Last week I gave a brief presentation for the Legal Services National Technology Assistance Project (LSNTAP) about developing policies for online social networking. While researching for the presentation and round table discussion, it occurred to me that having a policy in place for social networking is a wise idea for a virtual law practice. Considering that a great deal of the marketing and professional networking for a virtual law practice is going to be handled online using social networking tools, it makes good sense to establish a policy for your practice whether you are a solo practitioner or a medium-sized online law practice with virtual assistants.
If you haven’t already, please check out Carolyn Elefant’s ebook Social Networking for Lawyers: The What, Why and How. This is a good resource regarding the use of social networking for legal professionals and could be useful for developing your own social networking policies for a virtual law practice.
Here are some social networking policy suggestions from my presentation that can be applied to a virtual law practice:
Develop a consistent image for your virtual law practice
Be clear from the beginning about the face that your virtual law practice will present to the online world.
Keep that image consistent throughout the different methods of social networking that you use.
Consider allowing attorneys, virtual assistants or other employees to be involved in social networking on behalf of the practice.
One benefit of allowing attorneys in your virtual law practice to join as individuals will be that they will have an easier time connecting and building relationships within the legal community.
Some attorneys online are wary of entities that use social networking tools and will only “follow” or connect with individuals that provide content or commentary that is useful to them or that they relate to. Some of the networking sites make a clear distinction between businesses and individuals and may even require that your virtual law practice register as a separate entity from your own personal account as an attorney.
Make social networking a daily part of your practice, just as you might read the news while you drink your coffee in the morning. Use these tools not only to market your virtual law practice, but to gain valuable information from other attorneys and business professionals. Avoid creating a profile and posting your virtual law practice’s name and logo on the site without committing to interacting with others to some extent. Social networking is about personalizing the Internet so it works best when you dedicate time and energy to connecting with individuals through active involvement.
Remember the Risks
The danger of allowing other individuals to speak for or build a reputation for your virtual law practice is that it can be difficult when using these social networking tools to keep the communications strictly business-oriented. In some cases this strengthens the networking and in others it can be dangerous for the reputation of your virtual law practice. You would not want someone speaking online on behalf of your practice to also be posting inappropriate photos in their profile or connecting with college buddies who post rude comments that are publicly visible.
Make a daily practice of monitoring your virtual law practice’s online presence.
Keep daily, active searches running on your name and the name of the virtual law practice on Twitter and through Google Alerts. This will notify you daily or several times a day if the name of the virtual law practice is referenced on any web article, blog post or Twitter tweet.
Let any attorneys, virtual assistants or other employees working for you know that you run this type of monitoring. It may deter them from discussing their work and your virtual law practice on their own social networking sites.
Using these monitoring tools is the best way to keep track of any criticisms or negative comments that might be made about you or your virtual law practice. While you cannot prevent these from occurring, you will have ample opportunity to find out the source and to contradict those negative comments and defend your online reputation.
Expecting associates, virtual assistants or other employees in your virtual law practice not to use social networking is unrealistic. Instead, educate them from the beginning of their association with your virtual law practice to make sure they understand that anything they post online may be visible to the general public, not just their friends and family.
If a public profile on any social networking sites links to your virtual law practice or requires a record that lets the public know where your associates or employees work, then ask that your associates or employees not post anything on that site that will reflect negatively on your virtual law practice.
The first step after you have registered for an account or profile with any social networking site is to go to the “settings”, “privacy” or “security” option. The default setting may not be the safest option.
For example: Set the security options so that members of the general public cannot comment on your own or virtual law practice’s profile page or so that any associates or employees cannot post comments or photos that you would not want viewed on your or your virtual law practice’s profile or site.
Recommend that your associates use disclaimers if they are acting as attorneys and providing general legal advice on any social networking sites or posting on their own blogs.
Remind associates or employees not to post names of online clients or even hypothetical situations from their work with clients. It could be possible that the client or someone who knows the client is reading and catches on to what is being referencing.
You may want to establish a policy that any associate or employee clearly identify their relationship with your virtual law practice on their blog or other social networking site if they are going to comment on any aspect of your practice.
Request that any associate or employee include a disclaimer on their blog or other profile which states that their views are personal and not those of your virtual law practice if they intend to make work-related posts or comments.
Social Networking for Online Client Interaction
The security of most social networking methods is not adequate to protect confidential attorney/client communication online. Educate your associates and employees about the risks of communicating with clients using these methods.
There is no clear establishment of an attorney/client relationship that can be formed through using social networking tools. This may be misleading to members of the general public who may use social networking sites as a way to obtain legal advice.
There are other technologies out there to allow you to collaborate with clients and other attorneys online that are secure. Many of them are software as a service (SaaS) technologies, such as VLOTech. Look into using these solutions for your virtual law practice to communicate with clients online and that may deter your clients and associates and employees from turning to social networking sites as an easy but non-secure method of communication.
This is by no means a complete list of social networking recommendations for a virtual law practice. Check out the following posts which discuss different social networking tools for attorneys and proper rules of etiquette:
Ins and Outs of Social Networking for Lawyers by Denise Howell and Ernie Svenson
Social Networking for Lawyers by Robert Ambrogi