posted 1 Jun 2011 in Volume 14 Issue 8
Brian Inkster explains how law firm Inksters has embraced Twitter as a communications and knowledge sharing tool
The client demographic has changed somewhat in recent years. What effect has this had on expectations of how their law firms communicate with them?
Although there has been change, in that clients are using social media more, I don’t think they expect law firms to communicate with them in this way, just yet. Clients probably see solicitors as a little slow on the uptake in this area – they’re not going to be jumping onto social media overnight. The expectation will come in time, as more different businesses start to use the tools. At that point the desire to communicate through social media will be more prevalent. Currently, I think that social media is better for peer-to-peer networking and referral business, rather than direct communication with clients. Is this what you would have expected?
Yes. There’s also the point that clients may still think law firms operate with fairly traditional business models.
Exactly. To an extent, maybe the law firms need to change client expectations by grasping the new technology and doing interesting work with it. Clients will recognise that innovation. Other businesses use social media with great success, so why shouldn’t law firms? I’m sure that when lawyers are seen to be developing more business and using the tools properly, others will follow suit.Some day, clients will have an expectation that their lawyers should be using exactly the same communication channels as them.
We all know the benefits of internal knowledge sharing and peer-to-peer networking. How do you translate this to external communication on a site like Twitter?
You have to be very careful as obviously you can’t communicate about specific matters on an open network – and most social media is public facing. As far as Twitter goes there are two elements, the public space and direct messages. You could use the direct message service to communicate with clients about their own matters, but you’re limited to 140 characters so how effective will Twitter really be for those purposes? If you’re sending off a short message to a client within that limit, then this is fine.
I think Twitter is more important for demonstrating what a firm’s solicitors are about – enabling people to get to know them better. Personal connections can lead to business opportunities. It’s a good tool for networking online. Once connected, you can then take these discussions offline and continue the relationship using more conventional tools.
Is it a good opportunity for branding?
Very much so; profile raising in particular. As a relatively small firm in Glasgow, our profile in the UK and beyond has risen considerably in the two years that we have been tweeting. We’ve seen referral work coming in from England, Ireland and the US, which we would have never have dreamt possible when we started.
You’ve received extensive media coverage of your work on Twitter. How did you begin?
We started using it in February 2009, as a bit of an experiment really. It was at a time when we were starting to read about Twitter in the newspapers and it was really starting to take off. A few months earlier we launched three new practice group websites, so I thought that it would be interesting to use Twitter to link through to them.
I set up two accounts: one in my name (@BrianInkster) and another for the firm itself (@inksters). My initial intention was that I would tweet about business matters, with relevant information, not coverage of what I had eaten for lunch, as so many people do.
My first tweet on the personal stream was something along the lines of ‘follow our tweets at @inksters’ and linked through to the Inksters twitter feed. At that point, I wasn’t planning on using the personal account for anything other than signposting to the firm’s feed.
However, I started tweeting on the Inkster page and it soon became clear that it’s very difficult to speak to people as a corporate persona. The analogy is that if you’re invited to a cocktail party, you’re a representative of the firm. The firm itself wouldn’t go. So, I started using both accounts regularly.
Within a month, @BrianInkster became the one I was using most to connect with people and build relationships. Many of these contacts have developed into collaborative projects and referral work. The @inksters account is more of a broadcasting tool. We tend to post news items, information from our practice websites and firm developments.
The corporate profile can be used to engage with people, but its ability to communicate at the same level as a personal account is more limited. This is something that some of the larger law firms are struggling with. Some of them have set up Twitter streams in the firm’s name and don’t have any lawyers (who have personal accounts) tweeting for them. Ultimately those streams are fairly pointless on their own, nothing more than an RSS feed from their websites.
So, can anybody from the firm tweet on the Inksters page?
Anybody within reason can post on it if they’re using already Twitter. Myself and one other solicitor tend to use it more than others in the firm, but in total we have eleven (soon to be twelve) users, including lawyers, a trainee and a student. At the moment we actually have more Twitter streams than staff!
Each firm will have its own policies in this respect. I imagine that in larger firms, this will fall under marketing’s remit. Whereas, in a smaller firm, it’s more likely to be the solicitors.
We have various niche accounts linked to the practice areas we specialise in and their associated websites, which I mentioned earlier. By setting up a niche account you can maintain a good flow of content on that subject, which some people will find more attractive to follow than a generic law firm stream. Remember though, it’s really important to also have individual lawyers from these groups tweeting in their own name, as well as retweeting information from the niche streams.
If you want to engage people, there must be a person attached – it just makes everything gel together.
Did the staff who use Twitter volunteer, or did you ask them to?
