How to Build Great Professional Relationships Online

The Best of Law Practice Today. This article originally appeared in the December 2013 issue of LPT (The New Parnter Issue). With the significant expansion of our subscriber audience since July 2014, we thought our new readers would enjoy reading an earlier feature that you may have missed.

 The dynamic nature of the Internet presents an ongoing challenge for lawyers. With the emergence of social media and other online networks, lawyers are confronted with a plethora of marketing options. Many lawyers may be wondering whether they should invest their time and resources in building their online social networks on LinkedIn, Facebook or Google+.

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While these three sites are all social media networks, they offer different features, and possess unique strengths and weaknesses. Legal professionals can foster relationships with current clients and connect with new ones through building individual and company profiles on each of them—with some proper precautions

LinkedIn

With over 200 million active monthly users, LinkedIn caters to people seeking to expand their professional networks. LinkedIn’s strength is its exclusive focus on the business community. Whether you are looking for a law school classmate or an executive at a business, LinkedIn should be your first destination. On LinkedIn, users can find other professionals by name, job title, or company.

Follow these tips to leverage the benefits that LinkedIn provides.

Complete your individual profile.

Register for and complete a free individual profile. Providing detailed information on your education, experience, and skills & expertise, can help persons with similar backgrounds or interests find you. List each of your practice areas, and offer examples of representative clients and past successes (if allowed under state bar rules).

Start making connections.

Connect with people you know, local businesses you patronize , government representatives, and as many lawyers as you can. The larger your professional network, the more effectively LinkedIn will serve you as a tool for attracting clients. Connecting with other lawyers is the key to referrals, since many people will ask a lawyer they already know for a referral. Do not underestimate the ability of lawyer-to-lawyer connections to drive referrals.

Whenever you attend a meeting or a conference, invite the people you meet to connect on LinkedIn. Connecting with lawyers you work with, as well as opposing counsel, can help grow and diversify your network.

Establish a company profile for your firm.

LinkedIn is one of several companies that may supplant the local telephone directory. As consumers and businesses increasingly turn to online resources to find lawyers and other service providers, having a company page on LinkedIn becomes even more important.  Law firms should maintain an up-to-date LinkedIn profile that describes the firm and the services provided.  Even solo practitioners can benefit from a separate business profile to promote their entire practice.

Creating a company profile requires an email address from your own domain. So, lawyer@mylawfirm.com may be used to create a company page, but  lawyer@gmail.com may not. If you do not have your own email domain, LinkedIn advises you to create a group instead of a company page. (See more about groups below).

Build your community.

Because LinkedIn has been embraced by many employees and executives from technology companies, lawyers who practice corporate, employment, and intellectual property law may be especially able to connect with potential business clients through LinkedIn.

Even if you practice criminal law or family law, LinkedIn offers many opportunities to develop your practice, because it hosts a diverse legal community that transcends practice areas and jurisdictions. One method to reach other professionals is to join a LinkedIn group. In particular, join your college and law school alumni groups, as well as any groups focused on your practice area or other subjects of interest.

You also can start your own group, which requires quite a bit more work than simply joining one. If you start your own group, you will need to grow your base of users by actively participating and answering questions posted by group members. You may realize more value for your time by participating in existing groups that already have a large number of members than by starting a new community.

Facebook

Facebook has long been popular as a site for sharing personal information.  With the expansion of Facebook into the commercial space, businesses have flocked to Facebook to market to its growing population. Lawyers may consider joining Facebook as well by building a law firm business page.

Clients and associates can “like” your firm page and increase your visibility among their friends and similar users.

Be careful when posting online.

While Facebook may appear as an online analogue for your real-life relationships, it does bear some significant differences. First, instead of speaking to someone one-on-one, you may be broadcasting to a wide audience. Secondly, Facebook updates leave an electronic paper trail that off-line casual conversations do not.  Finally, it is extremely easy for a friend to “share” your message, such that it reaches outside your immediate circle of “friends.”

So, if you choose to use Facebook, be judicious in your posts and comments. If you post about a negative encounter with a judge, for example, you may later regret it when your words get back to the judge—as they almost inevitably will, given the nature of social media. If you cannot filter your online conversations, then do not get a Facebook account, as the potential damage of one lapse in judgment far outweighs the benefits of the network. Relatedly, exercise discretion about what photos you post, or allow others to post and tag you in. Once something is online, it rarely ever disappears completely.

