I recently was honored to speak at the 2012 Lex Mundi Latin America/Caribbean Regional Conference in Santiago, Chile. Lex Mundi is the world’s largest association of independent law firms, and I serve as North American Regional Vice Chair of the Lex Mundi Marketing Committee. On the long flight back to the D.C. area, I thought about the many outstanding professionals I met in Santiago, representing law firms primarily from the southern part of the Western Hemisphere.  Thanks to my iPhone, all of them now are just a click away and they can expect LinkedIn invitations from me in the very near future:  the attorney from the Bahamas, the rainmaker from Buenos Aires, and the managing partner from Tennessee.  When asked, most indicated that they have LinkedIn accounts, but the vast majority of those who do have accounts confessed that they don’t sign in regularly.

In my presentation, I posited that social media is one of the more important client development trends in years, because it focuses on the fundamentals – initiating, advancement and monetization of relationships.  Please understand that social media isn’t intended to replace face-to-face meetings or other, more traditional, media. Instead, it simply offers another way for lawyers to brand themselves, to communicate directly with clients and contacts, and another means to strengthen the bonds that ultimately lead to profitable engagements.

I started with a basic contention of mine that in the overwhelming majority of instances, the buyers of legal services find lawyers and firms through existing relationships. Either they know someone who can do the work, or a trusted referral source does. Those direct relationships account for 70 percent of outside legal engagements. The second most popular pathway for finding lawyers and firms is through the Internet. Approximately 20 percent of engagements come as a result of the lawyer/firm’s digital presence, typically found via search engines such as Yahoo! and Google.  Together, existing relationships and digital presence accounts for 90 percent of all new engagements. Social media is the one activity that directly impacts both of these areas.

Social media’s impact on relationship-building is obvious. Twitter, LinkedIn and other social media outlets give attorneys a direct, real-time link to clients, prospective clients and business referrers.  In just a few seconds, attorneys can dash off a Tweet or LinkedIn post to a valued contact, share photos, post status updates and comment on others’ posts. Again, such activity shouldn’t replace old-fashioned face-to-face conversations, but social media does help build those all-important bonds between attorney and potential client or referral source.

But if relationship-building (which, again, accounts for 70 percent of engagements) wasn’t reason enough, social media also benefits the 20 percent of engagements that come through Internet searches.

I don’t claim to understand exactly the complex algorithms that drive online search engines. But I do know that social media activity boosts an attorney’s prominence in these algorithms.

Put simply, Tweets and LinkedIn posts help build the “critical mass” that attracts a search engine to a particular attorney. Through social media, you are building your online brand at the same time you are building personal relationships. Those are two powerful reasons to participate in the social media conversation.

In the next installment, we will discuss four additional reasons why attorneys should care about social media.