Don’t be put off by Donald Trump’s 140-character rants – Twitter is a platform with plenty to offer lawyers, reports @edreyesjourno.

At the time of writing, the US appears to be governed through the medium of Twitter. Without taking political sides, let us just say that the style of the incumbent POTUS account runs counter to most lawyers’ instincts.

Trump’s conduct online is the sort of behaviour a lawyer might expect to see in a cautionary tale delivered in a training session. It is not supposed to be a route to the most powerful office on earth; it is supposed to be the road to ruin.

Indeed, last year tweets by the principal of law firm Baker Small, boasting of a special education needs tribunal ‘win’, led to a media crisis which ended instructions from key clients.

For anyone on Twitter, the product of your 140-character efforts can be frustrating. Before writing this, I took a look at the reach some of my tweets have had (I am not the most prolific or ‘followed’ member of the Gazette team, but I am active). One about the detention of a Turkish war crimes judge who is needed at The Hague to try a genocide appeal has 486 impressions and 12 retweets.

Respectable enough. But it was put in the shade by a tweet with more levity – a picture of the Obamas and princes William and Harry (the men all in open-necked shirts) captioned ‘Fears grow for UK’s struggling necktie industry’. This had 16,531 impressions, 60 retweets and 86 likes.

Is this, then, really the platform for the serious things I want to say or share about law, justice and human rights? With greater attention paid to less serious tweets, is the temptation to drift away from more earnest content?

Great reading list

A practitioner is unlikely to become the main event on Twitter, but it is the social media platform of choice for lawyers –

as spectators and participants. ‘It’s a great reading list,’ notes Wedlake Bell partner Suzanne Gill (@SuzanneFGill, 234 followers). ‘I use it to follow individual journalists (rather than the paper), other opinion-formers and clients. That helps me know what is going on in the world of particular people.’

‘Twitter is enormously helpful as a tool to apprise you as soon as events happen,’ declares Devereux Chambers’ Jolyon Maugham QC (@JolyonMaugham, 32.4k followers). ‘You quickly learn who is first to the punch – a PSL function for members of the bar.’

Of course, many solicitors, barristers, firms and chambers want more than that – and with good reason. ‘Social media has a global audience of billions, so firms need to embrace it as an essential part of their business development – it’s not something that you can afford to ignore,’ communications consultancy Byfield’s head of digital Emma Maule explains (@emmaraty, 3.4k followers). ‘Increasingly, your reputation is defined by social media. People are talking about you online whether you’re there or not – it’s far better to drive the conversation than to leave it to chance.’

She adds: ‘Businesses use social media to attract new customers, engage with their existing ones, and find out what people think of their brand – it is no longer a choice whether or not you are using social media, but how well you do it.’

Twitter can be surprisingly useful in getting you noticed, Gill explains: ‘Twitter is a great way of reaching some people, including some very senior people. If they love Twitter then it gets you unparalleled access to them directly.’

Getting started

Lawyers do not necessarily join Twitter with a clear plan. ‘I initially went on Twitter [in 2011] because my wife was on it,’ Maugham recalls. ‘I liked the idea of being able to curate my own newspaper – to pick and share articles I liked.’

In 2013, he started a blog on tax law: ‘I was writing in a “fashionable” area, and the media picked up on the blog. I was also asked by the Labour party to help on [tax policy, contributing the] centrepiece tax policy of the 2015 Labour manifesto.’ His close interest in the politics and law around Brexit has provided a regular theme since.

Respond or not respond

‘It’s important not to ignore hostile tweets. If you ignored someone face to face, the likelihood is they will become even more irritated. Ignoring someone on Twitter is much the same. Be polite but don’t get into a heated discussion about the topic. If it is someone in your sector, you can always speak to them offline’ 

Eileen Donaghey @ayoungmarketer

‘Don’t feed the trolls… I generally recommend not engaging directly. A few trolls does not a reputational crisis make. You are far more likely to have an issue become a crisis by becoming involved in a public argument than by leaving the odd comment alone and reporting them and the relevant account to Twitter.

‘If as an individual, you are receiving tweets which are hostile, racist, defamatory and so on, do report them immediately to Twitter and if necessary to the police. No one has to put up with bullying and derogatory behaviour’

Lydia Rochelle @LRochelle_PR

‘Cathy Newman at Channel 4 News is great at dealing with trolls in a direct and humorous way’

Suzanne Gill, partner, @SuzanneFGill

‘I would never have got the numbers I have if I’d remained outside the political arena,’ Maugham reflects. ‘It’s one beyond narrow professional practice.’

