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.