This is the first in a series by lawyers on how they use social media for professional and personal development. Ed.

I confess to being rather tired of the endless articles about the merits of one social media platform over another. There is no conclusive answer to the question which is best; the best one can say is “it depends …”. That said, I think there is some merit in hearing how different people use the various platforms. Curiosity and an open mind can lead one to see things in a new light. So, without apology, here is my perspective.

I have been using the “big three” social media platforms (Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter) for 6 to 9 years. I have also been blogging publicly since January 2008. I was already familiar with online discussions as a participant in Usenet newsgroups and CIX conferencing through the 1990s. That experience makes me unusual, but does not (I think) reduce the relevance of what I have learned using the current forms of social media.

I am an untypical lawyer, having been a legal academic, then experiencing private practice as a professional support lawyer and head of knowledge management, and now an independent consultant to law firms. As a result, I am more interested in the ways lawyers and others in law firms can use various tools (including social media) to do their work better.

It’s all about Twitter and my blog

When I look back over the past five years or more, most of what I have learned is rooted directly or indirectly in the way I have used Twitter and my blog. The two are necessarily closely entwined. The blog came first. It allowed me to explore various topics around my professional interests. Linking to other people’s writing on similar topics prompted them to comment; some of those conversations continue still.

Twitter gave me another way to discuss similar topics (initially with the same people, then with others as my network grew), then to find new interesting topics (or new perspectives on the old ones), triggering fresh blog posts when 140 characters proved inadequate. My use of social media improved the work I did for my firm and enhanced my own reputation beyond the firm itself.

Before looking at why tweeting worked particularly well for me, it is worth exploring why Facebook and LinkedIn did not have the same impact.

If one overlooks dead or dying platforms, such as MySpace and Friends Reunited, or content-related sites, such as Flickr or last.fm, LinkedIn was the first modern social network I joined (in February 2006). I joined Facebook over a year later (July 2007). My perception of those services then probably colours my attitude to them now. I saw LinkedIn as a good way of keeping in touch with professional contacts and former colleagues, whilst Facebook did the same for friends and family. Despite the introduction of LinkedIn Groups and Facebook Pages, I still use them primarily as a contact database (LinkedIn) and family/friends news service (Facebook). It is possible to use Groups well, but my experience has been that they need to be private or carefully moderated in order to avoid spam. LinkedIn has also introduced a blog-like service, which some people have found to be a useful content platform in addition to their own blogs. I understand Facebook serves a useful purpose for consumer-oriented businesses as well as for graduate recruiting, but neither of those interest me. (Facebook is about to launch a direct competitor to LinkedIn, Facebook at Work, which I will watch with interest.)

Relationships

Twitter differs in some important ways from Facebook and LinkedIn. The most significant is that relationships on Facebook and LinkedIn are symmetrical (in order to connect with someone, they have to accept the connection), whereas following someone on Twitter is asymmetrical – you can follow without being followed. This means that those with interesting things to say are not subjected to the witterings of their more inane followers. I think asymmetry also tends to reduce the echo chamber effect. Unfollowing someone is usually a silent operation (Twitter does not send a notification), so there is little or no social friction involved in changing the content of one’s timeline. The timeline itself is much more visible and predictable. Whereas Facebook and LinkedIn are constantly tweaking the presentation of content in their newsfeeds, Twitter has stuck to a simple formula – showing all the tweets from everyone one follows, most recent first. This formula is under threat – promoted tweets have been introduced, and Twitter has suggested other changes – but people have been vocal in their resistance to these moves. The final important Twitter feature is lists. These can be used to manage the flow of content, especially when following many people.

Unlike Facebook or LinkedIn, Twitter allows anyone access to the tweets of every other user (apart from those who have protected their accounts). This means that the potential network effect is much greater than on the other two platforms (apart from the places where they allow following, such as Facebook Pages and LinkedIn Groups and content publishing), where consent is required. When thinking about professional and personal development, this means that if someone is saying interesting things on Twitter, you can see and learn from them. (And they can learn from you.)

Twitter for professional development

For lawyers, I see three main areas where Twitter might help with professional development:

  • specialist knowledge about specific areas of the law and practice
  • perspectives on the development of legal business generally (including support areas, such as IT, HR, finance, etc)
  • insights into clients and their markets.

Relevant tweets might provide links to material elsewhere (blog posts, online discussions, or more formal publications), or allow engagement with others on Twitter who share the same interests. In my experience, exchanging tweets with others can be most fruitful. (Such conversations also enhance one’s own reputation.)

Sometimes one might follow experts in a particular topic (I see flourishing communities around family law, criminal justice and employment law, but there are certainly many others). Your suppliers (and potential suppliers) may have their own Twitter accounts, which can be followed to get a feel for the quality of their expertise.

Any law firm that professes to understand its clients should surely also follow their Twitter feeds (not to mention their Facebook and LinkedIn pages). Increasingly, consumer-facing businesses also use Twitter for customer support. Following those accounts will give an insight into the company’s persistent issues. Finally, analysts and commentators on markets and sectors often use Twitter to promote their own work and to connect with their colleagues. Following such people will help lawyers get a feel for broader sectoral issues, as well as the language typically used in the relevant market. All these nuggets can combine to help lawyers come across as more credible when dealing directly with clients in other situations.

I would advise keeping an open mind about topics – I never joined Twitter to find out about user experience design, but I have connected with a few people in that field and learned more than I expected. (UX is not completely irrelevant to legal practice. It is important to online client service, but is also worth considering in traditional client delivery as well as internal law firm services.)

Avoiding the echo chamber

I have already mentioned the echo chamber effect. It is too easy to build an online community for oneself that merely reinforces what one already thinks. It is important to be aware of this risk and keep one’s follow list fresh (including people with whom one might disagree). Careful use of Twitter lists can help with this too. I have found private lists to be especially useful. By default, Twitter does not notify people when they are added to a list. However, a note of the lists they have been added to will be shown on their profile page. (It is even possible to subscribe to other people’s lists.) Significantly, it is not necessary to follow someone to be able to add them to a list. Private lists are identical to open lists in all respects, except that they can only be seen by their creator. One can therefore use a private list to “follow” people without the world knowing. This might be especially useful when researching potential clients – for obvious reasons it might be unwise for the wider community to know your interest in a client or group of clients.

Conclusion

As with other forms of learning, getting the most out of Twitter demands a little extra effort at first. That means finding out more about how it works and how to use various features to suit your needs. It also means investing time in finding good people to follow and keeping that list of people fresh over time. Once you have done that, it isn’t necessary to keep a constant eye on Twitter – a few minutes each day might be enough. The really good material has a tendency to be retweeted, so one rarely misses anything. The best thing is that apart from the initial investment of time, it costs nothing to try any form of social media. There is no substitute for opening an account and having a go. Your experience will be different from mine – quite possibly much better. You may also find that what you want to do would be better supported by different service. Whatever you do, taking part in these social networks actually improves them for everyone else – that is their most impressive feature.

Mark Gould was responsible for knowledge management at Addleshaw Goddard until May 2014 and now runs Mark Gould Consulting, helping firms use their knowledge more productively. He blogs at http://mg3c.com/blog/.

Email mark@mg3c.com. Twitter @markgould13.

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