Fear and Loathing on Web 2.0. A savage journey into the heart of social media

by Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice, LLP
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Note: Many ideas came to my mind as I developed a May 1st presentation for the 3rd annual Law Firm Marketing & Business Development Leadership Forum, held at Harvard Club in New York City.  As it turned out, I extemporized, but if I had delivered scripted speech, it might have gone something like this, the first of three blog posts as I free associate about social media as it relates to law firms:      

I love the topic of social media, which always stirs up fear and loathing.  Hunter Thompson would have loved its delightful anarchy, which is why I have titled this post along gonzo lines. 

Even though the topic of social media frequently stirs up spirited debate in law firm circles, I don’t exactly understand whey.  I see it as an important new channel that every law firm sales and marketing professional needs to understand and deploy as one component of the overall marketing mix.  When it comes to social media, I’m an advocate, not a zealot. Having been around professional services marketing for awhile, the social media topic conjures up memories from various points in my career.

Like the starting point, when I was a reporter at a small daily newspaper in Indiana in the late 1970s typing up my stories on an electronic typewriter and sometimes transmitting them via a fax machine with a whirling drum. It was rudimentary, but it was a way to reach outside the walls.

By the time I moved from journalism to corporate communications in the early 1980s, we had moved from typewriters…to unconnected personal computers…to computers connected to local networks. 

My first e-mail communication was made in approximately 1984 on Prodigy, the interactive personal service joint venture of CBS, IBM and Sears Roebuck.  Now Sears has fallen on some interesting times, but at one point they really were a digital pioneer, contemplating the sale of goods in what was then a radical fashion.  As I recall, with Prodigy we were using DOS commands to send and retrieve messages from others who had personal computers and belonged to the network. 

It did not take long for technological visionaries to deploy “real” e-mail systems across their enterprises.  I was at Price Waterhouse when tech guru Sheldon Laub deployed Lotus Notes.  As you can imagine, e-mail went over well in the professional environment.  Not.  The accountants voiced every imaginable objection to why e-mail would not work and why they would not utilize it. 

Today, the transition from e-mail to social media that we currently are experiencing is not unlike the transition from U.S. Mail and faxes to e-mail a couple of decades ago.  E-mail is obvious to us today.  It was not obvious to us 30 years ago.  In an interesting twist, e-mail is once again not obvious, at least not to today’s college kids, who use texting and social media, not e-mail, as primary communications vehicles.  That’s why we must get with the social media program immediately.  The next wave of legal-services buyers will insist on the social media literacy of the lawyers they engage.  Some, like Janine Dascenzo at General Electric and Jeff Carr at FMC Technologies, already are. 

So social media is important, but I don’t mean to overstate the case.  It’s not the most important technological development of law firm marketing in our lifetimes. Instead, that would be the rollout of the World Wide Web, which occurred not so long ago in the scheme of things, and of which social media, also known as Web 2.0, simply is a subset.

The other night I was watching a Seinfeld re-run – the episode where Elaine falls in love with “the Maestro,” who owns a house in Tuscany and assures Jerry that there are no other houses available in that area of Italy.  Jerry is determined to prove the Maestro wrong.  “But,” Jerry asks himself, “How am I ever going to find out if there are houses available in Tuscany?”  If the episode had been taped in 1998, Jerry would have hit Netscape Navigator for the answer.  If it were today, he’d just ask Siri. 

In the blink of the eye, by the year 2000, and everyone – even law firms – was up and running on Web 1.0 web sites, which facilitated the 24 x 7 x 365 provisioning of information to a world that was, as it turns out, starving – starving – for information.  Until the information was available, I don’t think any of us knew the extent of the hunger.

And so, in the span of one professional services marketing career – mine – we have witnessed a technological revolution that has completely transformed the power and speed and reach of what and how we could communicate.

But for all of the challenges that technology had solved and opportunities that it had unleashed, it also created problems – the most important being the erosion of personal relationships that had been at the heart of the practice of law.  The truly human part of the profession.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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