LinkedIn for law firms

Speaking generally, I’m much less bullish on what LinkedIn can do for law firms than what either Facebook or Twitter can offer. I’ve come to view those as dynamic platforms that offer interesting and even exciting possibilities for law firms to tell their stories and shape their online personas. LinkedIn, by contrast, is more a place where your firm should have a presence, in order to cover off all your online networking bases and to support your individual lawyers who are generating contacts. But it’s more limited in its scope and in the benefits it can deliver. LinkedIn is a place you need to be; Facebook and Twitter are places where you want to be.

LinkedIn’s enterprise vehicle, how corporations and organisations appear on the site, is the Company Profile. Take a couple of examples: British Airways and Simmons & Simmons. Click through to view them, and the first thing you’re likely to notice is that they look pretty much exactly the same. LinkedIn doesn’t provide the ability to customise the appearance or even, from what I can tell, the functionality of each Profile: they’re all very slight variations on a single template. That probably has its advantages, but saying something interesting or differentiating your firm isn’t one of them.

Moreover, the features that the Company Profile does offer won’t provide a great deal of value to law firms in terms of generating client interest. Once you get past the Overview tab at the top (which in most cases reproduces or summarises the “About Us” page of the firm’s website), the Company Profile splits into two columns, one focused on individuals within the firm and the other focused on the firm itself. Leaving aside the former for a moment, the latter provides information like number of offices, headquarters location, industry (“law practice” – who’d have guessed?), number of employees, and year of founding, data that qualifies more as trivia than actionable knowledge. “Common job titles” hardly varies from firm to firm, “top schools” matters not even slightly to clients, and “median age” is not only useless but also misleading – is the median age at ABC & Co really 29? That illustrates a fundamental drawback: these aren’t statistics about the firm itself, but rather about those members of the firm with LinkedIn accounts.

Turn back to the first column, where the focus is on individuals, and you do get some more interesting information – although not necessarily the kind the firms will enjoy. “Current Employees” is helpful for finding out which members of the firm are in your LinkedIn network (and it can be amusing, in a Six Degrees of Separation way, to see how many different people connect you to a given law firm). “New Hires” is nice-to-know information, nothing more – any really important talent acquisition will have been trumpeted elsewhere. “Former Employees” can be more illuminating – in our highly mobile profession, it’s interesting to see who used to work where – but it also serves as a public display of Who’s Left The Firm, and that may not be something a firm likes having advertised. (The “Activity” tab at the top of the page is even more problematic: I saw one firm’s “Activity” page that consisted entirely of people who’d left the firm, sometimes for rivals.)

These differences bring out an important point: LinkedIn is a social network built primarily for individuals, not businesses. The focus, the connections, and the interesting facts are about specific lawyers and other professionals within a firm, not the firm itself. The firm is noteworthy only as the common denominator that these particular LinkedIn members share for the moment. Now, that might in fact reflect reality to an uncomfortable degree in many firms, but it doesn’t serve any organisational interest to emphasise it. As with blogs, LinkedIn is first and foremost an individual vehicle, not an enterprise one. It’s hard to use LinkedIn to advance your firm’s profile or to engage your clients – to communicate as a “firm qua firm” – in a substantial way.

LinkedIn’s real problem, in this sense, is that it doesn’t offer companies much more functionality than they can get from their own web page or, increasingly, from Facebook. A firm’s home page communicates far more information about the firm in a much more engaging, unique format – most law firm LinkedIn pages feature excerpts from the firm’s home page. A greater challenge is coming from Facebook, which as I’ve noted before, is taking business users far more seriously these days. There’s not much that a company can do on LinkedIn that it can’t do on Facebook, and there are a growing number of things it can do on Facebook that LinkedIn just isn’t built for. It reminds me of Homer Simpson’s complaint when he learned he had to travel to Canada: “We already live in America. Why do we have to go to America Junior?”

Despite all my foregoing issues with LinkedIn and law firms, I still do counsel firms to create a Company Profile on LinkedIn – but I do so with the caveat that they’re covering off a potential liability rather more than opening up intriguing new frontiers. I can almost guarantee that, no matter what size your firm, at least some of your employees have LinkedIn accounts (one million lawyers populate the network, at last count). If the firm for which they work doesn’t also have a LinkedIn account connected to their pages, then they’re essentially orphans, and that’s a problem. Your firm isn’t getting any of the network benefit of having its employees build profiles and make connections – all the potential clients and recruits and recommenders that they’re acquiring aren’t able to link through to your firm and learn more about it. Not only that, these connections, all of whom are themselves evidently adept at social media, draw adverse conclusions about your firm from its absence on LinkedIn, and could well transfer some of those inferences to your employees.

Certain benefits can be gleaned from maintaining and paying attention to a Company Profile for your firm: inter alia, using the new “Follow” feature to monitor what your corporate clients are up to; using the “Answers” feature to promote your firm’s expertise and find potential lateral recruits; using the “Buzz” feature to see what people are saying about your firm. Adrian Lurssen at JD Scoop links to several useful articles about how lawyers can maximise LinkedIn’s potential. And it’s true that while Facebook is coming on strong, many are still very uncomfortable using the same platform both to conduct business and to check in on their teenagers.

So LinkedIn is useful for law firms (and very useful, I still think, for individual lawyers). But overall, I’d still place it third behind Facebook and Twitter as a social media platform with the potential to power up your firm’s online presence and tell an effective and unique story. The irony is that the conventional wisdom describes Facebook as the frivolous personal site and LinkedIn as the serious business one. But Facebook is figuring out ways to let companies and organisations carve out their own identities and communicate as stand-alone entities, whereas LinkedIn still appears to be the sum of its individual member parts and not too much more. Both platforms are still evolving, of course, and this battle is far from over, but I think LinkedIn has some work to do.

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.