Our editors & readers talk
Law firms as media companies
I was in Cape Cod last week to talk about social media – blogs and social networks and all that — at Hubbard One’s ‘Innovation Forum’. (Hubbard One is a Thomson Reuters company providing website services to law firms.) When first invited I had reservations. I know very little about the legal profession and, while I try not to take this personally, my lawyer friends are openly contemptuous of the media and reserve particular scorn for bloggers. But the organisers said not to worry — they needed someone with “out of industry experience who could stimulate new thinking”. Perhaps sensing my scepticism they added that the guest speaker a few years ago had been a chef.
On the plane from London I was still worrying about how to engage the lawyers (or were they attorneys?) and increasingly discomforted about the idea of following the chef, who by this point had become in my mind a natural entertainer with a slick live show almost certainly involving dramatic knife-work. But then I stumbled across a line in the book I was reading (Josh Bernoff and Charlene Li’s excellent ‘Groundswell’) suggesting that all companies were now media companies since they have to manage complex information flows to both their staff and to customers, and this seemed to offer some hope.
Entering into what I saw as the spirit of the event, I recast my presentation around the motion that law firms are quasi-media companies. And in the discussions that followed I did note at least five ways in which these firms are having to face up to challenges that parallel ours at Reuters News:
1. Struggling to throw off the shackles of the broadcast model
It’s hard to take an organisation used to broadcasting information and to get it to start engaging with customers or readers as individuals.
There was, for example, an animated conversation about whether to allow comments on legal blogs or not. This is relatively limited engagement but even so most of those present didn’t allow comments on blogs. I had to suppress a chuckle when one marketer said one of her blogs had received just a dozen comments in the past year. But I was stunned to then hear that of those 12, four had generated new business for the firm – an extraordinary response. (At Reuters News we struggle to get our journalists to follow up on remarks made in response to their blog posts.)
2. Making content social
Established organisations tend to view their website as the sole focus. Most media companies are gradually coming round to the idea that you need to make content portable so that readers can read it where they want to. That can range from RSS news feeds to links to social bookmarking sites like Digg or del.icio.us. But, with some honourable exceptions, law firms are struggling with this.
Jones Day is one firm to really embrace RSS, attracting more than 60,000 subscribers to its feeds. However, the Australian law firm Deacons was the only legal site fellow presenter Chris Kraft from Hubbard One knew of that had ‘sharing’ buttons (like those at the foot of this post) allowing readers to bookmark material on social network sites.
3. Confusion over blogging
There’s a term for legal blogs — blawgs. And the aggregator blawg.com indexes more than 2,000. But there still seems to be confusion about blogging. Many legal marketers said their lawyers were troubled by the ethics of blogging and the perceived necessity that a ‘proper’ blog required sharp expressions of opinion.
This chimed with my experience: by far the most frequently asked question from Reuters journalists is how they can write a ‘real’ blog when they are forbidden by Thomson Reuters Trust Principles from expressing personal views. My stock response: look at Technorati’s top 10 blogs and consider how many are information blogs as opposed to opinion-based.
On a show of hands, only half of the legal marketers had come across Twitter – the increasingly popular micro-blogging tool. And while it looks like lawyers as individuals have begun to discover Twitter (the number registered has doubled in the past month) no-one knew of a legal firm using Twitter yet. In fact few could see how a format that limits posts to 140 characters could possibly be used by a profession not known for its economy with language.
4. Growing importance of video
I was struck by how much video is being produced by law firms. They’ve found that lawyers and attorneys who spend all day reading documents find video a much easier way of keeping up with developments.
Most are using full production and editing crews rather than the cheap and cheerful use of mobile phones and YouTube favoured by bloggers (and, increasingly, Reuters journalists and contacts), which means the approach is expensive and slow.
One attendee explained that senior partners saw TV as performance and expected high production values. Another told me the problem was editing – partners speak and write at length and while editing text is straightforward, video remains difficult.
However, Scott Kilburg of Foley & Lardner has been using inexpensive Flip cameras to add video to his site to some effect.
5. Lack of time
We all suffer from this, I suppose. And when I try to persuade Reuters journalists to blog, or to blog more frequently, the most common response is that they are too busy. The legal marketing officers clearly get the same kind of reception. But for them there is scope to make it easier by streamlining the editorial process. One London-based marketer drew sympathy from delegates when he explained how his firm blogged – a senior partner would dictate his thoughts to an assistant or a secretary who would then write it up, have it edited, then vetted and, some days later, finally published.
Overall, there was a sense that change was inevitable and that the new generation joining law firms would accelerate the pace. And there was much sage nodding when one delegate said: “Many of our partners and associates are spending time on social media sites already, so let’s just make it easy for them to do it for the firm’s benefit”.
As I listened to the legal marketers I could see that the ‘law firms as media companies’ analogy was a bit of a stretch – law firms hire out lawyers, they don’t sell content. But they do produce lots of content, and working out how best to present it and so engage their customers is forcing them to think, well, a bit like media companies.