Embracing the Free Market – Lawyer Use of Social Media for Advertising

The law market in 2016 is as complicated as it has ever been. This means lawyers, and law students looking forward to their emergence into the legal field, are practicing or anticipating practicing in creative and nontraditional ways. Where previously students graduated and immediately went to work in a large firm with an established structure, many of you now find yourselves working in start-ups, or solo or small firms, or in firms where you are immediately given more responsibility than you might have been in prior years. This emerging dynamism in the marketplace has led to new approaches to seeking clients, networking and building a book of business. For law students looking forward to graduation and work in a solo or small firm setting, and for those of you who are just looking ahead even with a few years of school to go, it is important to start thinking now about strategies for successful and ethical marketing. This is especially true when it comes to the use of social media for advertising.

The reality is most law students today have not lived without the internet, and many of you have used social media for most of your lives. Sharing every thought and event has become second nature, for better and for worse. Increasingly lawyers – especially those practicing in solo and small firm settings – are seeking to also embrace this medium and maximize the impact of their networks to attract new business and enhance their exposure to broader client bases. This makes the use of social media as an advertising tool increasingly attractive – in large part because it is generally free, or comes with little cost. To remain competitive, students and practicing lawyers should embrace the use of technologies as networking tools, while also staying mindful of our obligations as licensed professionals bound by the Rules of Professional Conduct, which may place limits on what we can and cannot do on various social media platforms. For law students, especially, creating networks now can be tremendously useful as you look toward building a practice, a book of business, or searching for employment after graduation.

Social media has tremendous impact from an advertising perspective, not least because it is immediate, shareable, and interactive with an extremely broad reach in real time. We’ve all seen videos and posts go “viral” – and not always to the benefit of the poster or subject of the post. Harnessing this power to spread positive messages about your work and your practice, or your job search, can make a huge difference in enhancing your exposure to potential sources of new business or employment. But it’s important to recognize the need for you to control your message – what do you want people to know about you and how do you want them to know it?

A quick search using the term “social media advertising” returns hundreds of articles recommending ways for people to grow a business utilizing social media resources, with great tips for effective use. Lawyers, like any small business owners, are interested in growth and opportunity and can benefit from this advice. As you begin your legal career, ask yourself: what is the target market you want to reach, and what is the best way to do that? Repeatedly, articles discussing effective social media advertising refer to one common theme: “content is key.” What do you wish to convey and to whom? Honing the message, preparing well thought out and directed posts, being consistent in your message, maximizing your community – most articles emphasize quality over quantity when it comes to connections – and using your platform to your advantage are all keys to success when it comes to using this advertising resource to your advantage. This is no less true when it comes to using social media in your job search, whatever the type or size of the firm you seek to join (small, medium or large.)

Think objectively about what you want to do with the social media resources available to you for whatever purpose you seek to use them. It can be tempting to create accounts in every possible place – but if you’re not using them, followers will lose interest and then there is no advantage. Do you need to post audio/videos? If not, You Tube probably isn’t going to be much use to you; Facebook and Twitter are fairly user friendly and well known; if you’re like me, you’re still not sure what Google + even is. Advertising on social media can become an almost full time job in itself, especially if you are spreading yourself too thin. Since you need to study if you’re still in school, or do legal work and represent clients once you’ve graduated, you probably want to limit yourself to the resources you know how to use and actually will use, and use to their fullest advantage without a maximum outlay of time.

Now for the quick reality check. As lawyers our ability to advertise – whether via social media or using other, more traditional methods – is subject to regulation via the Rules of Professional Conduct. For students, you still must be mindful of these restrictions, as what you do now will have an impact on your ability to gain and maintain your license.

Specifically, Rules 7.1, 7.2 and 7.3 apply to lawyers who advertise their services. It may come as a surprise to many that the use of social media is considered advertising, but if it is used in promotion of your practice or your services, it surely is. That doesn’t mean lawyers can’t use it or shouldn’t use it – it would be foolish to miss an opportunity to reach as broad an audience as possible – but only that you need to use it mindfully, being aware that your use is not without limits. For students, be careful about the claims you make! Misrepresentation in promoting yourself prior to licensure may come back to haunt you. Don’t be afraid to use the resources, just use them prudently.

The one piece of advice I always give lawyers and students when it comes to the use of social media is to maintain separate pages or accounts for professional v. private use. Do not mix the two. Since your network building and business promotion activities are likely covered by the Rules, keep your professional life professional and your personal life personal. Besides, most of us have had friends post silly things on our social media accounts, and we likely wouldn’t want clients or colleagues to see those. Even if you ultimately practice in a solo setting, it’s preferable to get in the habit of keeping your worlds separate – starting while you’re still in school is the best way to get in the habit. And don’t overshare!

Remember, all of the Rules of Professional Conduct apply to what we do as lawyers (and soon to be lawyers) – including some of what we may do on social media – so being aware of the Rules and what they mean for us is key. Social media is a powerful tool, and we should all use it, but we need to use it well and be smart about our presence. It’s your identity – online or otherwise – so be sure to control it and the sooner you start the better.

About the Author:

Amy DeVan is the founder of Principle Legal Consulting, LLC, providing advice and consulting services to lawyers and law firms on all issues of practice including ethics and regulatory compliance. She may be reached at amy@principlelegalconsulting.com or via her website principlelegalconsulting.com.

By Eric Bono
Eric Bono Assistant Dean for Career Opportunities Eric Bono