me, you will be the better for it and I will do my best to help you find low-cost, ethical and tasteful options (like finding the right lawyer locally with whom to co-counsel) that don’t involve handing the social media mafia some monthly check.  That way, even if you disagree, you will be stronger, will negotiate with these companies from a position of strength, not of economic intimidation, and should be the better for it.

Offer open to any Maryland attorney, Maryland Bar applicant or law student within Maryland (UM or UB).  If you have a phone, you have a mentor (me or someone better than me that I can try to connect you with.)  Don’t let yourself get separated from your professional community in tough times; stay connected.

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