Have you written your firm's social networking policy yet?Creating a social networking policy at a law firm seems like one of those things that's hard to get right. When attorneys run the gamut of interest and experience with Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and their ilk, reaching consensus on any kind of firm-wide policy is even harder than usual.
If you issue a policy that is too strict or that actually bans social networking sites, you can be sure to raise the ire of computer-savvy attorneys who will howl about being deprived of business-development opportunities in a terrible economy.
But a policy that is too liberal can hamper productivity--who hasn't logged into Facebook to quickly respond to a "friend" request, only to find themselves spending hours on the site? Even worse, lax policies can leave the firm vulnerable to liability concerns.
And ignoring it isn't an option, either, although many firms seem to currently favor that approach. "Many are still treating social networking like email or general Internet usage and assume that the same rules apply," says Jayne Navarre, director at LawGravity LLC. "That is a mistake. The social Web is infinitely more dangerous."
The anonymity of the Web, potential liability issues and the difficulty in policing every attorney who identifies himself or herself as part of your firm online are some of the challenges. To make the task even more difficult, there are few ethical precedents that govern social networking, according to Will Hornsby, staff counsel at the American Bar Association. "[Ethics issues] are in their infancy when it comes to Web 2.0," says Hornsby.
If your firm lacks a social networking policy, you need to get working on it right away, according to Navarre. "The marketing department should lead with policy, education and enforcement. However, Navarre cautions that while non-lawyers can draft the policy, the final version should be formally written and reviewed by an attorney who is covered by the firm's malpractice insurance.
"The social Web is a marketing medium," she says. "If a firm has a PR policy it is probably under the marketing department's influence. This is the same thing. The Web is digital media. Social computing puts journalism into the hands of non-journalists--that is every employee of the firm."
Having a plan in place can also help indemnify the firm if liability issues arise, according to Doug Hoover, a consultant with Hildebrandt International. He also recommends staking out the firm's identity whenever possible, just as smart firms snatched up their URLs in the 1990s. "You need to grab your identity," he says.
Firms that fail to do so risk the chance that others may lay claim to their names on such sites as Twitter. An unauthorized person using a name commonly affiliated with your firm can cause tremendous reputational damage, especially if that person has an ax to grind.
For the marketing department, leading the charge to develop a firm-wide social networking policy can sound like a daunting prospect. But "getting started is the hardest part," says Hoover.
What a Policy Should Include
When it comes to developing policies, Hornsby advises law firms to look at the rules in place, both at the state level and the ABA Model Rules. Commercial speech is an area law firms need to tread carefully around. If an attorney's communications propose a commercial transaction or beckon business, state ethics boards could consider that commercial speech and regulate it. "Commercial speech is the threshold," he says.
Since there are so few ethical guidelines, Hoover recommends taking a moderate approach. "You want to stay in the middle of the fairway," Hoover advises. "We don't know where the boundaries are."
When it comes to developing social networking policies, Hoover believes firms need policies that cover the "Big 3": LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter.
"Different platforms have different purposes," he says. LinkedIn is focused more on professional relationships, while Facebook involves more personal relationships. Twitter, a microblogging site that limits posts to a mere 140 characters, is "the current version of PR Newswire," he says.
Any law firm policy needs to be in writing, and it should cover four areas, according to Navarre:  Appropriate business behavior guidelines For example, attorneys and staff need to respect their coworkers and their audiences. They must avoid values and points of view that may offend clients, as well as slurs, insults and obscenities.
 Best practices for usage Best practices include education and a focus on responsible engagement.
 Professional ethics requirements As Hornsby points out, commercial speech is a major concern. But Navarre advises attorneys to consider copyright and fair use laws, proprietary and confidential information, misleading statements and false expectations of outcome.
 Legal liabilities For law firms, legal liabilities can include admissions, trade libel, disclosure of non-public information, patentable information, trade secrets and disclosures of publicly traded entities that could manipulate stock prices or constitute securities fraud. This includes any information that could undermine the law firm or a client's position with competitors and the like.
With such extreme budget pressures, marketers may be tempted to relegate social networking and the need to develop a policy to the back burner. After all, as Geoffrey Hyatt, general manager of ContentNet, which is part of Hubbard One puts it, social networking is not a business development silver bullet. "I don't think firms will be getting business from sites like Facebook," he says. "It's not possible, it's not what they are built for and it doesn't make sense."
At the same time, Hyatt believes marketers should reach out to and educate attorneys who are interested in developing relationships through social networking sites. "It's like training attorneys to be better speakers," he says. "It may circle around and help the firm."
In Hoover's opinion, creating a social networking policy is relatively easy to do and it is of medium value, making it an attractive option for marketing departments. "If ever there was something that was marketing, social networking is marketing," he says.
"This is low-hanging fruit," says Hoover. "Social networking is absolutely a viable networking tool. People who like doing it, love doing it."