Lawyers and Social Media, an Interview with Dan Toombs from Fast Firms
Interviewer: Tim Martin, June 2014. Episode #13 from the NET:101 podcast.
TIM: Hello. Today I have Dan Toombs with me, who is the Director of Fast Firms, a company based both in Australia and the U.S. Dan is also the Digital Strategist for Erin Brockovich. Hello, Dan.
DAN: Hi, Tim.
TIM: You and I have known each other for a few years now, but before we get into that, what does Fast Firms do?
DAN: Fast Firms is a law firm marketing company that works with law firms, mostly in Australia and in the United States. We work with firms providing a whole suite of online marketing services, including web and mobile design, web development, web and email hosting, content writing, publishing, podcasting, SEO, and social media marketing, and even print design.
So we’re a one-stop-shop, if you like, for law firms to come and get a whole plethora of services that positions them well digitally for the now and into the future.
TIM: Right. You’re a lawyer, aren’t you, Dan?
DAN: I am a lawyer.
TIM: How long have you been working in the legal space?
DAN: I was admitted as a lawyer in the I think ’90s, ’95 or ’96. So I’ve been a lawyer for a long time, or relatively long in the scheme of things.
TIM: Okay, so you’re taking your understanding of what it is to work in a legal organization or a law firm and applying some of these new technologies around that. So the best of both worlds, yeah?
DAN: Yeah, absolutely. I was inspired to get into the digital space because I’ve always had a significant bent towards innovation. It was coupled with a bent towards social justice as well, and I did a lot of work in the human rights space.
In 2007, I was fortunate enough to go and live in New York, and during that time I just became aware of how some organizations, some really smart organizations were using digital as a way of closing the gap between disadvantaged people and how they interact with the criminal justice system, which was the area that I was interested in.
So I came back to Australia and I instigated a web-based platform called the Queensland Criminal Justice Centre, and it still exists today. Basically it’s a training portal for lawyers and judicial officers on how to deal with marginalized groups within our criminal justice system generally. I just saw the power of that, that 2007, here we were training all these lawyers who were jumping into the portal and being educated on a range of things.
What came out of that, of course, was a number of firms came to me and said, “Look, we really love what you did with that. Can you help us with our digital strategy?” So I saw an opportunity there to help them and also to explore other ways of using digital as a way of garnering and empowering relationships between lawyers and clients, which is really the work that I do still to this day.
TIM: Great. So you would’ve seen quite a change over the last several years. We used to talk about digital; now it’s moved into social, and some would argue that we’re almost going back to digital. What’s been the major sea change you’ve seen within the legal fraternity over the last 3 or 4 years?
DAN: Look, I think lawyers have always been somewhat risk-averse to technology. I think that, to use the Malcolm Gladwell phrase of early adopters and laggards, I think lawyers have been somewhat laggards in this field in that they’ve been very slow to adopt innovation, particularly as it relates to digital marketing, for want of a better term.
That said, in the last I would say 3 years, there has been a significant uptake. I think that law firms have realized that there’s clients that are out there on these platforms with real issues that need to be engaged with. So I think the significant change, Tim, has really resulted from lawyers having a different paradigm or a different approach to digital marketing than anything truly spectacular in the digital marketing space.
TIM: When we say that the law fraternity is naturally risk-adverse, do you think we could say that most professional service businesses are risk-adverse, or conservative, or both?
DAN: Yeah, probably. I don’t have a lot to do with other professional services other than law firms, but I think where it comes from for lawyers is the way that we’re trained. I know there’s a lot of conjecture about it and a lot of discussion about it at the moment. Lawyers, I think still to this day, have the highest rates of depression and significant rates of suicide as well.
It’s a difficult degree to get through in the sense that if you are a person full of ideals and huge social justice bents and wanted to change the world and that type of thing, then law school will certainly challenge that. Because law is all about narrowing a person’s view of things. You see it typically play out when a client will go and see a lawyer and the lawyer will be yakking on about “Look, Section 27 of the Criminal Code says this.”
The nature of law is very much about defining things and departmentalizing things into small boxes. So it doesn’t give its way to innovation that well, and that’s why I think lawyers struggle with it, struggle with new things, because they’ve been typecast into this role of being very narrow.
TIM: I look at the likes of doctors or accountants, and the irony is that there’s so much complexity around what these people and organizations do that the web is just screaming out for quality information, and the irony being that lawyers and doctors and accountants and other people in different professional service environments are sitting on a gold mine of intellectual property. It’s just not seeing the light of day on the World Wide Web.
DAN: Yeah, I think that’s very true, and that’s the struggle that we have, really, as digital marketers in the law firm marketing space, is to try and encourage law firms to actually acknowledge that they do have all this content, they do have this thought leadership in their specific areas of practice, and all they need to do is share it. How they share it is a matter for us to come up with, be it through a podcast, be it through a blog, or be it through whatever.
It’s just about encouraging that shift of letting free some of this information, and wanting, of course, to participate in an engagement process. Which again, I think, has been difficult for lawyers. Lawyers have often been caught up with this whole notion of “Look, if you want my advice, you’re going to have to pay for it.” We don’t give anything away for free. We don’t do downloadable free guides on how to get a divorce because you’ll pay us for that.
So there’s a whole rather – I suspect, that makes it difficult or a little bit problematic for lawyers to be real open about content generally.
TIM: Times have changed. When information becomes more easily accessible through the web or even goes down and becomes a commodity, that your ability to monetize what you could’ve done so easily 10 years ago, there’s no choice anymore. If I can go to the web and find out how to go through a process myself, why do I need to pay someone to do it?
