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Professional services firms, such as law firms, are innately social organizations, certainly more so than other types of businesses. They depend heavily on social interactions – with clients and among professional colleagues – to carry out their work and develop new business. In many firms, professionals are expected to publish content, share knowledge internally, and build reputation externally.

This is what international management consulting firm, McKinsey & Company, asserted in 2012 in connection with a report, entitled, “The social economy: Unlocking value and productivity through social technologies.” McKinsey further held, “These characteristics point to very large potential benefits from social technologies. From demonstrating knowledge and intellectual prowess by way of tweets, to recruiting via social sites, to mining social data for information to assist in litigation, professional services firms are finding ways to employ social technologies.”

Despite Potential Pitfalls, the Benefit of Social Media

Law firms have much to gain from social media channels if they are properly managed, which is crucial in order to avoid lapses in state ethics rules. The American Bar Association (“ABA”) echoed this notion, stating in connection with a report of its own, the 2016 Legal Technology Survey Report, “Taking control of your online presence is a necessity, and there are few better ways to do so than social media. Used carefully, social media can give your firm a voice, amplify your professional reputation, and help drive new business.”

In practice, social media activity can enable a firm to connect instantly with potential clients, create and share content in order to establish or maintain its position as a professional resource, improve its standing in search engine results, and generally, raise its profile or level of exposure in a socially shrewd market, among other benefits.

With the foregoing in mind, it should come as little surprise that as of 2016, 85% of law firms have a website. In addition to their main websites, many firms also maintain blogs as a means to build credibility in their areas of expertise and to market their services. And 76% of law firms now maintain an online presence compared to only 55% in 2012 (per the ABA’s study).

Many firms are putting social media to work to garner extra exposure and gain advantage over their competitors, and in some cases, firms are utilizing social media simply to maintain the status quo. In a hyper-connected world, businesses that lack a social media presence are often at a disadvantage in the minds of consumers and potential clients. According to David Ackert of the Los Angeles-based business development firm, Ackert Advisory, “Social media is critical to digital branding. If people see that you don’t have an online presence, they think you are less credible/relevant in the digital age.”

In the same vein, the most recent survey on the In-House Counsel Use of Social Media Survey conducted by Inside Counsel, Greentarget and Zeughauser Group, states that firms and their lawyers “need to take full advantage of” social media, with LinkedIn serving as a particularly relevant platform for lawyers. Facebook and Twitter are swiftly becoming essential tools for firms, as well. Instagram – the photo-sharing app – is the least commonly utilized for the vast majority of firms, but still a platform that particularly in-the-know firms are taking to.

The Ranking: IP Firms, Firms with IP Practice Groups

Given the ever-increasing importance of social media in the legal sphere as a marketing tool and a way for firms to differentiate and favorably position themselves in relation to their competitors, the following ranking takes into account the social media activity of 115 of the most renowned intellectual property (IP) firms and/or firms with particularly noteworthy IP groups in the U.S. The firms chosen for this list were derived directly from an array of rankings of the most prominent domestic IP firms; these include Law360’s “IP Practice Groups of the Year” list, U.S. News’ “Best Law Firms” list, Legal 500’s IP ranking, and World Trademark Review’s “Leading Trademark Professionals 2016” list.

Information regarding the sizes of such firms, including their partner count, was sourced, in part, from Law360’s “Largest U.S. Firms List,” but please note, the following ranking is not limited exclusively to large firms and includes a number of smaller firms and practice groups.

The Terms of the Ranking

The following list ranks the followings amassed and the level of activity of these 115 firms across the Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram platforms over a six-month period (from July 15, 2015 to December 15, 2016). Only official Facebook pages were taken into account. In terms of Twitter, only a firm’s main page was considered; activity on additional country-specific or regional pages, or the pages of attorneys associated with such firms were not included.

Due to general inactivity of the ranked firms on Instagram (less than 10% of the firms maintain an Instagram account), usage – or better yet, the lack of usage – of this platform was not taken into account in connection with the average level of activity. However, firms that do have Instagram accounts are designated with a “+” next to their average level of activity, as they represent some of the more forward-thinking firms in terms of their social footprint. The number of Instagram followers that these firms boast is included in the total follower count per firm.

Activity level has been measured across the individual Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn platforms and averaged together to determine a single status: Very Active (which means that the firm generally posts on a daily basis or at least once a week); Active (posts several times per month on average); Barely Active (posts sporadically, typically not more than three times per month); and Inactive (posts only minimally with less than 12 posts over the past year).

