law firm content marketing

Can a Law Firm Become a Social Business?

by Guy Alvarez • May 21st, 2013 • Social Business | Blog
law firms and social business
LordKhan / / CC BY-NC-ND

A couple of weeks ago, I had an opportunity to speak on a panel at Business Development Institute‘s Social Media Marketing Summit for Law Firms. It was a very well executed event with approximately 200 law firm professionals in attendance.

The panel I spoke at was the last session of the day, so I spent the earlier part of the day listening attentively to other speakers present and field questions from the audience. The conference had a good balance of presenters; the CMO from an Amlaw 100 law firm, the CMO of a mid size firm and a solo patent law practitioner. In addition, there was also a presentation from John Corey, founding partner of Greentarget, a PR agency who presented the results of the 2013 In-house Counsel New Media Engagement Survey and another from Scott Mozarsky, EVP and Chief Commercial Officer at PR Newswire.

As I sat there and listened to the presentations and questions from the audience, I started to wonder whether a law firm, of any size or specialty area, has the organizational capacity to become a social business. Before I answer that question, let me first explain what I mean by a social business. IBM defines a Social Business as “a business that embraces networks of people to create business value. Social businesses embrace technology to enhance relationships between employees, customers, and partners. They augment business processes and applications with social interactions and insight. They provide integrated activities that use business data and social data. Social businesses more fully integrate the collective knowledge of people-centric networks to accelerate decision-making, strengthen business processes, and increase innovation that matters.”

Yes, that is quite a mouthful and a somewhat difficult concept to understand. The way I explain social business to my clients is simply, “a business that leverages social technologies and processes to connect with their employees, customers and partners.” In other words, a social business is any business or organization that learns to use social tools to enhance the way work gets done and to connect with employees, customers and partners. At the core of this concept is the idea that by using social tools, businesses will be able to change the way that they work, their business culture, to a more collaborative culture that is less focused on departments, functions and organizational hierarchies. In a social business, the focus is less on title and role and more on teamwork and cooperation. In a social business the culture is one of transparency, knowledge sharing and allowing every employee in an organization to have a voice.

Lets see…. openness, transparency, knowledge sharing, collaboration… Are those words you would usually associate with a law firm? Probably not. Yet that doesn’t necessarily mean that law firms and social business can’t go together. It all comes down to leadership. All it takes is for one managing partner of a firm to convince his fellow partners that becoming a social business is the direction they want to go. Once that decision is made, then everything else can fall into place.

For example, a major bank, just like a law firm, does not seem like the kind of organization that would embrace the concepts of transparency and openness that are necessary to become a social business. Banks are in a highly regulated industry, where data security and strict business processes are required. Yet, that didn’t stop TD Bank, one of the ten largest banks in the U.S., from becoming  a social business. Wendy Arnott, the VP of Social Media and Corporate Communication for TD Bank, was put in charge of the social business transformation at TD Bank and has accomplished amazing results in a short period of time. Wendy recently described what her experience at TD Bank was like in an interview and listed five best practices to help any organization that is looking to become a social business:

  1. Leadership commitment is crucial. Without strong support at the top, this can’t be done. In our case, the entire Senior Executive Team believed in and supported the concept from the beginning.
  2. Dedicated social business team. Someone should be waking up every morning thinking about how to make this a success.
  3. Great partnerships. Things don’t just “happen” at a large organization. Many groups need to be at the table — including Legal, Compliance, HR, Communications, Privacy and Marketing. And one of the biggest and most important partners is IT
  4. Know it is about transformational change. It will rock the boat, you can expect resistance. To build support and foster lasting adoption devote resources. Get into the weeds with some business teams – help them discover how social will address business challenges and how to get started. Then showcase their success – so it can be leveraged by others.
  5. Leverage your employees. They get it and they can advocate on a larger scale more quickly. TD Bank created a volunteer Genius team and provided them with special resources. They helped lead the change.

