The normally sure-footed John Lewis Partnership demonstrated the risks of ‘engaging’ with shoppers through Twitter in September, when its upmarket grocer, Waitrose, urged people to complete the Tweet: ‘I shop at Waitrose because...’. What came back in this open forum was not the anticipated free endorsement of its products by respectful online regulars.

Instead came lines such as:

  • ‘…because Clarissa’s pony just WILL NOT eat Asda Value Straw’
  • ‘… because I once heard a 6yr-old-boy in the shop say "Daddy does Lego have a ‘t’ at the end, like Merlot?"’
  • ‘...because Tesco doesn’t stock unicorn food’
  • ‘… because I was once in the Holloway Road Branch and heard a dad say "Put the papaya down Orlando"’.

The story was reported in the national press, reaching a chortling public much wider than the Twitterati. Other Twitter errors have seen sports stars disciplined and former celebrity partners engage in undignified spats, while one juror wound up serving time after befriending one of the accused in a case through Facebook.

All of the above may add to the gaiety of the nation. But lawyers, for whom risk management is a core concern, could be forgiven for wanting to run a mile, instead of composing their next 140-character message (the length-limit imposed by Twitter). As Gavin Ingham Brooke, chief executive of professional services communications agency Spada, says: ‘Several of our clients have been extremely nervous about engaging with social media, and some would say rightly so. There can be no denying that the online realm offers far less opportunity for "control" due to the sheer speed of diffusion and borderless nature of social media.’


Twitter logoTo ‘tweet’, an account must be opened, which is free. Choosing to ‘follow’ other people’s accounts means their ‘tweets’ (updates to a maximum of 140 characters) appear in a ‘newsfeed’ for you to follow. The same can be done for themes or events, where the addition of a hash tag (‘#’) makes the comments of many people on the same topic findable. People can message each other publicly or in private, and also ‘reply’ to other tweets, while including weblinks.

Face to a name

Yet august institutions, leading law firms, high-profile solicitors and QCs are all among those who have a presence on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. They may even use the internal social media platform Yammer to encourage dialogue with and between staff. And there are also blogs and ‘Wikis’. Why do they do this? The answer is because, notwithstanding the risks, the main social media platforms have become a mainstream element of how people and organisations communicate with one another. As Ingham Brooke explains: ‘Around 50% of business journalists now source their stories from Twitter, and we are seeing the lines between online and traditional media become increasingly blurred.’

It is that level of permeation that has led the legal world to pay attention to social media. Consider just a few of the organisations which have a presence on social media - the House of Lords has a Twitter account (@UKHouseofLords), with 11,854 followers. Global law firm Clifford Chance’s graduates Facebook page has 1,892 ‘likes’, with 103 people ‘talking’ about it. LinkedIn, meanwhile, is a favourite forum for closed ‘alumni’ groups – now deemed important to maintain by law firms who see lawyers who leave go to work for clients, and competitors who they may in turn wish to recruit from. Simmons & Simmons’ alumni page on LinkedIn has 2,774 members involved in 23 separate discussions.

But although the case for deploying social media is well made, using it involves a change in mindset. For a communications or marketing team schooled in issuing press releases, the two-way feel of social media – both its advantages and its risks – feels unfamiliar. As Daniela Conte, senior communications & PR manager at Simmons & Simmons, says: ‘The strength of social media is that it isn’t simply for "pushing" messages outwards. We also use it as an important tool for monitoring the market and for receiving feedback.’


LinkedIn logoUsers can access the most basic level free, loading their CV, inviting people to ‘connect’ with them, endorsing others’ skills and having their own skills and posts endorsed by others. Profiles can be viewed publicly, and LinkedIn is commonly checked by prospective employers and those looking to commission freelancers. Recruiters and headhunters are also active on LinkedIn. Members can join closed or open ‘forums’, where other members can be sent messages and discussion threads can be opened.

Clare Rodway, managing director of Kysen PR, advises: ‘A golden rule from real life you need to observe on these social media platforms is to be skilful in your communication and make sure you listen twice as much as you speak. So, on Twitter for example, remember it’s not just a platform for promoting yourself and your own point of view. It’s easily as valuable for information-gathering; learning what’s in other people’s minds.’

Too big to Tweet?

Recognition of the importance of organisations’ ‘alumni’ networks has grown rapidly. Higher education institutions responded to the possibilities here first, while law firms complement alumni events by ‘hosting’ the online alumni group. The risks are much lower than for engagement in an open forum, yet still accord with the less exclusive business mindset that accompanies the use of social media networks. Organisations with a LinkedIn page are creating a forum for members to communicate with each other, as well as receiving information ‘from above’.


