The ten per cent: law firms and social media

A recent study paints the legal sector as being slow to warm to social media. Becky Waller-Davies takes a look at the industry and asks how graduates could contribute to law firms’ tentative steps towards social media

Let’s not pretend, the legal industry is not known for throwing caution to the wind and embracing every professional fad going. Social media is not likely to be any different. It could be seen tocontradict the legal industry’s ties to its heritage, it could even put firms or individuals in jeopardy. But a new study by the University of Strathclyde shows that just 10 per cent of legal practices in Scotland have established a Twitter account. This seems an overly traditional approach, even for the legal industry.

The man behind the study, Michael Thompson, teacher and coordinator on Strathclyde’s Diploma in Professional Legal Practice (the Scottish equivalent of the LPC), believes that the picture across the UK would be much the same. He says: “There is no reason to suggest that Scotland is further behind or further advanced.”

The reasons behind the lack of take-up, he can only guess at. He adds: “It’s a conservative industry. Some of my colleagues who have been in the profession for many years didn’t think email with clients would catch on.”

Thompson researched the statistics as a guide for aspiring lawyers rather than those already in the industry. He says: “For students making the transition from law student to law professional – they will use social media in their personal lives regardless of what law firms choose to do.”

So what are law firms doing? Those who are embracing social media are doing so with caution. Barney O’Kelly is digital communications manager at Freshfields. He emphasises its desire to establish worthwhile platforms.

He says: “At the moment we are using Twitter for graduate recruitment in the UK. We are beginning to explore Facebook… (it is) is much more a case of we do it with a clear understanding of our audience. It’s really important not to create social media profiles for the sake of it. It has to be in line with business aims.”

Eversheds’ head of corporate communications Imogen Lee agrees. She says:“We have a presence on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, Slideshare and Flickr. But it’s not just about the number of accounts that a firm has. It’s really about the content that you share.”

She adds: “The different accounts aim to establish a dialogue and will direct information to particular users and ask and answer questions. By engaging… the firm becomes an open and trusted source of information.”

What’s more, law firms’ explorations of social media are not limited to their PR teams. While strategy is decided upon centrally, individuals are encouraged to post or Tweet themselves.

Lee highlights that all accounts at Eversheds are maintained by those who specialise in that area. She says: “We do this to provide relevant content and converse with clients and industry leaders in each of these areas. We deliberately took this approach, to ensure that personality comes through.”

Reconciling the spontaneity of social media with the considered approach of the legal industry is an ongoing task for firms. Eversheds provides training for those in charge of accounts while O’Kelly says: “We work in a highly regulated sector – we have to be mindful that most of those who have fallen foul [where business and social media are concerned] have done so inadvertently. We have clear guidance but it is guidance not policy as such.”

Graduate recruitment departments are well used to using social media when it comes to communicating with potential employees. Sharon Jacobs, graduate recruiter at Linklaters, says: “The platforms we use most are Facebook and Twitter. It’s something we are familiar and comfortable with and is a means to help provide a platform and answer any questions graduates have.”

Firms may have become accustomed to using social media as a tool to recruit graduates and interact with them but are they ready to place their new intake on the other side of social media platforms?

Izzy Abidi, a legal advisor for financial services at Eversheds was responsible for establishing its @LegalTrainee feed. In November 2010, this was an unfamiliar idea but, manned by multiple trainees, the triple platform tool flourished across Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. Abidi says that generic accounts can be “quite clinical but if you have an individual with personality behind the account it makes a difference”.

O’Kelly believes that graduates are in an ideal position to man feeds, although he is quick not to stereotype. He says: “Broadly, the generational divide applies though I don’t think this is an absolute. My view is that it is a contribution graduates can make – we want to capitalise on their comfort factor and experience.”

It is worth bearing in mind O’Kelly’s cautionary words: “it’s very difficult to gauge the change of pace”, but with major law firms taking this line, it may not be long before many more than 10 per cent are engaging with graduates and clients through social media.