So, if a bank can do it, why can’t a law firm do it? They key is a commitment by leadership. If the leadership team of a law firm commits to this type of business transformation, then it becomes a real possibility and the likelihood of success increases. Law firms, just like banks, are very conservative in their approach and many still are not convinced that social media delivers any real value to their organization. This became even more apparent to me as I listened to the questions that were being asked at the BDI conference.

The disparity between law firms and social business is that most law firms are not even aware of what a social business is, let alone whether they believe the concept can work for their firm. Law firms are still struggling with figuring what social media marketing is and what type of ROI they can expect.

What most firms fail to understand however is that social business encompasses much more than just the marketing function. A well executed social business strategy can affect many functions within a law firm including: practice development, HR and recruiting, operations, business development and client relations.

So why should a law firm care about becoming a social business? Why should they invest time, money and effort into re-engineering their business processes and cultures? The answer actually is rather simple: Because their clients are doing it!

That’s correct, many of the leading companies in the world are investing heavily in social business re-engineering. Companies like IBM, Burberry, P&G, Toshiba, Citi, Verizon, Dell, Rossignol, Walgreens and many others are leading the race to become social businesses. The leaders of each of these companies have realized the tremendous business benefits that come with becoming a social business. These companies realize that investing in social tools and change management efforts can deliver real business values including efficiency, speed to market, innovation and enhanced relationships with their customers and partners. It is only a matter of time before these companies expect and demand that the outside law firms they choose to do business with also operate as social businesses themselves.

Clients are not the only reason law firms should be seriously considering becoming a social business. They should also consider the future. In a few years millennials, also known as Generation Y will encompass seventy percent of the world’s workforce. Millennials are also frequently referred to as Generation C. The C stands for connected. The reason is this demographic has grown up in a connected world. Everything they do, the way they live, revolves around mobility, connectivity and social networks. They expect to find the same type of culture and connectivity at their place of work. Therefore, law firms interested in recruiting the leading legal talent in the future will need to make sure that their culture and tools are aligned with what millennials have come to expect in their lives.

Recruiting is only part of the value that a social business can offer law firms when it comes to new associates. On-boarding new associates and providing them with the professional development they need is one of the many benefits a social business infrastructure can offer. Law firms can use of enterprise social networks to create “newbie” communities where on-demand learning and mentorship opportunities become available to them without interrupting the daily course of business. Equally as important is the ability to search for and locate expertise across the firm, making it easier for young associates to find guidance and answers to questions they may have and enable them to tap into a law firm’s tacit organizational knowledge.

Another major advantage of adopting a social business framework is the ability for law firms to provide ongoing thought leadership and value to its clients. Law firms are able to create virtual collaboration spaces with their clients where they can frequently publish and curate content that is relevant to each particular client. This type of interaction helps insure that the relationship between lawyers and their clients is one that relies on trust and value rather than just merely a transactional type of relationship. The role of the lawyer as the trusted advisor is strengthened in a social business environment in an era where legal services are increasingly viewed as a commodity.

When you consider the value and benefits a social business model can bring to a law firm, why is it that no law firms that I know of have considered re-engineering their firm into a social business? I think there are two primary reasons for this: 1- Law firms tend to be laggards. They wait and see what is working in corporate america and then once it has been tried and tested they will dip their toe in. 2- The corporate culture within a law firm tends to be one of knowledge hoarding vs knowledge sharing. One of the key benefits of a social business in the level of transparency  that can be achieved. While most corporations welcome transparency, law firms are not all that comfortable with this concept. Most law firms tend to work in silos; by department, practice area or in some instances industry groups. A social business in the opposite of working in silos. A social business as I wrote above is about openness, collaboration and team work.

It will be interesting to see over the coming months or even years which law firms choose to re-engineer themselves as social business. Those that do will have a distinct competitive advantage and they will be able to form strong connections with  their employees, customers and partners. Those firms that don’t may find themselves struggling to survive.

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