As law firms urge their clients to be cautious in venturing into social media, they're being just as tentative with their own efforts in the fast-growing arena.
The firms say they recognize that social media is quickly changing the way people interact and businesses operate. They know they can't ignore it.
And they acknowledge that many lawyers are already on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn with personal sites, both from their firm and among attorneys they want to recruit.
So rather than be left behind, they want to maintain some degree of coordination and control over it, by establishing a uniform and united presence on social media sites, and bringing individual attorney pages under a corporate umbrella that links them together.
"As a law firm that really focuses on training and mentoring and really looking at what are the needs of the associates coming in, we wanted to speak their language," said Rebecca Farbo, chief marketing officer for Phillips Lytle, Buffalo's No. 2 law firm, which will be recruiting on Facebook. "How can you be a law firm that focuses so much on recruitment and retention and not be on Facebook?"
And they see broader opportunities to market themselves or stay in touch with existing clients, to deepen relationships.
"We've been looking at social media as the next wave for Damon Morey," said Christopher A. Cardillo, partner and chairman of the client development committee at Buffalo's No. 3 firm.
"We don't look at this social media aspect as strictly marketing for new clients. It's maintaining contacts and relationships with existing clients. It's just a way to maintain a relationship that transcends services."
At the same time, though, many still question the ultimate value of social media for law firms, saying the jury is still out on just how they should respond. "Social media presents a fairly huge challenge for us in the legal profession," said Gary Schober, CEO of Hodgson Russ, Buffalo's biggest law firm.
"I know it's going to affect us, but exactly how it will do so, and exactly what our response to this new technology is going to be, is still an unknown."
And they also worry about whether the nature of social media could clash with the ethics at the core of legal practice. In particular, they're concerned that any comments they make on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn or other sites could be misinterpreted as specific legal advice.
"If I want to get involved with Twitter, I have 140 characters to put a message out there," said Scott Horton, employment attorney at Jaeckle Fleischmann & Mugel. "I don't have much room to put a disclaimer."
So as they wade into new waters, they're treading gingerly to avoid stubbing their toes.
"It's definitely important to join the conversation. It's out there. Everyone's using it," said Kaitlyn A. Heller, marketing coordinator for Damon Morey.
But "we're trying to create a really strong strategy before we implement a lot of these things, because we want it to be a focused approach. We don't want to just put random empty comments out in cyberspace."
Meghan McDonnell, director of marketing and business development for Jaeckle Fleischmann, said: "It's a long buying cycle for legal services. People don't just wake up one day and say I need a corporate lawyer. They come to those decisions over time."
Additionally, lawyers say, they are bound by strict ethics rules governing those relationships and client confidentiality. And the nature of social media -- often punctuated by short, spontaneous bursts of text -- poses the risk of easy, unwitting violations, as well as poor service.
"I view Twitter as popcorn marketing," said Jaeckle litigation partner Charles Swanekamp. "Our clients would like a little more substantive nutrition, rather than being barraged by short bursts of information."
Hence the reluctance of law firms to be too aggressive. Hodgson Russ, for example, does not use social media in any official capacity, but many of its individual attorneys "participate in it very actively," Schober said. Officials have been "trying to control that a little bit, with perhaps a little bit of luck," he said.
However, Schober said, "that's why we think there's some need to act quickly here, because if the management of Hodgson Russ doesn't jump in and fill the void here, individual lawyers will just go with it."
So far, he said, the firm is "studying" the issues, and has "experimented with some things." Officials are drafting an internal policy for social media use that he expects will be completed by the end of March.
At Phillips Lytle, the focus of late has primarily been on developing and launching a revamped website, designed to showcase the firm's attorneys and other personnel and be more "warm" and user-friendly for clients, officials said.
The new site, which will debut shortly, is more visual, interactive and personal, highlighting the skills and accomplishments of its various attorneys and practice groups, while making it easier for visitors to navigate, they said. The site includes not only photos, but videos and pop-up information boxes about the attorneys and staff.
Officials said they believe the website is the best way for them to market the firm. There will also be a renewable energy blog by attorney David P. Flynn, and other blogs in nanotechnology and intellectual property.
At the same time, though, the firm is keeping any eye what it can do with other social media. The firm has no current plans for a general-purpose Facebook page and is not using either Twitter or YouTube. But with its planned Facebook page for recruitment, officials can create corresponding Facebook ads targeted to specific "feeder" schools where the firm has had success in recruiting.
Jaeckle Fleischmann has also taken a more gradual approach, preferring to focus on its website as Phillips Lytle has done. Not only does social media raise ethical dilemmas, but "using social media is very labor-intensive" and doesn't pay off yet, McDonnell said. So "we're not blogging, we're not twittering, we're not Facebooking."
"The time and energy invested in creating a good base of Twitter followers is significant, I think. And if you're going to utilize an outlet like Twitter, you have to use it on a regular basis, or it won't get any legs," McDonnell said. "That is just not something that as an individual or as a business professional I find I need to utilize."
The one exception is LinkedIn, where the firm has a central profile linked to those of individual attorneys. The firm also plans to post on YouTube a video of one of its attorneys presenting at a panel discussion, but "that is an isolated piece."
By contrast, Damon Morey is more active. Officials are developing plans for Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn sites that will be integrated with blogs. Like others, they want to create cohesiveness between the pages of individual attorneys and the firm's host site, with a consistent message, Heller said.
Officials view Facebook as a means for recruiting and maintaining connections, while LinkedIn contains professional profiles of the firm and its attorneys. As such, the Facebook pages may contain personal information and family photos, but "with an eye toward what would a prospective client, what would a prospective recruit, what would an existing client think," Cardillo said.
"We at Damon Morey like to think of our clients as family," Cardillo said. "We seem to develop relationships with our clients that extend past just the service relationships."
The firm is also considering podcasts and blogs for its immigration, health care and labor and employment practices. And once all of those are up, Heller said, "we're going to use Twitter as a means to alert and draw and drive traffic to these sites."
Among smaller firms, HoganWillig has both a Facebook page and a Twitter site, with 100 fans and 365 followers, respectively. Its attorneys and over 60 employees are on LinkedIn.
"I was surprised with the amount of fans that we got in such a short time," said Erin Rouse, the firm's marketing coordinator. "Now it's up to us to put up information that people are going to be interested in to try to gather more contacts."
The firm uses those sites to convey news, awards, hirings and other announcements, highlight events its attorneys participate in, and promote its blogs through postings and tweets.
"We're trying to establish ourselves as the expert," said Rouse, adding that the firm has "really tried to ramp up our efforts" just in recent weeks.
It's also posted free information, such as how to do a will or incorporate a company, on its website and used social media to drive people there, in recognition that the information is available online anyway.
Finally, the firm has posted some commercials and audio recordings, including a radio interview with one of its attorneys, on YouTube or other sites, with links or referrals to them through Facebook, Twitter and a blog. "We saw a real increase in hits and visitors," Rouse said.