By Robert Loerzel
Law firms tend to be guarded about theirimage, and many lawyers are careful about what they say in public.
So it's no wonder that some law firms have been reluctant to jump onto social media or, specifically, Twitter - an online realm where millions of people comment around the clock about such topics as the Blagojevich trial and what they ate for lunch. Is that sort of freewheeling global conversation a good place for a respected law firm to speak up?
The answer is a resounding "yes," according to several Chicago lawyers who are active on Twitter, as well as public relations experts who advise law firms. But even these Twitter enthusiasts understand why many lawyers remain hesitant to embrace social media.
"Lawyers are so darn risk-averse when it comes to this stuff," said Evan D. Brown, a frequent tweeter and blogger who's an associate at Hinshaw & Culbertson.
"Law firms are traditionally very conservative and very slow to adopt anything new," said Jason Milch, a Chicago-based vice president at Jaffe PR, a national firm that advises lawyers. "There aren't a lot of large law firms that have a robust Twitter presence. It's hard for firms to manage the process of posting relevant and appropriate content."
But that's starting to change. Major Chicago firms, including Clifford Law Offices and Winston & Strawn, have begun tweeting.
That doesn't mean these firms post Twitter comments as funny or entertaining as those of, say, Conan O'Brien. The typical law-firm Twitter stream is a list of headlines about legal issues, along with links to the firm's blog.
For example, the Twitter page for Clifford (the firm's handle is @CliffordLaw) alerts the public about news involving product safety and aviation. Recent headlines included: "Jet Engine Failure," "Seat Belt Use at Record High" and "Safe Installation of Kids Car Seats." All of those tweets included links to short articles on the firm's blog.
"Bob Clifford is very dedicated to informing the public," said the firm's communications partner, Pamela Sakowicz Menaker, explaining why Clifford Law decided to start using Twitter in April 2009.
She said it's the same rationale Clifford Law had when the firm began blogging several years ago. "People come to our site and use it as a reference tool," Menaker said.
Unlike a lot of people on Twitter, @CliffordLaw doesn't reply to other people's comments. And the firm's Twitter account does not include personal comments or observations by its lawyers.
"You have to be really careful," Menaker said, explaining that lawyers must be cautious about saying anything online that could violate lawyer-client confidentiality.
During Clifford Law's first 13 months on Twitter, the firm posted 141 status updates, and it has a following of 110 people.
By contrast, Brown, who blogs about legal issues involving the Internet, tweets a lot more often. He's been on Twitter under the identity @internetcases since May 2007, tweeting more than 2,500 times and attracting more than 1,500 followers.
And, unlike Clifford Law, Brown feels free to mingle his personal remarks with his professional reports on Twitter.
On May 19, he tweeted: "On my way to federal court this morning in a copyright, trademark and trade dress matter." The following week, he remarked: "That poolside yoga was sublime." And he also retweeted some news from the ABA Journal: "7th Circuit Nixes 30-Day Jail Term for Flooding Judge's Computer With E-Mail."
Brown said he doesn't see any problem with mixing the personal and professional.
"I don't draw very sharp distinctions," he said. "I want to convey a message of who I am as both a person and a professional. I use Twitter to promote myself as a brand. I put out content that I think the people will find amusing or useful."
But Brown said he always thinks before he tweets.
"I like to think that the personality that comes through is a good representation of what I'm like if you were to meet me at a bar association meeting or a wedding reception or a holiday party," he said. "Is this something that I would say in a gathering of a dozen or so people at a reception after a conference?"
Off-color jokes aren't appropriate online - but Brown said he wouldn't make those sort of offensive remarks at a party, either.
"Think of social media as being an integrity enhancer," Brown said. "It'll make you think twice."
Making your presence known
Walker R. Lawrence, a lawyer at the civil rights firm Maduff & Maduff, has been calling himself @GourmetLawyer on Twitter since March 2009. In a little more than a year, he tweeted 12,000 times, building up a fan base of more than 1,500 followers.
Lawrence said he started using Twitter so he could talk about cooking. It's one of his personal passions, but it has nothing to do with his work as an employment lawyer.
"I originally got hooked on it because of all the chefs I could talk to," said Lawrence, who was thrilled when he exchanged tweets with chef Rick Bayless and cookbook author Michael Ruhlman. "I kept bothering [Ruhlman], and he eventually responded," Lawrence said.
