How is social media affecting law?

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When I worked as a private tutor for two years (to ease the financial burden of law school) I used to explain to parents that whilst children must spend lots of time reading, talking, and thinking, they must spend as much time again on the computer.

When I was at school we were taught how to use Word and Excel (which I still haven’t the first idea about), but that is the modern equivalent of being able to use pen and paper. The internet and social media have many riches for those who know how to access them. Knowing how to cut and paste isn’t enough anymore; the modern workforce must be able to make apps, run blogs, and send tweets.

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Nowhere is this change more apparent than in legal practice. Barristers, instead of relying on chambers’ marketing, are using email, Twitter, and websites in combination to promote themselves. And that’s the secret: old media involved getting an article placed on the editorial pages; new media means guest blogging, keeping a weekly or daily blog, tweeting, and most importantly interacting with other bloggers and lawyers.

There is already lots of guest blogging activity. In The Times there is a trainee blog updated every week, and that has written about the importance of writing guest blogs as a trainee. The popular Charon QC law blog has regular guest posts from firms writing about topical issues, such as how legal aid will affect clinical negligence claims. And on this site we see practitioners writing about the trials and tribulations of practising the law

But in-house blogging is gaining in popularity too. There are firms such as Stowe Family Law, which run specialist blogs (theirs on family law), and chambers such as 1 Crown Office Row, which run generalist ones - the UK Human Rights blog. Most lawyers who blog are on Twitter and they talk to people, have conversations, express opinions on legal matters. This integrated approach is the best way to get the most out of what you are writing.

Blogs are a great source of information for readers, and for your colleagues. I run an immigration and employment blog at Mulberry Finch. As a result we have combined a library service with a marketing one. I, and my colleagues on the blog, read all the case law as it comes out; we keep up to date with the policy announcements and changes to the Immigration Rules. If people in the office want to discuss a case or a change in the law, we are available to chat, or think things through out loud. And then there is a summary and discussion posted on the blog for people’s use.

And by combining this with Twitter we are able to share our ideas with other people. It’s hard to tell for sure, but after a few months we think some business is being generated this way. There was a case recently of a man who was fired for being depressed who posted his story on Twitter. He gained hundreds of followers overnight and asked lawyers to get in touch with him. It’s an extreme example, and I don’t know if he hired anyone, but it illustrates the point well. Online marketing is free, and it’s seriously effective.

Some firms take this so seriously they keep spreadsheets where they record all their interactions on Twitter to ensure that they are making enough use of it. We combine the blog with a weekly office talk, where the most pertinent case of the week is discussed and explained by someone over lunch. Often there are then questions and answers, and the discussion helps to generate ideas and perspectives that will assist with casework. Twitter is just a way of extending that discussion.

And blogging isn’t the whole of it. Allen & Overy has produced The Little Red app, which is free to download from iTunes and contains all the basic information about employment claims, including calculators. It’s intuitive to use and nicely presented. Some of it is not streamlined enough. But they are making use of cutting edge marketing techniques. And things like this are only going to increase in size. Podcasts and videos for discussion are becoming more widely produced.

You can even keep up to date with legal news online much better than anywhere else. I follow court reporters on it most days, and it’s the best resource for finding the best legal writing on particular topics. Beware the perils though. This is time consuming for the people who do it: it cannot be approached half-heartedly. Twitter has to become something to use every day; blogging needs to happen at least every week, preferably daily. You’ll need to install tools, such as Google Analytics, to keep track of your progress. And you’ll have to be prepared for your most prized pieces to flop.

But once you have put the time in you start to establish the resources I described above: a bank of knowledge about the most up to date cases can be spread quickly and easily through the office, allowing people to spend more time on the relevant things, rather than searching them out. You will have the pleasure of seeing the blog build up slowly, and watching the rankings increase.

Obviously, as with everything you do, remain professional on Twitter. Sending out tweets that no one was meant to see is a good way of raising your profile as a politician, but as a lawyer saying the wrong thing can cost you in reputation - and that is hard to win back. The other peril is that you will lose a competent and valued lawyer to the blog. But that doesn’t have to happen. There’s a plethora of over-qualified paralegals out there, with no prospect of getting a training contract. They are all running their own blogs anyway, and have twitter accounts. Hire one and give them control of the blog. Six months later you’ll be chortling at the bargain you got - and cutting down on your traditional advertising bill.

Or do what 1 Gray’s Inn Square did. An intern persuaded them that blogging was the future. Now she runs and edits their blog, the Barristers’ Hub, and it is gaining a significant readership. It’s a win-win trade: she gets experience and professional exposure, they get a blog. And it can be run anywhere, in combination with post-grad study and work. And their content is varied and challenging. It might be a good place to send your first submission for a guest post...

Henry Oliver works at Mulberry Finch, an immigration and employment practice on High Holborn, London

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