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You don’t have to read this blog for long to realise that we’re pretty keen on law firms (and all professional services for that matter) using social media.  But have you ever considered it as a way of tackling some of the mistrust of lawyers that’s floating about like a big, dark thundercloud?

Back in February 2013 the BBC reported that the Legal Ombudsman had found that many couples were struggling with the uncertainty and “unknowability” of divorce lawyer. Naturally this can be a very difficult period in a person’s life; a period of hardship when what matters most is certainty. Unfortunately research found that many law firms failed to provide this basic need.   

Then in July of 2013 Legal Futures reported on research found that the legal profession is seen negatively by the public.

In this survey it was found that only 42% of people said they believed their lawyer would tell the truth. This compares to doctors for which 80% of the public expected the truth.

BBC Radio 4’s consumer rights programme, ‘You and Yours’ then covered the subject of mistrust on July 8 of the same year.

The problem for lawyers and law firms is this: the public see the profession as closed and expensive. A problem frustratingly exacerbated by the Legal Services Act, which has unbundled and simplified a mysterious profession.

The solution put forward by a panel of six solicitors featured on Radio 4 is the usual: lawyers need to change.

They can do this in three ways.

Firstly, change their relationship with the client so that they become less of an esoteric legal technocrat and more of an empathetic advisor who understands the client’s specific needs. See our coverage of the FT/Meridian West report, which advocated the same prescription, among others of course. 

The second is that law firms need to adopt new practices like fixed-fee arrangements… we could go on about this forever…

The third is for law firms to become more open and transparent.   One way to do this is to implement the second point, the other is to become ‘social’ and communicate their law-firm brand as an extension of personality – demonstrating that the firm is the sum total of individuals that the client can build a relationship, based on trust, with.

Social media is a really superb way of speaking as a person and connecting with other individuals, rather than getting swept up in a sea of corporate branding.

But clients doth not trust by social media alone… Online and offline marketing need to work together to communicate a consistent message.  That’s why we tend not to think of social media as the answer but more a tool in a large tool chest.  Thinking of the communications exercise as a process that should cover all mediums is important.  Both online and offline you need to demonstrate your personality and people, as well as relevancy – but unless you’re banging the same drum everywhere it’ll start to look dodgy in the old trust stakes.

For example, we’ve all met the law firm that sets out a their vision and values on their website… talking about what nice people they are… how they go the extra mile etc etc etc… how they’re interested in people and helping clients to get the right result… And then you click onto one of their service area pages or a fee-earner profile and it’s all about cases and services provided.  Nothing about the warm fuzzy stuff included in the vision and values.  How trust-worthy does this make them look?  And then bolt on an ‘good idea’ to have a prime time advert on the TV during Corrie… where they talk about nailing people for personal injury claims or getting divorced… or the commercial fee-earner boldy tweeting where no fee-earner has tweeted before… what are you left with?  Inconsistent messaging that is both personal and faceless… distant and accessible… confusion… doubt… Not someone you’d trust your granny with, that’s for sure.

There’s another point we want to make and – this gives a fascinating glimpse into the mind of the lawyer and the wider profession.

One of the lawyers on Radio 4 said that the reason lawyers and law firms seem such a closed book profession is because they know they’re regarded badly and sometimes seen as a public enemy.  So in response to this the lawyer said firms feel reluctant to sell themselves… well duh!?  Professional services don’t sell… they ‘business develop’, don’t they?  This absolutely makes no sense!  It reads like the Orwell quote:

“A man may take to drink because he feels himself a failure, but then fail all the more completely because he drinks.”

Firms need to break out of the habits and customs that make the law a closed profession.  Break out of the billable hour, rightly called a “tyranny” in the New York Times.  They need to think about how they come across as people, not just as law firms.  They need to remember that the fundamental lawyer: client relationship is between two people and that needs to be grounded in trust… which comes from clear, personal, consistent messaging.

Let’s break the myth that lawyers are faceless, distant technocrats and establish a new breed: one that doesn’t just do the same old, same old; but that does things differently and as real human beings.

This article was written by Brian John Spencer and Helen Hammond.

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