It’s easy to use Twitter poorly, something millions of users demonstrate every day by updating their followers about what they’re doing, thinking or feeling at any given moment. There are extremely few people whose opinions and emotions are so compelling and central to the public good that we should hang on every character (up to 140) in which they’re detailed. The interest and utility of a Twitter account can be measured inverse to its focus on the Twitterer himself or herself. A good Twitter account talks about and links to things that matter to its readers, the same as a good blog or a good newspaper does; a lousy one assumes that the reason you’re following it is because you’re deeply, intimately interested in what the Twitterer is, says or does.

Law firms, unfortunately, are doing a lousy job with Twitter, every day, in growing numbers. I’ve reviewed dozens of law firm Twitter accounts, some owned by global giants and some by midsize or smaller operations, and in almost every instance I’ve come away shaking my head. Here’s what a typical law firm Twitter account contains:

  • copied-and-pasted headlines from the firm’s press releases, with a link thereto;
  • copied-and-pasted headlines from the firm’s newsletters or blogs, with a link thereto;
  • news that a lawyer at the firm has appeared in a media outlet, with a link thereto;
  • news that a lawyer at the firm has received an award or designation, with a link thereto;
  • news that the firm has successfully completed a client engagement, with a link thereto.

The firm’s Twitter feed is essentially a 140-character encapsulation and rebroadcast of its Media Page – and as a former member of the journalistic cabal, I can tell you that the Media Page is generally the most useless page on a law firm website, even (especially) for the media. These Twitter feeds assume that you, the reader, care exclusively about what the law firm and its lawyers are doing or saying. Even the happiest and most satisfied law firm client, though, would probably not derive much value out of a channel that features exactly one program, 24/7.

These firms aren’t setting out to appear narcissistic and self-aggrandising on purpose, even though that’s often the effect. What these results often reflect is the firms’ confusion about exactly what their Twitter feeds are supposed to be doing – why their firms are on Twitter at all. That’s understandable, because Twitter is so new and is still evolving, and most firms aren’t yet equipped to cope with online social media anyway. But it’s still no reason to Twitter incessantly about oneself – or, as a few of the largest law firms in Canada and the US are doing, to create a Twitter account and leave it completely blank.

A good law firm Twitter feed keeps two things in mind: (1) it’s all about the clients, and (2) it’s not all about the firm. Updates deliver breaking news of interest to the firm’s clientele, or provide links to reports of interest and importance to clients’ industries, or spread the word about upcoming events and opportunities that could deliver value to clients. They RT (re-”tweet” – I’ll only use that verb in quotation marks) good updates from other Twitter accounts, ensuring that all the links in such RTs are valid and respectable. They follow the feeds of other Twitter users they like, and of the clients and potential clients they hope (but are certainly not entitled to expect) will follow them back.

Here what’s critically important: not all of the reports and events that appear in a firm’s Twitter stream need to be (or should be) firm-sponsored or firm-delivered. If you restrict your links to firm news and events, you’re doing two things: you’re drastically restricting the scope and value of your Twitter feed to your readers, and you’re pretending that your clients live in a hermetically sealed environment where they don’t know about, can’t get, and wouldn’t want to hear about anything other than Wonderful You. That’s not how the world works.

More importantly, it’s not how social media works either. The open exchange of news, ideas, opinions and insights, conducted freely in order to share value and deepen knowledge, is at the heart of systems like Twitter. If something is good, you spread the word about it, regardless of where it came from, because your goal is that those who listen to you are enriched for doing so. So if there’s something in theTimes or Guardian that your desired reader base would be interested in, share it and link to it. The same applies to particular accounts on Twitter that consistently deliver value: share them and link to them. The same applies, dare I say it, to your competitors: if a rival firm has a really incisive analysis of new legislation, think long and hard before deciding that your readers, your clients, and your potential clients don’t need to know about it. Think of what that says about you and the confidence you have in your own work.

Yes, there should always be updates in a firm’s Twitter feed that link to what the firm itself is saying or doing; a law firm is not a disinterested publishing house. But these should be the exceptions more than the rule – the change-of-pace, the commercial breaks in between the regular programming. And they should be marked as such: a firm-centric Twitter update should be prefaced with something like “New at [firm name]:”, so that the reader instantly knows that he or she is being referred to the firm’s own site, not somewhere else. The overall effect is that the Twitter feed is a micro-publishing entity, one driven by the interests of the audience but “brought to you by” the law firm. That’s a publishing and broadcasting model people recognise and understand.

As with Facebook, there are rare instances of firms that use Twitter well; they tend to be smaller firms that specialise in particular areas of law. I haven’t seen any large firm Twitter feeds I could recommend, but in fairness, when your client base is essentially “everyone,” it’s difficult to have a coherent editorial strategy for your social media communications. The big-firm practice groups I’ve seen on Twitter, though, could do better.

As I say, it’s still early days yet for Twitter and especially for law firm ventures into this still-evolving space. I’ve yet to see a law firm break out and become a trailblazer on Twitter, in terms of setting a new standard for law firm Twitter use that changes the way we all think about this new medium. There’s no reason, as of right now, that your firm can’t be the one that does it.

Jordan Furlong is an award-winning blogger who chronicles the extraordinary changes under way in the practice of law at Law21. He is a partner with Edge International, providing consulting services to law firms on strategic planning and tactical matters and a Senior Consultant with Stem Legal.

Email jordan@law21.ca.

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