Others also note that the purpose of their account has changed. ‘I first set up a Twitter account in order to spread the word about a campaign in my local community in Islington to save an area of ancient grassland from having 100 flats built on it,’ says barrister Emma Dixon (@EmmaDixon_EU 4,505 followers). ‘The campaign, sadly, was unsuccessful – but the Twitter account survived.’

Say something

Content can be mixed, and many choose to reflect the spread of their interests in a short profile description. Whether mixed or single-issue, Gill advises: ‘You need some concept of why you are tweeting – to build profile or awareness? If you know why you’re doing it, that helps you believe people will be interested in what you have to say.’ Gill assumes her followers are interested in property and technology, and how the built environment will look in future. ‘I’ll retweet things that interest me, probably with a short comment,’ she adds.

The account should be active, too. Fieldfisher’s PR and brand senior manager Lydia Rochelle

(@LRochelle_PR, 476 followers) says: ‘There is no harm following people and retweeting or liking comments to start with if you aren’t comfortable. But don’t stay silent for ever as a “ghost account” [where someone has set up an account that is never updated]. That doesn’t look good either.’ Have a description and a profile picture, Rochelle advises.

When tweeting, ‘don’t just broadcast’, urges Melissa Davis, founder of legal PR agency MD Communications (@mdcomms 2,898 followers): ‘Nobody wants to see one-way traffic. Your tweet stream should include a mix of links, conversations and retweets. Think dialogue not monologue.’

James Melville runs his own communications and sponsorship consultancy. Tweeting as @JamesMelville, his 47.6k followers include the verified account of @BarackObama. Like Maugham, it is political issues – currently Brexit and Trump – that fuel the number of followers. His advice, though, could apply to any scale of Twitter ambition: ‘Know your audience. Be concise. Make it interesting. Provide something that people will empathise with and/or information that educates the audience.’ He adds: ‘The use of graphics and imagery also helps. A good image stands out from the crowd and conveys an entire story in one picture.’

The attraction of Twitter – the 140-character limit – may make it easy to read, but it can be a struggle to write for. ‘I don’t think that even for someone as experienced as me, writing a tweet is easy,’ Maugham says. ‘You’re looking to strike a particular tone. It’s poetry.’

‘Plan before you start tweeting –what you want to be known for and if you want to include personal activities there too,’ Eileen Donaghey (@ayoungmarketer, 128 followers), communications executive at Anthony Gold, advises. ‘If a friend tags you at a social event in a photograph on Twitter will that fit in with your professional image?’

‘I try to make sure my tweets are positive and mainly professional,’ Gill says. ‘I don’t use them to complain about transport delays or a poor broadband service. If you want to do that sort of thing set up a separate account for moaning.’

She adds: ‘You’re supposed to show a bit of personality on Twitter, which can be an alarming risk for some people. I’m working on the principle that the odd poorly focused snap of my child’s school concert or the Boat Race isn’t going to offend or bore my followers. A single tweet about the big game on Saturday is fine, but a minute-by-minute account is not needed.’

Answering back

Part of the ‘personality’ requirement Gill refers to includes interacting with others on Twitter. As Donaghey puts it: ‘The point of being on Twitter is to interact with others, so if someone likes your tweet or comments positively, you should comment back to start a conversation. Twitter isn’t one-sided and the objective is to start conversations. Say “hello” back.’

Davis adds: ‘People who feel they are talking to you are also more likely to be talking about you. While social media accounts are described as “channels”, too often organisations treat that channel as one-way communication.’

And what about ‘views’? There remains huge trepidation around expressing them (see box above). As Maugham notes: ‘This does point to the core tension for the profession. You can be interesting and occasionally controversial, or dull and ignored. The more opinionated you are, the greater the likelihood you will exclude some work; but you’ll attract people who are committed [to the same things as you]. You don’t need many of those.’

‘You have to remember that a tweet can be libellous,’ Gill says. ‘They can bring your firm or the profession into disrepute, cost a lot of money and your job. So if you find yourself wondering if this is suitable for Twitter, it almost certainly isn’t.’

And it is, of course, fine to side with certain things and people – so long as you have made a conscious decision to do so. Go to any law firm website and it is likely you will find a strong mention of the organisation’s ‘culture’ and ‘values’, and the expectation is that a social media ‘personality’ will also have these.

As Dixon explains: ‘On a personal note, I have “met” some lovely people on Twitter who have supported me through difficult times. For me, Twitter is more than a campaigning or networking tool. It gives me access to a group of like-minded people who, like me, care about injustice and want to do something about it. This has been a valuable source of support when the going gets tough.’

  • The Law Society’s practice note on social media can be found here