I like the LinkedIn group for the Law Society Gazette. It’s a forum for lively debate between solicitors of every background and point of view, about any legal practice-related issues they feel like airing. It attracts, mostly, genuinely interesting and useful contributions. There’s never been anything quite like it (the letters page of the Gazette itself has always been dominated by Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells) and something like this has been much needed. We can all learn from each-other, not least from those we mostly disagree with. We all face some serious common challenges and the profession badly needs to find a sense of common identity and purpose.

Needless to say the group has its share of law firm consultants, showing off to potential clients. Mostly they offer good sense. It’s also heavy on garrulous, opinionated, media-savvy, entrepreneurial lawyers mostly running their own law firms quite successfully with shrewd use of IT – which is great. What is really peculiar, though, is the almost total absence (really, almost total) of lawyers from the bigger law firms – of just the kind of lawyer, in fact, who’s glued to a Blackberry and most at ease, in other respects, with social networking online.

So where are the big firm lawyers? And the in-house lawyers, come to that? Do they engage with the legal community online in other ways? Or not at all? And if not, why not?

They talk on Rollon Friday, of course, but anonymously, monosyllabically and mostly about social trivia. Indeed they probably engage online socially in myriad ways.

There are also online opportunities to comment on the latest news, through journals like The Lawyer, Legal Week and the Gazette. But the journal websites don’t allow you to start a discussion yourself, merely to react to news. And most reaction is, needless to say, of the harrumphing variety.

Rather more interesting is Legal Innovation, another LinkedIn group. Its membership is pretty global, in-house as well as private practice, and includes senior opinion formers such as Stephen Mayson (who also contributes to the Gazette group).

I’m a corporate lawyer and it’s all to the good – for corporate entities, not just for me – if I can hear feedback from them about what’s good and what’s not in the provision of legal service to them. So the Legal Innovation group is welcome. As no doubt would be the Legal Week LinkedIn group – if they would let me in. Disappointingly, they want only to talk to other in-house lawyers. I know how they feel, having once worked in-house myself: it can be mildly annoying being courted all the time by private practice lawyers desperate for your business. But it’s also an opportunity both to learn from private practice (free) and to influence them in your own interests, so any risk of annoyance is worth overcoming.

More helpful is Legal OnRamp, which describes itself (accurately) as “a collaboration system for in-house counsel and invited outside lawyers and third party service providers”. It’s tough for “outside” lawyers to get in, but the quality of content is well worth the effort. The group is well managed, and it’s noticeable that involving both in-house and outside counsel is key to the standard of debate. Heavily US-biased, though.

There are other LinkedIn groups, but not (so far as I’ve noticed) with the critical mass to make for a lively debating forum. And there are channels such as Twitter, but anchored to particular lawyers or law firms. Again, no opportunity to debate an issue of your own choice with a wide cross-section of the legal community.

What’s the problem?

In my explorations of the web for stimulating debate between solicitors on the big practice issues of the day I’ve found in-house counsel talking to each other, but mostly not letting outside lawyers participate.

I’ve not found the bigger firm solicitors engaging anywhere at all, except incoherently and irrelevantly on chat sites such as Rollon Friday. So what on earth is going on?

Their absence from the Gazette group may be due in part to an age-old problem: that bigger firm solicitors tend to view The Law Society as pretty irrelevant, being mostly about high street law. They think the same about the Gazette, and the Gazette’s letters page is as high street dominated as it always has been.

But that still doesn’t explain why the bigger firm lawyers don’t engage in serious online debate about the profession anywhere else. Time to ask around.

Carol Williams is an in-house solicitor of great experience, heavily involved with the Commerce & Industry Group. She suggests lack of time as a big factor. She also reckons that “lawyers have a natural reticence to share experiences and share opinions” – as to which, she wonders if it might help if lawyers could contribute anonymously.

I’ve talked to Rupert Collins-White too. Now with Legal Support Network, he used to be at the Gazette, tasked with nurturing its LinkedIn group, and he did a very good job. Who better to ask?

Rupert also thinks it’s a lot to do with time. But if it’s about time, that really means priorities. (Busy people find time for things that matter enough – that’s what they’re busy doing.) And as for those priorities, he says “law firms don’t really get the value of their staff engaging in these online networks, which discourages the lawyers.” It’s “the inability to recognise the value of social media engagement both by the lawyer and their firm, culturally, that’s the issue.”

I’m left still very puzzled. How can an ambitious young lawyer not see that building a profile outside their own firm, making links with like-minded lawyers in other environments, and contributing to the big debates of the day, are opportunities to be seized with both hands? Rupert says the problem is that most law firms don’t yet “get” social media, and I’m sure he’s right. It’s hard to see why. Social media in this sense have always existed and have always been key to networking. All that’s happened recently is their arrival online.

It may be that law firms don’t “get” LinkedIn because, as Jordan Furlong recently pointed out in these pages (July/August 2010), LinkedIn is great at projecting the profiles of individual lawyers but pretty poor at projecting business entities. On the face of it law firms should want their lawyers to get their names about and network like mad. Certainly any ambitious lawyer should want to.

Anyway, thanks be for the Gazette LinkedIn group. Thanks to LinkedIn – it has great functionality. Thanks in no small part to Rupert – it is the one such site with critical mass among UK solicitors. I do encourage all UK lawyers, and those from bigger firms and from the in-house community in particular, to take part.

Dick Jennings is principal of R.D.Y. Jennings & Co (www.jenningslaw.co.uk), a niche solicitors’ practice specialising in corporate finance and commercial contracts.

Email mail@jenningslaw.co.uk or check him out on LinkedIn.

About LinkedIn

LinkedIn is an online facility for professional and business networking. Basic membership is free. Any member can form a special interest “group”. Any group member can start a discussion, which is notified to other members daily, weekly or not at all as each member chooses and any member can contribute to any discussion. This all provides excellent functionality. Given enough active members and a shared interest that inflames them sufficiently, lively discussion will result. Among English and Welsh solicitors, only the Gazette group so far has the critical mass required. Even so, it so far has fewer than 2,000 members.

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