Why your lawyer’s not a social media ninja

23 05 2011

Let me start with a confession.

It took me a while to “get” Twitter. The first time I tried it (which I think was 2008), I just used it to consume information. It wasn’t great for a number of reasons – firstly, I didn’t put a lot of time in to work out who to follow (and in particular I didn’t discriminate between those companies or people who had anything interesting to say online and those  I simply had an interest in) and secondly, at that time it wasn’t as widely adopted as it is now, so there were simply fewer good users.

Sam in IT security did not mess around when enforcing the firm's policy

The next time I tried, I switched to “broadcast mode” and used it as a one-way tool to let the world know about my blog. Of course, because I had nothing else of any interest to say (or to be more accurate, if I did, I didn’t say it on Twitter), I got very little traffic as a result and soon gave up.

The third time was when I got it. A bit of experimenting, understanding the world of hashtags, retweeting and trending, and soon I found a community of likeminded folks (two of which have been featured on this blog in the past).

This of course led to the critical step – engagement, which is where the value comes from.

Now I have an established community, the news I get is both relevant and extremely timely. In terms of sharing my content, whether it’s this blog or other work-related content, the community are generally much more receptive and interested than simply broadcasting to the world at large. And of course the more I engage, the more that community grows and the more I gain.

What I don’t pretend to be, is some sort of social media guru, but I absolutely see the benefit from it.

Twitter, Linkedin and my Blog have all provided very tangible positive benefits to my professional life (Facebook I keep separate for personal use), and given the user numbers for social media, the valuations of the main players, and the newsworthy status of the platforms (super-injunction anyone?), at first look it seems strange that more law firms are not using social media effectively.

Scratch the surface, and the reasons are obvious. At least to me.

Perhaps the reason that’s most often cited is the perceived risk involved.

Trained to be wary of defamation, and qualifying into organisations which are (rightly) protective of their reputations, the more risk-averse partners in law firms can often see huge potential danger in allowing individual lawyers to express themselves in an informal and opinionated way.

This can lead to social media being simply struck off the agenda (“it’s just a fad anyway”), or so sanitised any communication simply resembles a bland summary of the firm’s press releases. zzzzzzzzzzzz.

If you want to test this, firstly check out the more forward thinking media and look at the amount of their engagement. Are they tweeting, blogging and active on discussion groups? Is their engagement commensurate with their brand and positioning?

Or in fact do the lawyers have to engage without mentioning the firm? Or does all the comment come with the health warning “views are the personal opinion of the author” (meaning if they generate goodwill and thought leadership, the firm will promote the content and benefit, but if they step out of line, they’re on their own and we did warn the reader it was nothing to do with the firm!).

Some of the other reasons are perhaps a little less obvious, but I have some theories for you to consider.

The first is the very restrictive IT security policies than many firms enforce. While I’ve written before about the deficiencies in many firm’s information security, the need to be seen to have all systems locked-down means as well as restrictions on employee internet use (which are becoming less Draconian over time) there are pretty stringent controls on which applications can be used on mobile devices. In the age of the app, this seems to come at the expense of productivity – I certainly do much of my Twitter use remotely while walking around the building or waiting for trains. Without the ability to exploit these micro-chunks of time, the busy lawyer will find it difficult to contribute meaningfully to the marketplace.

The biggest unwritten hurdle is of course time. When the primary method of measuring lawyer performance is the chargeable hour, anything outside that category, especially something where the return on investment is less tangible, is heresy. While those who know how to use social media and can demonstrate the profile and connections they build for the firm may get some leeway to invest some time, those who are new to the game are often denied the time and encouragement to try, and it remains a mystery and missed opportunity.

The related point is the need for timeliness, and again, when lawyers are chained to Microsoft Office and their practice management system, with one eye on the clock, grabbing five minutes to check what’s going on in their network, and respond in a timely fashion to questions and comments can be doubly challenging, putting the pressure on even the most adept online legal ninja.

Now just for the record, I’m not for one minute saying that interacting with social media should take precedence over client work and critical deadlines. Holding up closing a multi-million dollar aquisition because you are engaged in a juicy debate on liability clauses on twitter is not a bright idea.

But, if law firms are going to make the most of the social media revolution, then they need to find ways to allow their best people to experiment and engage which in turn will allow their stars to shine.

I’ve no doubt as the demographics of firms continue to change and more lawyers who have grown up with social media join and have a meaningful presence, the culture will of course change. The question is, which firms can get ahead of the curve and reap the benefits before their competitors?





Can you quit your job?

24 01 2011

I got an email from Linkedin last week, letting me know that 80+ people in my network had changed jobs last year. Now aside from the fact I love these type of analytics, the email made me stop and pause for a number of reasons, not least because I myself shifted jobs.

The revolving door at Thatchwick & Partners saw lots of action last year

The trend that most intrigued me when I looked more closely at the email, was that although lawyers are undoubtedly the biggest single group of contacts I have (having worked in the profession for almost 15 years), they represented a relatively small proportion of the 80 or so people that changed job.

Why is that?

I then started to mull over why people leave jobs and why they stay.

I’d love to find some attrition statistics for the legal profession, and find out if there is less mobility than within comparable industries.

Around ten years ago, I recall there was a huge demand for mid-qualified associates (with around 5 years of experience) because this group had been the target of much of the cost-cutting that had been a feature of the previous economic downturn. As the market picked up (particularly in corporate, driven by the dotcom boom) it seemed that wages shot upwards and opportunities for lawyers in this category were plentiful.

