"Why would I want a LinkedIn profile? I keep up with my friends and connections on Facebook." That's what young lawyers looking for work often say when I ask them about networking and how they use LinkedIn.com. Whether "looking for work" means job hunting or client development, LinkedIn can be a useful tool. Here are eight reasons why.
1. Professional focus.
LinkedIn focuses primarily on business connections by highlighting companies and their employees and former employees. Although LinkedIn has a collaborative culture like most other social media, it provides a forum to strut your stuff tastefully, because participants tacitly acknowledge its self-promotional and business networking purpose. Clients and employers come to LinkedIn looking for what you have to offer. Journalists also peruse LinkedIn for knowledgeable people to interview about newsworthy topics.
2. Your resume on steroids.
LinkedIn invites you to flesh out your profile with everything you would include in a resume, and a lot more. The format keeps readers interested with links to significant categories of information. Your LinkedIn resume can include links to your Web site, blog, Twitter profile, groups you belong to and more. When you reconnect with an old acquaintance, it would be awkward or inappropriate to hand them your resume. LinkedIn does that for you.
3. Friends cubed.
Need an introduction or someone to open doors for you? Facebook will let you look at the friends of your friends -- second-tier connections that you have to scan through. On LinkedIn, if you look up the person you want to reach, it will highlight any second-tier connections you have to that person. LinkedIn will also let you know that you have a third-tier connection and tell you all of the people you know who are linked to one or more of your target's connections.
4. Company connections.
If you seek employment or business with a certain organization, you can look it up to see which current or former employees are on LinkedIn and what degree of connection they have to you. A current employee you know may be able to give you the scoop on who the real decision makers are and alert you to their hot buttons. A former employee may be more willing to give you a candid snapshot of the organization's culture and warn you about the office barracudas and the dead-end positions. LinkedIn will even tell you where significant numbers of that organization's lateral hires came from and where many of the departing employees wind up. That may give you more feedback on the culture, or supplement the organizations you target.
Other people can post their glowing recommendation of you right there on your profile. Once again, you don't have to hunt for an appropriate opportunity to share those testimonials because LinkedIn does it for you. Since LinkedIn identifies the recommender and lets you approve the recommendation before it gets published, you don't have to worry about getting flamed by an anonymous comment from your ex.
6. Discussion groups.
Group members can see the connections of their fellow members and can send direct messages to fellow members, even without any other connection to them. That's your opportunity to find a key contact and develop a relationship without an introduction. You can join a group focused on the industry or interests that many of your prospective clients or employers have in common. That gives you a chance to join in the discussion and perhaps even continue it offline. You may have an opportunity to answer a question, suggest a resource or provide some other assistance. That will allow you to demonstrate the value you provide, and create goodwill. Can't find a group like the one you're looking for? Raise your profile by starting one.
7. Learning opportunities.
You can find answers to questions you might be embarrassed to ask or discover the frequent legal or other concerns of people in your prospective client's or employer's industry. You can keep abreast of breaking industry news and erudite commentary. Follow discussions in groups or in the "Answers" section of LinkedIn. LinkedIn almost gives you the opportunity to be the proverbial "fly on the wall," observing conversations that will maximize your preparation to demonstrate your knowledge, capability and value in interviews.
8. Invitations to connect.
As you can on Facebook, you can invite former classmates, co-workers, clients and friends to connect to you. This creates an excellent opportunity to rekindle relationships you have allowed to go fallow or to nurture a relationship with someone you recently met. Your invitation will bring you back into the recipient's current awareness. When they look at your profile, they may realize that you are just the resource they need. Many lawyers have received a referral or new piece of business within a few weeks of reconnecting with a former client, colleague or classmate.
Tip: Don't send the default LinkedIn invitation. Include personal messages that give your invitees a clue about how they know you. Add questions that call for a response, in order to get a conversation going. It could be as simple as asking how 2010 is starting out for them. Do the same when someone invites you to connect. As your conversation progresses, you may have the opportunity to share information about the law practice you have started or the kind of job you're seeking.
RISKS FOR UNWARY LAWYERS
Review your state's ethics guidelines as you get going with LinkedIn or any other social media. Here are a few potential ethical issues to watch out for:
Many states do not permit lawyers to claim specialization or expertise in a practice area unless they have been certified as a specialist by their state bar. Therefore, play it safe and skip the section on "Specialties" in your LinkedIn profile. Also be careful about answering questions in the "Answers" section of LinkedIn. Readers vote for the best answers, and when you accumulate a number of "best answer" recognitions, LinkedIn automatically designates you as an "expert." You can reserve your answers for discussion groups, because they don't have "best answer" votes.
Some states prohibit lawyers from using client testimonials in advertising or on their Web sites. Others forbid comparisons to other lawyers, like "She's the best trial lawyer in town." Review your bar's rules before publishing any proffered recommendations, to make sure you stay in compliance.
Some state bars have taken the position that a LinkedIn profile constitutes advertising. In that instance, you will need to comply with any filing requirements and restrictions imposed on advertising in your state.
Many states have strict rules regulating direct solicitation by lawyers for work, especially arising out of a specific occurrence, such as an accident, arrest or traffic violation. Many consider live, interactive electronic contact to pose the same risk of unprofessional conduct as telephonic or in-person solicitation. Before offering your services to someone on LinkedIn or asking someone to contact you about a legal matter, make sure you are in compliance. Usually the wise course of action involves letting the client make the first overture.
Anyone who wants a new job or new clients should nurture a vibrant network. That requires a significant investment of time and effort. Don't discard the old-fashioned method of building relationships at meetings of bar associations, trade associations and civic associations. Leverage that investment by keeping in touch with LinkedIn, Facebook and other social media.
Debra L. Bruce is president of Lawyer-Coach (www.lawyer-coach.com), a law practice management coaching and training firm. She practiced law for 18 years before becoming the first Texas lawyer credentialed by the International Coach Federation (ICF). She is the former vice-chair of the law practice management committee of the State Bar of Texas and a past leader of the Houston chapter of ICF.