Why Bother with Online Networking?

In conjunction with this week’s official launch of Martindale-Hubbell Connected, the professional networking site asked several legal bloggers to be part of a week-long series on social and professional networking. Today you get me. Tomorrow’s post will be by Monica Bay at The Common Scold. Others who have already posted in the series were Sean Doherty yesterday, Rees Morrison Tuesday and Kathleen Delaney on Monday. We are not receiving payment or any other gratuity for participating in this series.

I wanted to write to attempt an answer to the question I hear often about online networking, “Why bother?” My answer: To build and strengthen trusted relationships.

The goal of all legal networking, I believe, can be summed up in those two words: trusted relationships. Just as consumers buy brand names over generics, legal consumers hire the lawyer their cousin recommended and corporate counsel retain firms based on colleagues’ referrals. In each case, what sways the decision is trust.

Trust is a strong word, but in the consumer context, it takes only a little to make a difference. Faced with multiple choices, the consumer wants help making the decision. The consumer wants reassurance that the decision will not later come back to haunt. Put another way, the consumer wants a reason to trust that the choice is the right one, or at least a good one.

For general consumer goods, trust comes in many forms. A brand name can invoke trust. Editorial and consumer reviews can build trust. Friends’ experiences with the item reinforce trust. Simple familiarity can build trust.

Legal consumers are no different. In selecting a lawyer, they are looking for reasons to trust one over another. They have little objective help in this. Someone buying a car or a washing machine can find plenty of guidance. They can buy consumer guides, compare test results and read online reviews from others who have purchased the product. Legal consumers have few such reference points.

A recent survey asked lawyers, “What is the most effective method currently in use for finding new business?” The results were hardly a surprise. Fifty-nine percent said that the most effective way of getting new business was through client referrals and recommendations. The second most effective source of new business was peer referrals and recommendations. Other top sources of new business cited by the lawyers surveyed were networking events, alumni relationships, conferences and seminars, responding to RFPs and publishing.

Implicit in these is trust. When a new client walks in based on a former client’s referral, it is because the former client’s experience gave the new client a reason to trust you. When a new client retains you because another lawyer recommended you, it is because the new client trusted the other lawyer and therefore had a reason to trust you. When you speak at a seminar, you demonstrate your knowledge and command of your area of law and give those in the audience a reason to trust you. The same is true when you publish an article in a bar journal or legal periodical.

Online networking is no different than traditional networking – if you overlook the fact that it is plugged in, supercharged and global in reach. When done right and to full effect, social media tools add rocket fuel to all of the ways lawyers traditionally get new business. They support client referrals and recommendations, they support peer referrals and recommendations, they take in-person networking beyond physical limits, they strengthen alumni relationships, they simulate conferences and publishing by enabling you to highlight your knowledge and expertise, they even allow you to respond to RFPs.

In short, social media are a set of tools for broadening and strengthening your network of trusted relationships. Used properly and effectively, social media will enhance your reputation, strengthen confidence in your “brand,” and broaden your professional and personal networks. All of these combine to give others a reason to trust you – and you them.

Next up in the series tomorrow will be Monica Bay.