Law firms as social enterprises: breaking down traditional barriers?

by Kirsten Hodgson

If you asked a law firm marketer (and probably a number of managing partners) the things they’d really like to achieve within their firms, I bet the following would appear on their lists:

  • Break down silos.
  • Increase cross-selling.
  • Get information and knowledge out of people’s heads and into the firm.
  • Be able to easily find and access those with the right expertise to assist a client or help win some work.

I haven’t worked in a law firm that hasn’t been doing something in at least one of these areas. But are they using internal social media tools such as Yammer and IBM Connections to help them? Certainly some do use these tools but I wonder whether they’re harnessing them to their full potential?

The likes of PwC have used collaboration tools for years. Perhaps this goes some way to explaining why they are one of the most successful professional services firms around. So, why aren’t more firms fully embracing the technology to enable them to build stronger, more efficient and more profitable businesses?

Vaughan Rivett on LinkedInVaughan Rivett is a social business consultant. Prior to this he was a social business, portals and collaboration specialist at IBM in New Zealand. While there he witnessed the power of the social enterprise, and is now an authority on how to make social technology work within an organisation. I spoke to him about ‘social businesses’ to find out what they are and how becoming one could benefit a law firm.

What is a social business?

It’s essentially a people business. A business that looks at ways of better utilising the expertise within the organisation using social tools to collaborate.

Three traits characterise a social business:

  1. Nimbleness – allows the organisation to change in response to client behaviours. This is something larger organisations typically struggle with. Social tools give them the ability to react as quickly as a smaller firm.
  2. Transparency – from the top down. This ensures employees clearly understand the business objectives and have access to the information that will help them to better do their jobs. This type of business stops people from hoarding information. The people who are most valued are those who share information.
  3. Engagement – creating an exceptional work experience for employees and clients/customers where reward and recognition is for those who share what they know. 

What types of businesses would benefit from becoming social and harnessing social technology internally?

The answer is almost any. The more people you have, the quicker these tools will be useful to you. Social tools are particularly good for:

  • silo’d businesses – those silo’d by practice group, geography or by remote working.
  • organisations that need to modernise due to disruptive technologies.
  • organisations wanting closer relationships with clients or who want to be able to better collaborate with their clients.

[Sounds perfect for law firms to me! ]

How do you make this work?  

It’s important to create a culture of sharing from the top so that this feeds down. As Peter Drucker said “culture eats strategy for breakfast” so if your culture doesn’t support this way of working, it’ll be a hard slog. Executive sponsorship is crucial.

It’s then about enabling people to make use of social platforms and making it easy for them to do the right thing. If the leadership team leads by example, e.g. putting minutes and files onto the social platform, others will follow.

Linking the firm’s reward and recognition system to this also speeds up adoption. It’s important, within social businesses, that employees are recognised for their expertise. The more they share, the more they build their profile internally, and the more others’ understand their skills and experience and when they might be a good person to talk to about a specific issue or topic.

IBM awarded “social badges” to increase employee adoption rates of its social platform. Initially staff were rewarded for really simple tasks such as setting up a Twitter account, Tweeting something, or having a conversation on Twitter. They could then advance to gaining badges for things such as solving a business problem. For example, if someone has put out a message saying “I need help with this sale because of X, Y and Z” then those responding would get a badge.

What ROI can firms expect?

There are a multitude of benefits:

1People are able to do the same work in less time. McKinsey’s “Reaping the Rewards of Enterprise Social” report, released in July 2012 ”estimates that social technologies could enable an interaction worker to boost his or her productivity in performing communication tasks by 25 to 35 per cent.” 

McKinsey studied four sectors in detail (one of which was professional services) and ”estimate that the equivalent of $900 to $1,300bn in total annual value can be unlocked through the use of social technologies. Two thirds of that value would arise from improved collaboration and communication within organisations.”

That’s pretty compelling.

Vaughan explained that, when he first started at IBM he was getting up to 300 emails per day. By the time he left he was only getting 6. He’d spend the equivalent time on their internal social platform but got more done and got better information from colleagues. 

2. The firm is creating reusable assets. Posts are permanent and can be referred to years down the line. This helps new joiners get up to speed quickly and prevents know-how walking out the door when someone leaves.This is a massive challenge for New Zealand businesses.

As the babyboomers retire, they take masses of knowledge with them. Social technology enables firms to plan for succession and get information out of people’s heads and into the organisation.

Firms can, if they wish, create a community for a client to ensure everything relating to the client is in one place and that historical information is not lost. This would make the job of client relationship managers’ so much easier as they would know who who’s talked to who and what their discussions were.

3. Employees have access to one source for the truth. Because information sharing is encouraged, everyone knows what is going on. They can quickly and easily access the facts, which prevents Chinese whispers.

4Firms are able to pull in experts from around the organisation for a particular project/matter and unlock hidden opportunities to communicate or collaborate. They’re also able to keep any external resource they’re using on a project up-to-speed.

5. There’s increased innovation. Firms can crowdsource ideas employees would like to see implemented. Others can then develop these ideas so that,  if management decides it’s something to pursue, it’s simply a question of rolling it out. A good example of this is (where Starbucks customers can submit ideas for consideration by the company.)

6. There’s a better work experience and increased employee engagement which, in turn leads to better client engagement.

According to Sandy Carter, Vice President Social Evangelism and Sales at IBM ”social and collaboration tools really allow employees to connect with their peers, create communities, and crowdsource to find the best answer to problems and challenges together.” She cited a report which found that 70% of prospective employees ask ‘will you let me use social tools if I come and work for you?’ If the answer is no then almost 80% of these people would take a lower paying job elsewhere.

The external evidence is compelling. This way of working can help organisations to build a competitive advantage. In the current legal climate, it’s those firms that look to do things better and differently that will come out on top. This could be a good place in which to invest time and energy.

It’s good to know that there are experts like Vaughan out there who can help firms really leverage social technology within their organisations and reap the rewards.

Does your firm use social technology internally? If so, how’s it helped from your perspective? 

Related articles:

McKinsey Global Institute: Reaping the rewards of enterprise social

SAP Community Network: Escape from the inbox: How one team reduced its email workload by 90 percent

Steve Farnsworth: Customer engagement starts first with employee engagement

Image courtesy of Kromkrathog at

Specialising in professional services and law firm marketing. I help firms to retain and grow existing clients and attract more of their ideal clients. My core services include social media for lead generation, voice of the client programmes and tender strategy and development. Outside of work I love to run. I’m a bit like Forest Gump in that I’m not that quick but can keep going for ages. I also enjoy coming up with new inventions. Unfortunately, most of them have already been invented! | * Professional services marketing consultant | * Legal marketing consultant | * Law firm marketing consultant