A mixture of the two. Some have set themselves up on Twitter having seen me doing it. With others, I have suggested that it would be a good idea for them to do so. If you went on to the different streams you would see varying levels of activity but I don’t think it’s important that everyone is tweeting to the same extent.
I would say it’s quite important for a law firm to have at least one person from each practice area tweeting, so that if a referral is made someone who is actually using Twitter can pick it up and reply with the relevant advice or a recommendation for a colleague.
In leading by example, you’re removing the management buyin dilemma so often associated with social media?
Exactly. I think that when you look around at the lawyers who are really successful on Twitter, they all fall into this category: senior owners, partners or sole practitioners are making a big impact, as they’re doing it themselves, with the firm behind them. Earlier, I mentioned some of the larger law firms, which have set up the news style streams. I can’t imagine that any of these are seeing a massive return. Whereas the firms that have a more personal approach are likely to.
Despite the fact it’s a good business development tool, lawyers will be reluctant to waste billable time. How do you engage them?
Just reiterate that they don’t have to spend huge amounts of time on it. I tend not to tweet much between the hours of nine and five. I may take a look first thing in the morning when I’m on the train, or when I arrive in the office. But you’re much more likely to find me tweeting at home in the evenings. It’s not something that has to eat into your billable time if you don’t want it to.
Aside from the networking element, what benefits are there from a KM point of view?
In itself, Twitter enables access to a lot of information, very quickly and easily, in a way that I think just wouldn’t have been easily possible in the past. As a result, you become more knowledgeable and in touch with what's happening in your own practice areas as well as around the world, in general.
There is also the ability to share knowledge on the basis that you can ask for it. If there is something that you need, or are unsure about, you can give a shout out on Twitter. The chances are that there will be another lawyer out there, who will have the answer and respond. The Twitter community is all about sharing knowledge and helping each other.
Do you find that you’re collaborating with other lawyers from different firms more?
Without a doubt. We see a lot of collaboration and cross referrals arising from Twitter, which just weren’t happening before.
Likewise, we have had situations where our clients require solicitors in England and in the past I would have struggled to know who to refer them to. But having built up relationships on Twitter, I’m in a much better position to do so.
When you see people posting regularly, you become more aware of their specialist areas and expertise.
Which ultimately saves you some time on research?
So, lots of benefits. What about the pitfalls?
People can worry too much about it, especially law firms, who are concerned with social media policies.
Is it a fear of a loss of control?
I think that’s a red herring actually and law firms need to be more relaxed. In my opinion, all lawyers must adhere to a code of conduct from their respective law societies.
I don’t see how using Twitter is any different from email, letters or speaking to someone in a public place. Ok, it’s more public, but when you’re composing a letter or an email you still have to bear the code of conduct in mind. As long as you’re acting within its terms – which you should be doing – then you have nothing to worry about. And a law firm employs solicitors in that knowledge It’s a simplistic view, but I honestly don’t think you should get too hung up on this. I’m quite happy to give the solicitors free range with their tweets. Sometimes they come to me and ask ‘Is it ok if I tweet this?’ which demonstrates that they are thinking about it.
If there’s any sort of doubt on the part of a junior solicitor, I’m sure they will seek reassurance.
What advice would you give to other law firms looking to start tweeting?
Just do it. But ensure that you have someone who is committed to doing the job properly. There is no point in setting up a Twitter account just because another firm has done, then rushing into it with no real idea or purpose of how you want to make it work.
If you have a policy whereby everyone in the firm must be on Twitter, there’s a danger that you’ll end up with lots of stagnant accounts, which sends out the wrong message. So, build it up gradually. Jon Bloor coined the term ‘tweeting in convoy’, which is how I see our firm using Twitter. The main law firm account is the ‘battleship’, but alongside that you need to some nifty ‘destroyers’ to engage people. These individual twitter accounts, your solicitors, make up the convoy. People start to realise that they are a part of the same firm, but it will only work if the battleship is functioning properly and tweeting regularly.
In some respects one very effective battleship is going to be better than 20 destroyers. Some firms use this concept; others work on an individual basis, where the firm account has one name attached to it. So, every firm needs to decide which approach will work best for them. When you’re setting up your strategy, the word ‘engage’ must be foremost in your mind. Twitter will only work if you’re willing and able to spend time engaging with others, through conversation.
The other thing to remember is that there is no benefit in having a Twitter account if your website isn’t up to scratch. There is no point in directing your followers to old, static or irrelevant content on the main website.
When all this is working, you’ll begin to see benefits – but it won’t happen overnight.
Brian Inkster is the founder of Inksters Solicitors. He can be contacted at email@example.com