Corporate counsel and Online professional networking

by 04g7F1nl02 on April 15, 2008 · 2 comments

in Corporate counsel issues,Web 2.0

Larry Bodine’s article in the recent Law Technology News, Crowded but Silent, underscores a fundamental fact in the world of online social media: What draws teenagers, bloggers, marketers, recruiters, evangelists, self-proclaimed evangelists and sales people (ahem, excuse me – business development professionals) to social networking – does not draw lawyers. And more sobering, of the lawyers that are joining these sites today – almost none of them are corporate counsel.

I’ve spent the good part of the last year talking to a couple hundred corporate counsel from Fortune 50 companies on down the food-chain about professional networking, what they like and don’t like about the current networking sites – and what they’d need to jump on the Web 2.0 bandwagon. And based on these conversations, it’s no wonder that corporate counsel are not drinking the Kool-Aid yet. Here are a few findings that lend weight to the statistics Larry sites:

1. Open Networks Vs. Trusted Professional Networks: Corporate counsel use their go-to networks when they have a business need that requires resolution (I need a referral for a good environmental lawyer in Arkansas; I need to find out how other counsel in my industry are dealing with this new SOX legislation). They’d be willing to use a professional networking site to make it easier to get to those referrals. But that network must be trusted, limited to other legal professionals, and protected from relationship “spammers” who litter strangers with relationship requests. As one general counsel recently told me, “Most of these sites are used by people looking to troll for new business. I don’t want to expose myself to that.”

2. Business Tools Drive Adoption: Simply offering a platform that enables corporate counsel to connect is not enough – it doesn’t drive uptake. For a professional network to catch on, networking must be built into the tools corporate counsel use or need – it’s all about making it easy for members to get what they want, without taking unnecessary steps or wasting time. For instance, corporate counsel already conduct searches for lawyers and law firms – when they’re looking to hire, to research opposing counsel, to vet their preferred providers. If a professional network can allow a corporate counsel to get the lawyer information as well as connections linking him or her to that lawyer – voila. You’ve taken an existing business need, an existing business process, and with professional networking, added significant more business value to that process. They key to success is providing business tools that corporate counsel need, with the networking functionality embedded in those tools.

3. Expertise Exposure vs. Selling: The corporate counsel that I’ve spoken with think joining these social networks portends “open-season” for professional solicitations. The virtually uncontrolled membership, the proliferation of relationship invitations from strangers, and the fear of interruptions from vendors, would-be clients and terminal networkers, have been sufficient to keep most corporate counsel at more than arms-length from these sites. What they would find valuable is a trusted professional community of lawyers, and a “safe place” that enables corporate counsel to find each other, and outside counsel. They want the tools develop their own communities within these sites to exchange information and collaborate – away from the watchful eye of would be vendors, competitors or hostile counsel.

Granted – these observations only cover corporate counsel and what this subset of the legal community wants, needs and expects from professional networking. But, we belive that once we develop an online community that addresses their needs, the rest of the legal community will want to join – but only so long as the noise they make, makes business sense to corporate counsel.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Peter Jenkins wrote onApril 21, 2008 at 11:05 pm

PART TWO

The key to success in attorney Web 2.0 networking lies in overcoming the second and bigger challenge.

# 2 – Lack of Knowledge and Skill (which translates into being personally uncomfortable with the networking process).

In my experience (and I’ve instructed over two thousand lawyers in sales skills), most attorneys do not appreciate the value of social networking and what having a strong personal and professional network can do for them. If lawyers really understood the value of this to their careers, they would make the time to network. Lack of time is typically just an excuse that masks the real deterrent.

Legal education doesn’t include training in networking. As lawyers, we’re not skilled in building strong relationships. Bottom line, we simply don’t know how to go about it. As a consequence, we’re not comfortable in social networking settings, either in person, by phone, by email or online using Web 2.0 facilities. Plus, we really don’t like coming across as unskilled and, so, the easy thing to do is avoid the activity.

As to this networking thing? What I hear most frequently is, “Well, I know I should do it, but I just can’t seem to find the time.”

________
The trusted online professional networking facility that you are building is timely and needed. To me, that’s a given.

What has been equally missing in our profession is widespread education and training as to the benefits of social networking; how to build strong, trusting personal relationships; and how to network effectively. And, it’s here where the “Transformation of Martindale” has another opportunity to add substantial value for both inside and outside counsel.

Again, IMHO, you can underwrite the success of your new online communities by making sure these important facilities are not only easily accessible safe havens but that the sophisticated buyers and sellers of legal services for whom they are designed are well aware of the high value they provide and skilled and comfortable in using them effectively.

In fact, providing this education to attorneys at all levels of experience will go a long way to ensure that buyers of legal services don’t encounter law firm attorneys unprofessionally “trolling for new clients” and that the messages they hear from law firm participants both on- and off-line are “client centered” and make very good business sense to corporate counsel.

Reply

Peter Jenkins wrote onApril 21, 2008 at 11:05 pm

John, sorry to chime in a week late on this interesting topic.

PART ONE
Although there is undoubtedly high professional and personal value in effective social networking, clearly “the jury is still out” (so to speak) as to whether in-house counsel at all levels of experience will proactively jump into online networking even with an “at your fingertips” easy-to-access controlled environment free from the negative influences you mention that cause corporate lawyers to run the other way.

IMHO, there are two major challenges to this Web 2.0 networking thing –

# 1 — Time. As I’m sure you heard in your hundreds of conversations with corporate counsel this past year, these men and women are overloaded with work and short on resources. Time is a very precious commodity to them. The feedback I’m get from the many corporate counsel with whom I interface is that they don’t have much free time, or at least they don’t feel like they have any.

Yes, in-house lawyers will devote time investigating law firms/attorneys when there is an immediate need to hire, and they’ll call or email a few in-house colleagues or use ACC national committee or local chapter listservs seeking referrals – but this isn’t really social networking; it’s more just “tapping a resource for needed information.”

Building and maintaining an effective social network is quite a different matter. It takes significant time and effort. A strong network can be an immense professional and personal resource; but you have to be willing to invest the time to “work your network” regularly in order for your “network to work for you.”

What we’re really talking about is “building trusted personal relationships;” and that requires giving a significant amount of your time and attention to helping others. Networking is a GIVE and take process; and, more of the former than the latter. And that’s why lack of time (or perceived lack of time) is an inhibiting factor.

Just because the tools they’re using offer fingertip access to a safe online haven doesn’t mean in-house counsel will embrace networking. Consider, for example, the phone or personal email; both offer safe havens and some relief from isolation. Connecting with just one friend a week to say hello and ask how things are going, you can build a network that will last a lifetime. But, in my experience, the vast majority of attorneys (in-house and outside counsel) simply don’t do it.

Does this mean that online attorney networking is doomed to failure? No – of course, not.

The key to success lies in overcoming the second and bigger challenge.

[I'll split this long post in half to give you and your readers a break.]

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