There was much talk about how the traditional law firm model of working your way up from trainee to partner was on its way out, and the market would never be the same again. Much has been said and written about the erosion of loyalty in the workplace and the changing nature of the “psychological contract” between employer and employee generally, and although lacking hard data, I’m sure lawyers do move around far more than they used to which seems to me to be following a basic social trend in the Western world.

But is this all relative? Compared to other industries, is the legal workforce still pretty stable?

It strikes me that there could be some sensible reasons why this might be the case. Firstly the partnership model, while constantly evolving, still maintains some fundamental differences from a corporate structure. With the owners of the business able to dictate who joins “the club”, assessing potential candidates in the workplace over a sustained period of time offers the partners a way of ensuring the culture and profitability of the firm are maintained, and provides an incentive for the senior assistants to stay at the firm.

If the assistant knows they are on the partnership track, the associated rewards (be that higher remuneration, the ability to have a say in decisions, or simple status and prestige) may provide a powerful incentive to see the process through. Moving firm could simply be a passport to start that process again, but at an earlier stage.

Moving also involves risks for all concerned. The lawyer may move firm and find the grass is not always greener and not settle in the new firm. The firm might find that a new lawyer is competent, but just doesn’t fit with the culture or values of the firm. While it is certainly an oversimplification to say that lawyers are risk averse, there’s no doubt that lawyers are often immersed in risk assessment and management (of a sort) as part of their job, and decisions like career changes will undoubtedly be well thought through before being finalised.

The other angle that I wondered about, was the degree to which specialisation in large law firms works against job mobility. My own personal experience (particularly the move from private practice to in-house) made me see how the transferable skills that lawyers develop can be used effectively in many different ways in a commercial environment.

However, in private practice, the trend to specialisation usually starts right after qualification (if not during the training contract) and I can certainly understand the reason for this. If for example you are an employment lawyer, the law is so broad and so fast moving, I for one would certainly have struggled to keep at the cutting edge of a practice if I was also trying to keep abreast of changes in other areas of law (like IT/IP for example).

A consequence of this is of course that when a lawyer has been doing one type of work for five years or more, they will tend to define themselves as a particular type of lawyer (rather than look at their skills and competencies) and look for similar roles. This doesn’t cause a problem if the lawyer is happy doing this type of job (and of course many have very fulfilling careers in a single specialism), but if not, I suspect it does hamper job mobility.

The credit crunch has led to firms showing much more flexibility in retraining staff to help retain and manage their workforces, which given the cost of recruitment and the investment in training lawyers, is understandable.  It will be interesting to see if this shift has any long term impact on lawyers moving firms – perhaps working in different areas will open up new career avenues for lawyers, both inside and outside their current workplace.

With the profession facing real change from deregulation, commoditsation and globalisation, law firms are going to change and new competitors will emerge. As a consequence, new legal roles will emerge and perhaps some existing ones will change or disappear.

For what it’s worth, I think that for most organisations, getting the right balance of stable, trusted employees, and new blood with new ideas is challenging. Too much of either causes problems. Mobility within a firm can help provide flexibility here, but will be more difficult for some organisations than others.

From an individual’s perspective, I’ve always taken the view that a person’s career is their own responsibility, and it is for them to find the roles that will both satisfy and grow them.

So with that in mind, what do you think you will be doing next year?





The Great Commodity Debate

6 09 2010

Fascinating debate over the last month on the Linkedin group “Leadership for Lawyers” on Mike Ames’ discussion “Is the law becoming a commodity, and if it is, what can be done about it?”.

If you can brand and differentiate salt, legal services should be easy, right?

One of the things that immediately struck me about the comment, was the implication that commoditisation was a bad thing, and something to be resisted. By contrast, my natural inclination is that there are certain areas of law that should be commoditised, but that the inefficiency of the law firm market and the business models of firms in the market that have prevented this happening extensively so far.

However, rather than look at the rights or wrongs of commoditisation, or indeed the future impact on the profession (which is where much of the Linkedin debate focuses) I thought I’d share my thoughts on what is driving this trend.

In understanding the roots of comoditisation, Delong, Gabarro and Rees in their great book “When Professionals Have To Lead” talk about the relentless commoditisation pattern facing professional service firms, and suggest that technology is a major driver of this trend.

Another author, Dawson in his book “Developing Knowledge-Based Client Relationships: The Future of Professional Servicesargues that the main causes are in professional convergence (i.e. the blurring of boundaries between the professions) and the “unbundling” of professional services. Unbundling  occurs where new competitors, rather than competing head-to-head with incumbent firms, select a very narrow section of services and offer very focused competition; to compete the incumbents have to unbundle their service offerings. I believe this driver will become increasingly prominent as a result of both the increased deregulation in the UK market place (leading to more new market entrants) and increasingly sophisticated LPO offerings that are beginning to reach the market.

In addition to these supply-side forces, I believe much of the drive towards commoditisation comes from the demand side of the market. In particular, as a law firm client I  frequently resisted paying for services by reference to a traditional “hourly rate” on the basis that the service was now a defined offering which had a clearly identifiable market price.

Buyers of legal services are undoubtedly getting smarter (whether commercially-savvy corporate counsel or in house teams working with procurement professionals) and the push for more fixed price work in turn drives law firms to put boundaries around their services (in order to control scope and risk). The recession has heightened these buyer behaviours, and as a consequence more and more services are being “productised” into individual and standardised products, which are easy to replicate and difficult to differentiate, which in turn means the market becomes price and cost driven.

So, that’s my take on some of the drivers. What it means for the profession (both opportunities and threats) are for another day, but if the comments on this post are as rich and well thought through as those on the Linkedin discussion, I’ll be a happy man.