The New Word of Mouth – Social Media

Two creative social media managersAttorneys have historically had a weird relationship with “marketing.” For various reasons attorneys have actively avoided it. If you would have asked any attorney 20 years ago how they got their business, the answer would almost universally be “word of mouth.” Going a step further, asking that same attorney about “advertising” would have elicited looks of disgust and eye rolls. The reality is that marketing has always had a bit of a black eye in the industry—and honestly, we shouldn’t be surprised by that.

Initially, attorneys comfortably advertised their services with few restraints. However, state bars began limiting attorney advertisements, and it would remain that way for many years until 1977, when two attorneys challenged the norm in Bates v. State Bar of Arizona, 433 U.S. 350, 384 (1977). In Bates, the Arizona Supreme Court’s restraint on advertising was overturned, and it was held that the attorneys’ advertisement of routine services could not be restrained, thereby reopening the doors to attorney advertising.

Since then, attorneys have slowly stretched the envelope of what the Bates ruling encompassed. First, attorneys placed ads in newspapers. Then mailers. Then commercials… and billboards… and bus ads. And somewhere along that path, non-advertising attorneys began aiming to distinguish themselves; often making a point to explicitly state “I’m not an advertising attorney.”

However, within the last decade, the world of “marketing” has changed and attorneys have slowly started to catch on. Rather than overt advertisements, marketing has evolved into strategic internet placement, a focus on client reviews, and finding ways to get eyes on your business in the light you want to be conveyed.

For attorneys, social media marketing is primarily focused on two types: reviews and direct. Reviews rely on the amplification of “word of mouth” through review sites, like Yelp, Google Business, etc., to have your past work speak for itself. Alternatively, direct social media marketing through platforms like LinkedIn, Instagram, Twitter, etc., relies on creating a digital presence with your content.

Both reviews and direct social media marketing have the same goal—amplification of exposure. While historically “word of mouth” marketing relied on spreading your capabilities through one person telling another, like a game of “telephone,” social media skips the telephone process and projects the same message over a loud speaker. While it seems obvious, most firms are not yet making an intentional effort to utilize these platforms. Thousands of people are finding their attorneys on Yelp every month, yet most lawyers haven’t even set up an account. Every law firm should have a presence on review platforms, as people want confirmation when choosing attorneys to hire. Alternatively, successful Instagram accounts like @planetfunbob and @ceolawyer have shown how having an intentional presence on a direct social media platform can amplify your marketing by delivering your materials daily to hundreds of thousands of followers by simply being yourself.

Many attorneys have started using different direct social media platforms very successfully by catering to each social media platform’s audience. For instance, as their user base is comprised of people using the product for social interaction, Instagram and Facebook are better for getting in front of the everyday consumer. A personal injury or criminal attorney is likely to garner more leads from a successful Instagram or Facebook account than on LinkedIn. Alternatively, LinkedIn, which is historically used in a business setting, offers more opportunities to build referral relationships with other attorneys than Instagram or Facebook.

The first step to successfully marketing yourself to the end user is understanding what you want to achieve and who you want to reach; this will dictate the platform to use. Then, your task will be providing that user with content they would find helpful. For instance, good content for a personal injury attorney could be providing a base understanding of how a car insurance policy works or the benefits of hiring a lawyer after a car accident. An environmental attorney trying to grow their referral network may benefit by offering interpretations of recent holdings and the likely impact on businesses. In both examples, the attorneys display their value to a group of potential clients in an amplified setting.

Attorneys should proceed with some caution when implementing a new social media marketing strategy, as the rules of ethics still apply. Although not a comprehensive list, some considerations include:

  • No false or misleading posts. Rule 7.1 of the California Rules of Professional Conduct prohibits false or misleading information in attorney advertisements, no matter the medium. Although one may be tempted to keep social posts short, remember that even truthful statements may be deemed misleading if they omit material information or suggest a guarantee of a particular outcome.[1]
  • Limitations on solicitations. While social posts are generally governed by Rule 7.1, direct messages on these same platforms to a non-attorney or a person with whom you do not have a familial or prior professional relationship may constitute a prohibited solicitation under Rule 7.3. Permitted solicitations, however, must be labeled “advertisement” or something with a similar effect.[2]
  • Understand the platform settings. You may be unknowingly in violation of ethics rules if you rely on a platform’s default settings. For example, some state bars determined that LinkedIn’s default category for “Specialties” on users’ profiles implied that the user was a certified specialist in that field. In California, stating a “Specialty” on LinkedIn without actually being certified in that field[3] by a certifying authority may have violated Rule 7.4. Because platforms may change its defaults at any time without notice, it is prudent for attorneys to conduct regular check-ins of their public social media profiles to ensure compliance with ethics rules.
  • Endorsements/testimonials on review sites. In line with Rule 7.1, attorneys should correct any information on review sites that is false, inaccurate or misleading, particularly when the endorsement or testimonial is made by someone on their behalf and at the attorney’s direction. Attorneys may place a disclaimer to mitigate the risk that an endorsement or testimonial may lead potential clients to expect a similar outcome or guarantee.[4]
  • Confidentiality. The duty of confidentiality to your clients still applies in the social media context.[5] So, before posting about your latest case, ensure your post does not reveal too many details, or obtain consent from your client. Better yet, avoid discussing clients altogether.

Regardless of the type of law you practice, in a world where a “viral” tweet often results in better business generation than a large trial verdict, ignoring an intentional social presence may harm your bottom line. If the past is any indicator of the future, it isn’t a matter of “if” law firms will all eventually use social media in some fashion, it’s a matter of “when.” And, as more and more people are searching for attorneys on the internet, having a social media presence is no longer a luxury—it’s a necessity.

[1] Rules Prof. Conduct, rule 7, comments [2,4].
[2] Rules Prof. Conduct, rule 7.3(c).
[3] New York State Bar Association Committee on Professional Ethics, Formal Opinion 972 (June 2013). As a result of complaints from attorneys, LinkedIn has since relabeled the category as “Skills and Endorsements.”
[4] Rules Prof. Conduct, rule 7.1, comment [4].
[5] Rules Prof. Conduct, rule 1.6. See also Bus. & Prof. Code, § 6068(e)(1).