The Times Law

14 January 2011

Comments by Brian Inkster on Twitter use by law firms feature in The Times Law Online today. This is the piece as it appeared:-

Why it’s time to open a corporate Twitter account

200 million people worldwide use the micro-blogging service Twitter. So why are law firms so nervous about letting employees tweet?

In the relatively short time since it was launched in 2006, Twitter has gained almost 200 million users worldwide, with a constituency of tweeters varied enough to include Arnold Schwarzenegger, Boris Johnson, the Royal Family and the irascible ghost of the deceased lexicographer Dr Samuel Johnson.

But despite its ubiquity and recent legal newsworthiness, the possibilities of Twitter have yet to be embraced wholeheartedly by law firms. Many individual lawyers have already recognised that tweeting is no longer just for geeks - that its brevity (messages are limited to 140 characters) and simplicity provides a useful tool with which to network, get early insider news or build a public profile.

Yet many law firms remain fearful of allowing employees the unregulated opportunity to broadcast personal thoughts that Twitter allows and are anxious about potential breaches of client confidentiality. They respond by instigating restrictive social media policies banning access to Twitter at work.

“Law firms are traditionally very conservative,” says Chris Sherliker, a City lawyer and one of the first British lawyers to start using Twitter for business, whose personal network now tops 10,000 followers. “They’re often overly concerned with client confidentiality and professional regulation where they don’t actually need to be.”

Instead many of the larger law firms use Twitter purely as a broadcast medium to disseminate press releases when really they should be encouraging their employees to engage on a personal conversational level – there’s a reason that Twitter is called a social network, after all.

“I think that if a solicitor is at a social event you can’t control what he or she is saying about the company and really Twitter is no different,” says Brian Inkster, of Inksters Solicitors, a Scottish law firm that recognised the possibilities of Twitter early on.

“But a law firm cannot engage and speak with people in the same way that an individual can. Think of it as if you were invited to a cocktail party - it’s the individual who goes, not the firm. A law firm can’t chat to somebody. Of course while you’re at the cocktail party you might mention the firm that you work for in conversation, but the real business of making connections is done by the individual.”

Chris Sherliker adds: “The big firms just pump out a constant stream of heavily legal information, which is the surest way to kill off any kind of creative exchanges with people that might actually be of interest to them as a law firm.

“When I started tweeting I realised that some of the people on the site were interesting and serious people. So I started engaging in personal conversations. Then there came a point where I realised that I was beginning to get work through Twitter.”

Barry Gross, a partner at Berwin Leighton Paisner LLP, recognises the importance of Twitter in gaining new clients and raising his firm’s profile. “Our view as a firm is that marketing has changed completely. So instead of using the old style of sending an unfocused faceless marketing update to 2,000 people, Twitter means that you can provide tailored marketing where you actually go to a specific identified person.”

Engaging with Twitter can also provide a professional advantage, allowing first access to information provided by those in your Twitter stream. Carl Gardner is a former government lawyer turned writer and commentator who uses Twitter to research stories. “Twitter is a good way of sharing information, like a talk or PowerPoint slides or a great result in a case. It also helps me pick up on specialised news stories from niches which are seldom reported.”

The importance of emphasising your niche is key. Brian Inkster has one Twitter account dedicated purely to crofting law, for example. But he recognises that tweeting is not always for everyone. “The best thing about Twitter is that there’s no right or wrong way to use it. Everyone finds the way that they’re most comfortable with. Some people prefer to engage online and then make arrangements to meet offline. Some lawyers use it just to have a presence on it, to allow people to contact them on Twitter.”

In this way lawyers might use Twitter as an alternative to e-mail, allowing them to be contacted by clients and potential clients. This approach can provide potential problems to law firms, however, when partners or assistant solicitors build up a network of clients on Twitter and then leave the company. Chris Sherliker’s company, Silverman Sherliker, controls the passwords on corporate Twitter accounts to protect client confidentiality once employees have moved on, for example.

But the most compelling reason for lawyers to use Twitter is the sheer speed of the application’s growth. Even if your clients aren’t using it now, it is probable that they will in the near future.

“The most interesting thing about Twitter is that it’s still evolving,” says Barry Gross. “A significantly higher proportion of clients are beginning to use it. So we’re working on building our profile now, rather than in the future when it will be significantly harder. I really think that we’ll begin to reap the rewards in five or six years’ time. It’s an investment.”

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