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Law firms dipping toes in social media ocean

Barry Sookman, of McCarthy Tetrault, uses his BlackBerry to keep up with social media, a growing trend among lawyers.

Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

Barry Sookman, a top Toronto technology and copyright lawyer with McCarthy Tétrault LLP, begins his day reading Google alerts and tweeting on his tablet while running on his treadmill.

Mr. Sookman, whose firm has represented the recording industry in its battles over copyright issues, keeps an eye not just on legal news but also developments in the technology business world, sharing them with his more than 2,100 Twitter followers.

Later in the day he adds more analysis on major developments on his blog, Barrysookman.com. While he already had a long-established reputation when he started his prolific online output about three years ago, he agrees it has enhanced his profile and brought him new clients.

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"I still do my other writing, and public speaking, but this sort of amplifies it to people who wouldn't normally get it through those channels," Mr. Sookman said, pointing to a blog post on the Supreme Court of Canada's recent landmark copyright decisions that drew a thousand hits in six days.

But Mr. Sookman, whose fast-moving area of expertise naturally lends itself to the world of social media, is an outlier in the Bay Street legal profession, which has been slower to adapt to tweeting and blogging.

Some individual lawyers have taken to social media as a way to build their profiles. And the big law firms on Bay Street have set up specific blogs for many of their practice groups, and even experimented with Web video, while attempting to use Twitter to drive traffic. Lawyers, being consummate networkers, have also flocked to LinkedIn.

But official Twitter feeds from law firms tend to blandly link to the firms' own blog posts or bulletins, and lengthy e-mailed newsletters remain a mainstay. Many lawyers have almost no online presence at all, beyond their firm website bio.

However, some law firm marketing departments are trying to take their firms' social media presence to the next level.

For example, Heenan Blaikie LLP plans to roll out a new social-media strategy this fall with a redesigned website and more of its lawyers turned into regular bloggers and tweeters. Plans also include the firm's own in-house Web-video production studio.

Sameer Dhargalkar, the firm's director of marketing and business development, said the shift is needed as the typical e-mailed newsletter, across the legal industry, is dying. Less than 5 per cent of them are actually opened, he said, with the rest lost in spam filters or overflowing inboxes.

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"E-mail marketing is really falling apart fast," he told a recent informal seminar held by the Legal Marketing Association at his firm's Toronto offices. "You need to find other platforms for your content."

He says lawyers who balk at the amount of time that blogging or tweeting will take should think of it as replacing the time spent on longer pieces of analysis they would have included in an e-mailed newsletter.

While some Bay Street firms may be wary that one lawyer's wrong-headed tweet could upset a major client, many senior partners now see the potential benefits of stronger social media presence outweighing any perceived risk, he said.

Plus, corporate in-house counsel – the lawyers who hire external law firms – are increasingly relying on blogs and a firm's Internet presence, Mr. Dhargalkar said. He points to a recent U.S. survey of more than 330 in-house counsel that suggested 76 per cent consider a lawyer's blog when looking for external counsel.

While major law firms have shown little interest in Facebook, even a presence on this more "social" social network can work for some firms. For example, London, Ont.-based Siskinds LLP, in launching a class-action against Bayer AG over blood clots allegedly caused by Yaz or Yasmin birth-control pills, set up a Facebook page aimed at publicizing the case among women who have used the drug. The page, called Take Your Body Back, has more than 6,000 likes.

Samantha Collier, a West Vancouver-based social-media marketing consultant who maintains a blog called socialmediaforlawfirms.com, says she has seen a major shift in interest in social media from law firms over the last two years.

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Some U.S. firms are hiring their own full-time social media marketing staff, she said. But the challenge for some firms is to convince a critical mass of lawyers that tweeting and blogging are worth it.

"One thing I have heard from lawyers [is] that I can't afford to waste all my time on Twitter," Ms. Collier said. "But it's not, it's half an hour a day. I think the learning curve will take longer for some firms, but they are going to see their competitors doing it. … I think that the firms that get on it now will be that much ahead."

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About the Author
Toronto City Hall Reporter

Jeff Gray is The Globe and Mail’s Toronto City Hall reporter. He has worked at The Globe since 1998. From 2010 to 2016, he was the law reporter in Report on Business, covering Bay Street law firms and white-collar crime. He won an honourable mention at the National Magazine Awards for investigative journalism in 2010. More

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