We first used the phrase The Social Law Firm about a year ago in a post on this blog. (You can read the original post here.) For us the phrase crystalizes an important idea and points to an emerging trend in the legal market. As law firms continue to face intense competitive pressures, the tools and techniques of social business provide a tremendous opportunity to enhance and streamline legal practice and drive organizational change. A Social Law Firm, as we conceive of it, is a firm that learns how to make effective use of social business tools and processes in order to better serve clients, make itself more nimble and responsive to rapidly changing market conditions.
In this week’s blog post we’ll briefly summarize the extent to which the concept of the Social Law Firm has gained a foothold in the market to date and also identify the major obstacles we see to the concept’s further advancement.
Soon after that first blog post we undertook some market research (with our media partners at Above the Law) in order to assess the current state of law firm usage of social media and the extent to which firms have begun deploying other forms of social business technology. We focused our attention initially on the top-end of the market by surveying the 50 largest American law firms. Our research clearly established that large law firms are at the very early stages of the social business adoption cycle, which is characterized by a nearly universal recognition among the survey set of the growing importance of social technologies, however usage is limited almost exclusively to external marketing purposes and is still by and large ineffective in terms of achieving meaningful reach and engagement. (You can find the full results of our research here.)
We followed up on the initial survey by taking a closer look at a few select firms that have undertaken more ambitious social business initiatives. If nothing else, this further research has confirmed our initial hypothesis – that social business tools do in fact provide a powerful means to streamline and reinvent legal practice. We’ve had a chance to observe first hand several instances in which leading lawyers have begun to transform their practices by tightly integrating social business technology into their day-to-day working routines. We’ve written up the results of this recent research in the form of case studies that will be featured in our new report that’s going to be published by the Ark Group next month.
But notwithstanding these clear signs of progress, the legal market still lags far behind the broader corporate marketplace in terms of the current level of social business deployment. Those law firms that have undertaken social business initiatives still seem to be at a relatively early stage, experimenting in a particular practice group or department, but still not ready to contemplate developing a social business strategy on a firm wide basis, let alone being ready to implement it.
Generally we see three significant barriers that continue to act as a drag on the rate of social business adoption in the legal market.
- Lack of vender support: The legal market continues to be something of a backwater as far as most of the major technology venders in the social business category are concerned. Platform companies like Salesforce.com, Jive and IBM have so far devoted only limited attention and resources to niche vertical markets such as legal, focusing instead on the broader corporate marketplace. At the same time, most legal software venders have yet to develop a social component to their software product or service offerings.
- Lack of internal law firm champions: There also seems to be a paucity of champions within large law firms who are actively pushing for the development of a social business strategy. On the technology side, we don’t see much evidence that CTO’s, CIO’s or even CKO’s have devoted much time or energy to rolling out social business initiatives. Law firm CMO’s have been more active in the social arena but their energies have by and large been directed to tactical considerations, such as developing LinkedIn profiles for lawyers, rather than developing a strategic social or digital vision for the whole firm.
- The potential clash between social business methodology and traditional law firm culture: We continue to hear arguments from folks we know inside large law firms claiming that traditional law firm culture is fundamentally incompatible with the values promoted by a social business agenda. This line of reasoning seems to rest at bottom on the notion that lawyers are not very social, either by instinct or training, and therefore are disinclined to collaborate or interact with clients or colleagues in a more transparent fashion. Since we are not aware of any large law firm that has successfully implemented a firm-wide social business strategy, we lack empirical evidence to argue otherwise.
So that is the state of the legal market as we see it today. The concept of the Social Law Firm remains very much a work-in-progress; large firms are mostly at an early stage of information gathering, with some active but limited experimentation being undertaken in a handful of places, to test the waters of social business tools and techniques.
Meanwhile, at Good2bSocial we are doing whatever we can to reduce the barriers in the legal market in order to promote faster law firm adoption of social business practices. We are currently working with leading social software venders to bring best of breed products into the legal market. And through our upcoming calendar of publications and seminars, we hope to expand the audience and level of law firm interest in social business practices.
And as for the potential conflict between traditional law firm culture and social business practices, this is a topic that we intend to discuss further in the coming weeks and months. The short answer is that we think the legal profession is ripe for transformational change, like it or not. Resistance, such as it is, may very well prove futile.