Under his @GourtmetLawyer persona, Lawrence doesn't discuss the law a whole lot. One of his typical posts: "omg, smoked brisket on a brioche bun = amazing lunch."
"I'm a very sarcastic person who enjoys life," Lawrence said. "When I see an opportunity to make a joke here and there, I take advantage of it. I've built a lot of friends through that - both a lot of cooks and a lot of lawyers."
In September, Lawrence decided to create a second identity on Twitter, @FLSALawyer, which he uses to talk about his work dealing with the Fair Labor Standards Act.
Erin K. Russell, a lawyer at Chicago's Dinizulu Law Group, made a similar decision this spring. She had been tweeting under the handle @realerin, talking about the law as well as whatever topics crossed her mind. In May, she decided to create a separate identity, @legallyerin.
When she's @legallyerin, Russell talks just about her legal work. When she's @realerin, she talks about all of the other stuff in her life as well as her experiences as a lawyer. Since signing up for Twitter in March 2009, @realerin has posted more than 18,000 times. She greets her 800 followers early in the day: "Good morning, Tweeties!" And before bed, she tweets: "Good night, moon."
In between, she makes observations about pop culture and food, among other things. For example: "The new season of Burn Notice starts tonight. Yay!!!!" Or, in a remark to one of her friends: "Have you had the crispy flatbreads from Pastoral? OMG. They look amazing."
But if you follow Russell, you might also find out about news events and legal issues. In early June, @realerin retweeted some news from the FBI: "Former Massachusetts State Senator Dianne Wilkerson Pleads Guilty to Extortion." Meanwhile, under her @legallyerin persona, she posed a question: "Attorneys: Any experience in obtaining medical records for a deceased party using a Small Estate Affidavit in Illinois?"
Russell said she believes both of her Twitter accounts make people more aware of her work as a lawyer. Without saying anything that violates lawyer-client confidentiality, Russell periodically tells her followers what sort of litigation she's working on.
"It's letting people know these are things I do," Russell said. "I've received direct messages from some of my followers saying, 'Hey, can you advise me on this?' or ''I might want to hire you for that.'"
Using it for business
For that sort of networking to be effective, law firms need to treat social media as a two-way street, said Tom Ciesielka, who advises lawyers as president of TC Public Relations. That means they shouldn't simply post information on a blog, Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn. They also need to respond to what other people are posting.
"The value of social media is interaction," he said. "The mistake that a lot of people make is they simply post the same thing across all these platforms."
Ciesielka said lawyers should say something original. Repackaging a news report or another lawyer's comments isn't good enough. He encourages lawyers to engage in "thought leadership." Be one of the first lawyers to blog about a particular issue.
That sort of blogging can establish a lawyer as an expert. It might even attract the attention of journalists when they look for someone to quote, Ciesielka said.
Jordan Furlong, a senior consultant at the Stem Legal website, praised the Simmons Law Firm, based in East Alton, Ill., with an office in Chicago, as an example of a firm that makes good use of Twitter.
"There are rare instances of firms that use Twitter well; they tend to be smaller firms that specialize in particular areas of law," Furlong wrote on the company's blog, "Law Firm Web Strategy," in April. "Simmons Law Firm of Illinois links to news stories, reports and fundraisers that will interest people concerned with mesothelioma and asbestos."
"Blogging, Twitter and Facebook provide a platform for connecting and collaborating with clients, families and advocates about the philanthropic work we're doing to advance medical research and support a full ban of asbestos," said Michael J. Angelides, managing partner of the Simmons firm, which tweets as @Simmons LawFirm.
Other firms follow a similar pattern of tweeting and blogging about specialized areas of law. Winston & Strawn has a general Twitter account under the handle @WinstonLaw, but it has a separate identity, @WinstonAdLaw, that focuses on advertising, promotions, privacy and entertainment law. Recent tweets by @WinstonAdLaw included "Apple Sued Over iPhone Warranty" and "Summary Judgment Denied in Energy Drink False Advertising Case."
"We are taking a careful and judicious route," said Brian Heidelberger, an intellectual property partner at Winston & Strawn. He explained that Winston & Strawn uses its Twitter page as another way of drawing attention to content that the firm already puts out through a monthly newsletter and a blog.
