A decade ago, European lawyers viewed marketing and advertising as one and the same. Because the latter was banned by the national bar associations across Europe, marketing was considered a similarly disgraceful subject. Law was not to be marketed and sold. Lawyers, like doctors, were scholars and craftsmen. Clients were the ones looking for them, not the other way around. Websites were, when existing at all, mere shop windows. Word of mouth was the only marketing acceptable to national bar associations, though it was not done by them but by their clients.
For comparison’s sake, consider that the US Legal Marketing Association was created in 1985. Things are very different on the other side of the Atlantic!
When social media arrived in Europe, it brought a revolution in the legal industry commensurate with changes seen in any other sector.
Lawyers, like most professional groups, started to use social media as a learning device, a means of keeping abreast of important news, legal developments, and government initiatives. It also helped break down barriers within Europe, familiarizing many with European institutions, their decisions, and the reactions they generated in member states.
In this first stage of the social media adoption lawyers used it merely as an informative, mostly unidirectional, resource. But this primary function was the cornerstone of its acceptance as a reliable source of knowledge. This was a very important stepping stone on the path to full use and acceptance of social media, especially for the ever-conservative lawyers.
Lawyers in continental Europe gained access to what was invented abroad, especially in the UK, the US, Canada and Australia. Services like LinkedIn, Twitter and YouTube enabled lawyers to read, watch and learn about legal marketing. They could also easily monitor what their competitors did. For those who understood English, new ideas and enforceable practices were just one click away. These lawyers began to see legal marketing not only as not contrary to the legal ethics rules but necessary for any legal practitioner. Many lawyers and firms eventually came to understand that legal marketing was not only beneficial for them, but also for their clients, because it forced lawyers to put clients at the center of the firm’s activity.
The economic crisis in the later part of the last decade deeply affected the legal industry, and convinced even the most reticent-to-change lawyer that something proactive had to be done to attract and retain clients.
The second stage of social media adoption occurred when European lawyers – now conscious about the virtues of marketing – decided to apply the theories they’d learned on social media to their legal practices.
Many of them, boosted by all they had read on social media about legal marketing, decided to go out there and finally “sell themselves,” attending events, organizing seminars for clients as soon as a new reform was passed, religiously sending an electronic newsletter every month with a bunch of long, in-depth articles, most of them impossible to understand for any non-lawyer, and a host of other well-intentioned if not slightly poorly executed marketing efforts.
And yet, this stage did not quite represent the blending of the physical and virtual worlds. Lawyers took knowledge from social media to use in their marketing, but didn’t integrate information into it – the “engagement” that is so fundamental to social media use was still missing for European lawyers. Besides, lawyers lost a huge amount of time, energy and money preparing and attending all the networking events. Most of them did it in a clumsy, unfocused fashion, so the results they were longing for did not arrive. The problem was that these activities were not client-centered, they were self-centered. The word in French for this type of behavior is “nombrilisme.” It could be translated into English as “belly-buttonism.”
Finally, in the third phase of social media adoption by European lawyers, they began to understand that social media itself was an amazing tool to market a legal brand, a law firm and a legal person, also known as a “lawyer.” Blogs, websites and networks quickly replaced the traditional paperback monthly publications for lawyers, and they realized that well-focused social media relationships were much more constructive and efficient than attending all kinds of cocktail meetings and events. They understood social media in itself was a good place to talk, to exchange and even to meet people.
With very few exceptions, European lawyers have not benefited from any commercial and business development training at the university; however they now feel quite comfortable with social media. Adoption has been so enthusiastic that social media is the favorite marketing tool of lawyers in most European countries. Here are a few of the reasons:
- If used correctly, social media engagement is not an “obvious” sales call to action, which most European lawyers are still reluctant to do.
- Social media allows European lawyers to reach potential clients abroad, alleviating geographic boundaries that previously prohibited international business development.
- European lawyers can easily network with firms and lawyers from other European jurisdictions on social media. This is very useful, especially for the large number of firms in the process of broadening their international reach.
- The flexibility provided by social media perfectly suits their busy – and often hectic – life: preparing a post on a tablet while waiting to appear before a court, denouncing the precarity of the tribunals on Twitter, sending their LinkedIn groups a link to the new article they have written for a prestigious magazine after dinner, announcing a favorable judgment they have just received from a judge, etc.
Social media has awoken the dormant commercial gene of European lawyers. While most of the law firms are still not ready (yet) to hire professional sales persons for their organizations, European lawyers who use social media feel empowered to actively engage in business development. They are now aware that their virtual self is very valuable for marketing and they have started to understand and use it.
In short, the three stages of social media adoption among European lawyers have insured that social media is in the European legal industry to stay. It is being used both to learn about legal marketing and to practice it. This twofold use of social media has made the lawyers very much aware of the importance of user experience: they’re moving, albeit slowly, from “belly-buttonism” to client-centrism.
But there’s always room for improvement!
The legal marketing industry in Europe is now mature enough to enter a fourth stage where three main issues are tantamount:
- The first is the need to avoid infoxication. European lawyers need to understand the potentially thin boundary between being interesting and being noisy in social media. Lawyers on any continent must not forget that being a good listener is one trait a lawyer should never lose.
- The second issue is the relationship between one’s social media persona and the physical one. While some firms have developed a interesting virtual brand that far exceeds their material one, others have not adopted social media at all; their material brand is weakened by the absence of a virtual presence. A number of European law firms are harmonizing their digital identity with their physical one.
- The third issue is differentiation. Early on, merely being on social media was enough to gain visibility. Now lawyers provide original and fresh content in order to bring added value to their social media presence.
Let’s see how European lawyers ride the social media wave during the next few months.
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