Earn one hour of Legal Ethics MCLE credit by reading the article below and answering the questions of the Self-Study MCLE test. Send your answers, along with payment ($20 for CCCBA members / $30 for non-members), to the address on the test form.
Attorneys have always had their information available in the public sphere, whether in a bar association directory or the Yellow Pages. But the times are changing. The current reality is that online directories are becoming an invaluable part of an attorney’s business development plan. In fact, a LinkedIn profile is as ubiquitous as a Yellow Page listings used to be. These days, the message is clear: if you aren’t visible online, then you run the risk of losing both business and credibility.
Why Be Part of an Online Directory?
The question is really why wouldn’t you be? Not having one is like not having a website; people might start to wonder if you are legitimate or if you are simply behind the technological times. This isn’t an image you want to project out to the public.
These days, the message is clear: if you aren’t visible online, then you run the risk of losing both business and credibility.
Taking this idea one step further, the rules of professional responsibility require that you remain competent. Increasingly, part of competence implies the ability to use available technology in order to best serve your clients: Rule 3-110 of the California Rules of Professional Conduct has been construed to require attorneys to attain a basic level of technological competence when handling confidential client information. If an attorney has no web presence, clients may make assumptions about that attorney’s technical, and even legal, competence.
Many people ask me which is more important: LinkedIn, Facebook, or Twitter. I always tell attorneys that if they had to choose only one social media platform, they should choose LinkedIn. While its true that many professionals use Facebook and Twitter, these platforms are also for personal use. LinkedIn, on the other hand, is built specifically for professionals to show themselves in the most positive light.
LinkedIn is attractive to lawyers specifically. If you take some time to look around LinkedIn, you’ll notice that CPAs, lawyers, consultants, and finance and real estate professionals are highly represented. That’s where you want to be, and the caliber of people you want to connect with.
That’s not to say that you shouldn’t spend time on other social networking sites. You should. But I highly recommend using LinkedIn as your hub for professional social networking. By focusing on LinkedIn, you can have a central starting point, using other platforms as offshoots.
The Yellow Pages deliver basic information. This is surely important if someone wants to get in touch, or learn about your background. But an online directory offers a broader view. It gives potential clients and referral partners something more objective than a standard bio and your contact information. On a LinkedIn profile, a person can see how you are connected to other attorneys, referral partners, organizations, and your community.
The most successful attorneys are actively involved in all of these groups, and letting others know about your involvement adds to your credibility. And when you include articles, blogs, or status updates on your profile, this reinforces the message that you are engaged with the issues that you practice.
How to Maximize Your Profile
It’s easy to whittle hours away on a social networking site like LinkedIn. But a strategic, targeted approach will get you where you want to go, faster.
Here are the most effective ways attorneys can use LinkedIn:
- To follow up. After you go to a networking event, use LinkedIn to stay in touch. Send a personal note that references how you met and ask them to connect.
- To promote your skills and associations. Are you an estate planner? Use your profile to talk about skills, associations, and groups related to estate planning to demonstrate your involvement in your professional community.
- To increase your visibility. Periodically include status updates to increase your visibility. Again, be strategic: Think about how often you’d like to update, and then put it in your calendar as an action item. Effective status updates include a news article you want to comment on, a speaking engagement, news from the bar association, or a topic that is valuable to your network.
- To connect social media platforms. Make sure that you connect your social media. This means posting online profiles, publications, Facebook updates, and tweets to your LinkedIn profile. There are two ways to do this: you can have an outbound link that takes you to these platforms. Or you can set up LinkedIn to connect with other social media platforms so that when you post a status update, it automatically becomes a tweet or a Facebook post. With certain platforms like WordPress, you can also stream your blog to your LinkedIn profile.
- To become known as an expert. LinkedIn’s Answer feature helps promote you as an expert. Try asking a question to generate a response. Or find your specific area of interest and answer the existing questions. The more positive the response, the higher your ranking. Another way to showcase your expertise is through the Martindale application, which allows you to promote your Martindale peer and client ratings with a logo and summary on your profile.
- To publish and promote content. It’s savvy to have original content that displays your expertise. JD Supra sponsors a legal update feature specifically for attorneys. Through this feature, you can get your material published, allowing people to sign up and search on topics of interest. (These articles are available both on the JD Supra platform and under Legal Updates on LinkedIn.) Another option for getting your content read is LinkedIn’s Slideshare Application, which allows you to re-purpose presentations you’ve given.
LinkedIn and Legal Ethics
Social networking and online marketing have unleashed a totally new world when it comes to legal ethics. However, the legal system — and in particular bar associations that govern attorney ethics — have been slow to understand that significant issues exist around social media, figure out what they are, and provide attorneys with legal guidance on how to deal with them.
In this veritable legal Wild West, here are a few issues that can arise and how to handle them within the law’s ethical guidelines.
Ethical question: Should I fill in the “specialties” field?
Under your summary in LinkedIn, there is a subheading that allows you to name your specialties. For attorneys this is a problem, because of ABA rules about claiming a legal specialty.
Answer: To avoid any problems, mention your specialties in your summary, while leaving the designated area for specialties blank.
Ethical question: Can my clients write me a recommendation?
Both California and ABA rule requires that if a client gives a testimonial on your behalf, you are required to include a disclaimer that says the testimonial does not guarantee a successful outcome. The problem is that LinkedIn doesn’t have a place to include your disclaimer.
Answer: One possible scenario is having the client write the disclaimer. But for attorneys, for whom the foremost ethical responsibly is confidentiality, this isn’t always the best idea. Even if a client is willing and able to give a recommendation, the client should be aware of the consequences of being identified as a client. As attorneys, we assume the burden of that responsibility. That’s why even if the client is willing to write a recommendation accompanied by a disclaimer, it isn’t always the best course of action. The safest bet, in my opinion, is not having recommendations at all.
Ethical question: Can I make clients public?
LinkedIn is an opt-in or opt-all out platform, where you’ll need to decide if you will have everyone transparent or everything hidden. This causes a dilemma for attorneys, who might want their network and referral partners transparent, but not their clients.
Answer: Unfortunately, there isn’t an ideal solution on how to handle this: as it stands, you’ll need to either lose out on the referral benefits of LinkedIn and make everything private, or have your clients sign a document that indicates they’ve agreed to the publication of our relationship. However, if you feel that it isn’t in their best interest, the onus is still on you to reject the connection.
Ethical Question: What kind of information can I make public?
Answer: Because confidentially is of paramount importance to attorneys, this makes some of the features of LinkedIn problematic. It’s good to err on the side of caution when it comes to client confidentiality. It’s not that you have to shut down your social networking. But good judgment is always the cornerstone of your decisions. Just because there is no official rule saying that you can’t thank a client by name on your LinkedIn status for a referral, for instance, this choice still shows bad judgment as they may not want the information made public.
The Future Looks Linked
Things move fast in the world of social media. Today, it damages your credibility to have no LinkedIn profile. But in a year or two, it might be damaging to have only a minimal profile.
I see a future where LinkedIn adapts to the needs of professionals, helping each industry work within the ethical rules of their trade. I’m also hoping that LinkedIn will make it easier to choose individual people for either public or private viewing, making it friendlier for attorneys who want the ability to choose. And with the proliferation of video, I predict that LinkedIn will use that medium to its advantage.
And remember, LinkedIn isn’t the only one that will change with the times. As social media evolves, attorneys should evolve with it.
Download the MCLE Self-Study test form here: Earn one hour of Legal Ethics MCLE credit by reading the article above and answering the questions of the Self-Study MCLE test. Send your answers, along with a check for $20, to the address on the test form.