"Many people want to know what's happening right away," he said. Instead of waiting a month to put articles in the newsletter, the firm puts them online as soon as they're ready, alerting its Twitter followers with a link.
So far, Winston & Strawn doesn't retweet other people's comments or reply to them. "We don't use it in an interactive manner," Heidelberger said. "It's somewhat of an experiment, and we want to be careful how we're experimenting, given the important clients that we have and the important brand that Winston & Strawn has."
The Law Offices of Jeffrey J. Kroll tweets under the identity @Kroll_Law, posting news items about personal injury and product safety. Many of the firm's tweets are filled with capital letters. Recent examples: "IKEA RECALLS UNSAFE MATTRESSES" and "KROLL QUOTED IN THE CHICAGO SUN-TIMES: TAXI CAB INSURANCE LIMITS ARE INSUFFICIENT."
The idea, Kroll said, is to "keep our clients up-to-date on what's going on in the legal world."
Kroll, who started his firm in 2007 after leaving Clifford Law, said he knew right away that he needed a robust presence on the Internet, including a blog as well as pages on Twitter and LinkedIn.
"One of the things that I recognized right away when starting a firm was the need to network," he said. "Using these social sites has allowed me to develop relationships."
Kroll doesn't make personal remarks in social media, except on Facebook, where he communicates with a smaller circle of family and friends.
"I'm private about my personal life," he said. "I know there are people who wear their lives on their sleeves. I just think there are some things that aren't appropriate."
Richard P. Beem, principal at Beem Patent Law, tweets under the handle @BeemPatentLaw. In addition to posting news about patents, he alerts other lawyers about intellectual-property organizations. Beem mostly sticks with professional matters on his Twitter stream, but he sometimes mentions his travels.
"Even if I'm not talking to people every day, it's a way to let them know what I'm doing," Beem said. "I will run into people and they'll say, 'How was Japan?' or 'How were the Rockies?' or 'How was that meeting in New York?'"
Beam said using social media helps him connect with other patent lawyers around the world. It might also attract new clients, but Beem said it's difficult to quantify how much business social media are actually bringing to law firms.
"If people think these things are going to translate into business directly and immediately, they're likely to be disappointed. But I find it a lot of fun. And it's painless, because there's only so many letters you can type," he said, referring to the 140-character limit for each Twitter update.
Katten Muchin Rosenman has a Twitter presence under the handle @KattenLaw.
Tasneem K. Goodman, partner and director of marketing at Katten, said the firm has a social-media policy to make sure its lawyers are presenting themselves well when they post updates on Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn.
"Law firms pay a lot of attention to their public image," she said. "If you're going to be holding out yourself as a representative of the firm, we want to make sure you're representing the firm in a positive way."
At the same time, Goodman said, the firm recognizes that it isn't always easy to a draw a line between what's professional and what's personal.
"In many ways, you want your clients to be your friends," she said. "And sometimes you want your friends to become your clients."
Even when Katten's lawyers are in social situations, they need to remember that other people might identify them as Katten employees, she said.
"When you go out in public and interact with people on a regular basis, we want you to be good ambassadors of the firm," Goodman said. "That applies to your online engagement as well."
"It's really common-sense stuff," said Milch, who advised the Katten firm about social media. "You don't talk about your clients without their permission. You always err on the side of caution.
Don't post anything you wouldn't want your mother reading. Firms shouldn't shy away from social media, but they should set guidelines."
At the same time, Milch urged law firms to show more personality with their tweets and blog posts.
"Posting more personal stuff and little anecdotes about their lives and hobbies is a wonderful way to put a real face on an attorney," he said.
Why do it
Lawyers who are active on social media say these are powerful tools for communicating, making yourself known and staying in touch with what's happening in the world.
"Any mechanism that permits you to easily communicate with people who are interested in what you have to say seems obviously useful to me," Brown said.
And Lawrence says Twitter and social media could revolutionize the legal industry if more lawyers started using them.
Social media prompts firms to communicate more often with the public, Ciesielka said. But he said the social-media phenomenon isn't changing the fundamental culture at these firms, where lawyers still tend to be cautious about what they say in public.
Milch and Ciesielka said Twitter and other social media are more likely to change the culture for small law firms and solo practitioners.
"At a smaller law firm, it does get a little easier," Milch said. "You have fewer people to answer to."