Facebook logoA social networking site with variable privacy settings that is free to join. It can be used for personal updates, posting links to other web pages, sharing pictures, sending private messages and organising events. It has a ‘social’ bias, but can overlap with the world of work and charity fundraising. Many include current and former colleagues – and even clients – among their ‘friends’.

Larger commercial organisations seem as comfortable with spaces and forums, such as those available through LinkedIn, as smaller ones. But back on those open forums, there are bigger challenges. A member of a smaller practice, such as media lawyer David Allen Green (Jack of Kent), who as @DavidAllenGreen has over 37,000 twitter followers, can be personal and ‘authentic’ in an easy, instinctive way that a large commercial law firm or a cabinet minister may struggle with. Eilidh Wiseman, partner at the law firm Dundas & Wilson, says: ‘In order to succeed at that challenge, the people you speak to on social media must believe that "you are you".’

She explains: ‘For large firms like Dundas & Wilson this creates a challenge. How do you speak with one voice when you operate in many different markets?’ One way to achieve an authentic voice is to segmentalise the target audience. As Conte notes: ‘It will depend on the audience we are trying to engage. While students might be comfortable in engaging with us through Facebook as part of our graduate career programme, clients may have different expectations of the channels our lawyers will use to interact with them.’

Top tips

  • Be generous on social media sites – help others promote their own links and thoughts.
  • Use direct promotion sparingly.
  • ‘Link’ to interesting material.
  • Recognise that you are taking a risk by being in open forums. Listen to what comes back to you – positive or negative.
  • Where people have ‘engaged’ you directly, then even if you cannot respond to all of them, respond to enough to show you are an authentic online presence.
  • Be a regular presence.
  • License staff and colleagues to use social media, but remind them that the same rules apply as ‘in real life’ (IRL). Consider training.
  • Help to connect contacts and followers to one another. LinkedIn is ideal for this.
  • Facebook may be a better way to reach students.
  • Join other groups and discussions – you cannot expect everyone to come to your space.

‘We always emphasise that social media is never a one-size-fits-all model,’ Ingham Brooke stresses. ‘It is incredibly important to build a bespoke strategy which supports your firm’s business objectives and which will reflect and project its brand values appropriately.’

Law firms also need to find ways to trust their lawyers and staff to be active and engaged with the social media they have chosen. Without that activity, any interest in the organisation or the lawyer will quickly wither. ‘Resourcing is key,’ Ingham Brooke advises. ‘We would never encourage a client to set up social media accounts in a burst of excitement, for them only to be left dead in a few months once the novelty has worn off.’ Bear in mind, Rodway counsels, ‘any unwise comments or outright gaffes cannot be permanently removed – any damage done to reputation can be fatal’.

Training may help – or at least a reminder that some of the same rules on communication using social media apply which also apply ‘in real life’ (IRL, as it is known on the internet). Ingham Brooke adds: ‘[Users must] ensure they are firstly comfortable enough with the channels to avoid any mishaps, and secondly able to achieve the delicate balance between injecting personality and exercising free speech – all while adhering to the firm policy and guidelines.’

Follow me

Having decided to obey such rules, the opportunities for direct promotion that lead straight to new instructions or recruits may seem frustratingly small. David Laud, CEO of Samuel Phillips Law Firm, advises: ‘Promoting your business via social media is acceptable in moderation.’ He advocates ‘the one in six’ rule: ‘Make five posts curating content for followers and connections, retweet others’ posts and send non-overt promotions, then you can plug an event, blog, service.’ He adds: ‘Entertain and share with your network. Who would tune in to a channel that was 100% advertising?’

Lawyers like family law practitioner Andrew Woolley (@woolleyandco, 1,742 followers) practises this approach in tweeting, mostly providing links and brief comments on items in the public domain. It is, it seems, the fact that he is not ‘in your face’ that appeals. One must also be persistent. Laud notes: ‘Results won’t be instant but "a little and often", and a consistent approach will build your profile.’

And, of course, a patiently-built following can also be useful when a platform is needed to deal with negative publicity. Rodway concludes: ‘If you haven’t invested in building a following or establishing your own network, you then have no audience, so effectively no voice to counteract anything that is being said about you. Any adamant denials, corrections, assertions you might make would effectively be "shouting in an empty room".’

Eduardo Reyes is Gazette features editor