If you decide to be Facebook friends with current or potential clients, be extra careful what you post. For instance, if you serve clients with diverse political views, it would be wise to avoid posting political satire, sarcasm, or other potentially offensive material. Sports and pets tend to be safe bets for postings that do not offend, or offend in a playful way.

Complete your profile.

As with LinkedIn, complete your profile as much as possible. At the very least, provide your work and education details. You can also include personal information if you want, keeping in mind that clients and prospective clients may have access to all of the information you provide.

Set up a Facebook business page.

A Facebook business page for your law firm lets you communicate with the Facebook community as an organization. You should post content that is informative, interesting, and engaging for clients, prospective clients, and peers.

Once users “like” your Facebook page, your posts will automatically appear on their Facebook wall. Additionally, if your content is particularly compelling, users may choose to “share” your content with their network of friends. The power of its network and the opportunity for engagement are Facebook’s main strengths.

Building your Facebook community.

Use Facebook to build and connect with your community, which may include other businesses, local groups or organizations, sports teams, etc. “Like” other local business pages, and participate on pages of community groups. Your participation is often shared with others who “like” those pages, and those interactions remain online, so even if they are not seen right away, they may be seen later. Meaningful involvement in local affairs, even if that means simply commenting on posts relevant to you personally or professionally, can demonstrate a commitment to your community and appeal to prospective clients in your area. If nothing else, it increases the visibility of your name, which can go a long way in attracting new clients. Facebook is stronger for building local connections than LinkedIn.

In general, lawyers who have consumer clients that require repeat services or are connected to other potential clients benefit the most from having a Facebook page. For example, estate-planning lawyers can comment about interesting cases and changes in the tax law that affect their clientele.  Prior clients may seek updates to their plans based on changes in the law that they learned about through following your Facebook updates.

The sheer number of active users on Facebook makes it an attractive social network for lawyers seeking to expand their marketing efforts. However, remember that Facebook relationships are built upon engagement and mutuality; mere presence is simply not enough.

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Google+

Google+ is Google’s foray into the social networking space. Like the other networks, Google+ allows you to create a public profile, post and view updates and photos, and connect with people you know. Google+ is similar to a combination of Facebook and Twitter. It is like Facebook in that you can view others’ posts as a news stream with graphics and text, and like Twitter in that people can unilaterally choose to follow the updates of others on the network (in Google+ this is called adding someone to a circle).

While Google+ does not attract as many active users as Facebook, the network offers other important benefits. Setting up a Google+ profile can impact how Google presents your Web pages or blog posts in its search results. This is a compelling reason to be on Google+.  For example, if you publish an article online with the appropriate authorship markup, Google will display your Google+ profile picture and name next to the article in its search results. Associating your Google+ profile with your blog or Website can distinguish the appearance of your content from other search results, leading to more attention and visitor traffic.

As with LinkedIn and Facebook, be sure to completely fill out your Google+ profile, and make sure that at least your name, location, work, and education can be seen by anyone by setting it to “public.” Also make sure to include links to all of your other individual online profiles, as well as other online media properties to which you contribute.

Similarly to LinkedIn, Google+ sees the highest use by employees and executives in the technology sector, and thus technology- and IP-focused law firms stand to benefit most from this network. However, attorneys in all practice areas should take advantage of Google+ for its authorship and search benefits.

Finally, Google is also integrating Google+ with Google Places and Maps. It is important that you claim and fill out your Google+ business page with information about your practice.  You should also associate your Google+ business page with your website to share “+1s” between the two.

Conclusion

The most important factor in successful social media marketing is to build a relationship with your audience. With LinkedIn, your audience may be your peers, and your goal is to portray yourself as an authority in your fields. With Facebook, your audience can be a mix of professional peers and clients; with that in mind, you should focus on being professional, thoughtful, and approachable. Regardless of the medium, remember that genuine interactions with others are key to building and maintaining positive relationships, and these types of relationships will be the ones that drive business.

About the Authors

Ken Chan and David Kemp are columnists and Tim Stanley is the CEO of Justia, the free legal information company.

(Image Credit: ShutterStock)

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