Activity level is listed secondarily to the follower count per firm, but should be considered significant given that frequent activity tends to be correlated with greater follower counts. Moreover, activity level serves as a tie breaker for firms that have the same number of followers.

Practical Tips

A few legal-specific suggestions from social media and public relations/marketing experts are as follows:

“Comment on the latest news that affects your firm and your clients. Engage with others and be sure to reply when others engage with you. Start a dialogue about a trending or emerging issue and ask for the opinion of others. Check out what social media channels your competitors and potential clients are using. Remember that quality content is key and not the quantity of social media accounts.” – Teresa Bosso, Proxy PR.

“The trick is to dive into the content stream in a certain area, and figure out who the active experts are. Aggregate them, in some fashion, so that you become aware of their posts, and repost what they write, in your stream, which will also include your own content, which is then perceptually improved by association.” – Jared Correia, Law Office Management Assistance Program.

“Social media works best when it is specific, offers opinions and demonstrates expertise around a specific topic. No one cares about your press releases, so stop posting those things on social media outlets. It’s lazy marketing.”— Keith Wewe, Content Pilot LLC.

“In addition to your website, you need — at the very least — to claim or create and fill out profiles on all the key legal directories and social platform that commonly appear on the first page of most searches. Not sure where to start? Type your name into a search engine and see which directories pop up, then do your best to complete those profiles.” – Dan Lear, Avvo.

“Live tweeting from a conference is a great way to get new quality followers. Find out the conference hashtag and speakers’ Twitter handles, so you can tweet using those.” – Sayre Happich, The Bar Association of San Francisco.

“Hashtags, the #now #ubiquitous #method of labelling tweets as belonging to a particular conversation or topic, are a great way of gaining exposure to an entire new audience or targeting your messaging in real-time to an audience discussing a trending topic.” – Derek Bolen, Clio.

“Creating the relationships that blend between social media and real life seems to be where the magic happens.”— Chad Burton, CuroLegal.

Conclusion

As indicated in the foregoing list, the level of a firm’s activity does not always translate positively to follower count (and even further, meaningful levels of engagement, which is also a significant metric). High levels of activity that results in low levels of followings suggests that the content being published is not compelling to the audience on that platform. This is likely due to the lack of appealing and/or original content.

Specifically, in many instances, firms have taken to connecting their Facebook and Twitter accounts in lieu of posting original content on the individual pages. The posting of Facebook-formatted content on Twitter, for example, tends to lead to low levels of interest among Twitter users. Most tweet without compelling imagery; according to a recent Fast Company report, tweets with images traditionally see much higher engagement than those without, gaining up to 150 percent more link clicks, retweets and favorites.

Many firms utilize social platforms merely as a space to share intra-office news, such as hires, promotions and/or firm honors, which does not necessarily prove significantly compelling to outside users. This news is certainly noteworthy and worth sharing but must be balanced with other informative posts to drive attention to a firm’s page regardless of the platform.

With this in mind, the most effective uses of social media within the legal sphere generally combine intra-office announcements and firm promotion messages, and relevant information and news articles regarding a firm’s area of specialty. Additionally, articles dedicated to related interests, whether they be pro bono causes/projects, leadership-related articles (Harvard Business Review — which recently noted that “busy professionals might worry that it’s pointless to create content, given the surfeit of blogs and podcasts and social media chatter … and even if you don’t have 10,000 readers/followers, it’s an invaluable form of credibility” — proves a popular source for many), and events can be a welcome addition to provide balance.

Snapshot: Key Findings

– The firms that rank mostly favorably (the top 5%) in terms of having the largest followings are: Baker & McKenzie, DLA Piper, Hogan Lovells, White & Case, Norton Rose Fulbright, and Latham & Watkins.

– Less than 15% of the firms ranked maintain Instagram accounts.

– The most highly active firms on social media are: DLA Piper, Latham & Watkins, Greenberg Taurig, Mayer Brown, McDermott Will & Emery, Hayes and Boone, Fish & Richardson, and Baker Botts.

– The least active firms on social media are: Levine Sullivan Koch & Schulz, Fross Zelnick Lehman & Zissu, Cantor Colburn, McKool Smith, Kasowitz Benson Torres & Friedman, Stroock & Strook, Choate Hall & Stewart, Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, Venable, Simpson Thatcher & Bartlett, Ropes & Gray, and Clearly Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton.

* Research for “The Social Network: How Top U.S. Intellectual Property Firms Are Utilizing Social Media” was largely compiled by Nicole Malick.