DAN: Yeah, very true, and I think there’s a number of startups recently – I’m involved in one called LawBuddy, which gives people fixed fee legal options on a range of different things. But there’s a range of other law startups that are challenging this whole thing.
It’s a big thing for lawyers, because it’s actually redefining or reimagining the whole legal industry, and it’s challenging lawyers to think deeply about “What services should I be commoditizing in my business, and what should I be holding back on?”
TIM: Yeah. Because I wouldn’t imagine that people will ever stop needing to see a doctor, an accountant, or a lawyer; it’s just that the service proposition or the bundle might change. If I can do the basic stuff myself by getting good quality stuff online, I’ll still probably want to go to somebody I can trust to help me through the stuff that I can’t handle myself. I could put a basic stereo system together in my house, but if I want the home theater system, I’m going to call a professional.
DAN: Hybrid legal services, where you are actually offering a nice online package that is accompanied with in-house work.
TIM: Yeah, completely. When we think of social media, one way to look at it is that it’s a whole series of publishing platforms. So yes, there is the ability to engage with people, have dialogue, and build up community, but they can be seen as a way to just get good quality information out onto the World Wide Web and allow people to find it.
Are you seeing that lawyers or law firms are starting to get more into content marketing mode, that they’re starting to publish good quality, non-marketing sales content to the web to be found?
DAN: I think there’s some examples of it, although the most notable work that we’re doing is probably with Erin Brockovich in this space. For example, recently we were working on a case in West Virginia, a major work contamination case in West Virginia. We started to use Facebook as a medium of actually housing interactions with the people of West Virginia, the 30,000, 40,000 people impacted by this contamination, and Erin Brockovich itself. So we set up various times where Erin would be online, and they would be able to ask questions, and Erin and her environmental team were answering them.
I think there’s just wonderful opportunities for lawyers to get involved in that type of thing, to be talking about what a person would need to know if they were thinking about separation. I mean, that can be facilitated on any type of medium, and it’s exciting. I’m really excited about the prospect of that. Even Google Hangouts and all types of things.
But I think we’re still caught in this space of lawyers being perhaps just not at the cusp of embracing that just yet. But I think it’ll come, because they’ll be forced to do it.
TIM: Yeah, I think you’re right. I’m interested in the startups that you’re talking about; what are some of the different models that you’ve seen starting to emerge?
DAN: Interestingly, I think a lot of the startups are still about trying to commoditize law. I don’t think there’s any really notable startups yet that are doing some amazing stuff about using online as a way of facilitating legal services.
Most recently, we’ve had LawPath launched in Australia. LawPath has probably been around for maybe 6 to 8 months, but it’s about providing initial free legal advice for people, so it takes away that fear of being slammed with a big hefty legal fee right upfront. There’s nothing extraordinary about the backend of that. Online, it’s just about linking people to a lawyer that will give initial free advice.
Yeah, I don’t see that there’s anything spectacular happening just yet, Tim, but there’s some examples in the U.S. that are more notable, where they’re using reviews as being a mechanism for helping people find the right lawyer.
TIM: You’re an interesting example of being able to essentially carry on your business around the world. I mean, we’ve got some technologies now that get around the issue of us physically having to be in the same office, in the same place at the same time. Do you think there’s an opportunity for some law firms to re-engineer their business, to take advantage of the mobility of technology and the web?
DAN: Yeah, absolutely. A client of mine in Melbourne, a firm that we just launched their website called Bespoke (Law) are certainly doing this. Bespoke are providing really innovative and creative legal services. They’re not the traditional firm; they’re a firm that’s fairly loose in structure. If, for example, an airline company was in need of 20 lawyers to look at some sort of transactional agreement or contract, then Bespoke has got the ability of actually pulling these lawyers in from multiple places and deploying them in those locations.
Mobility for lawyers will be one of the key things that they’ll need to look at, I think, in the next 5 years. Because lawyers actually probably don’t need the grand offices that they used to. There’s great examples of lawyers working from home under an umbrella of a firm, and when the lawyer is needed, they’re called in to meet with clients at particular meeting spots and what have you.
So there’s certainly a bit of a structural level there about how lawyers practice their law, but I don’t think there’s anything spectacular just yet about a fully fledged law firm that’s just providing beautiful, engaging, great legal online service.
TIM: I get slightly perplexed sometimes when I look at an organization’s digital footprint, and I see the website, and then I see a link off to Facebook. It’s not that I have any issue with Facebook, but I’m thinking, “Where’s the link to the blog?” Surely a lawyer would start with a blog before he or she would ever consider opening a Facebook.
DAN: Yeah, very true. We see it all the time as well. It’s such a powerful medium. We see lawyers – I’m in Nova Scotia at the moment, and in North America there is examples of lots of lawyers who were literally unknown say 3 years ago, 4 years ago, but because they’ve consistently blogged every day of the week or every week of the year, they are now seen to be leading practice thought leaders in their specific areas of law. And they’re sought after.
There’s one example of a guy in Brisbane, actually, who’s done very similar, who’s a prolific blogger who now speaks internationally on areas of family law. So it is an immensely powerful medium, but often overlooked, sadly.
TIM: An example, Melbourne-based lawyer who set up a blog about 4 or 5 years ago now, and he set it up just as a personal archive for his case nights. He would look at legal cases and he would blog about them, and he said it was his way just to keep track of things. He put rich tags around it.
But what he didn’t realize, of course, was that the search engines would crawl all of that content and allow a lot of that stuff to be found in search results. He found this huge amount of traffic coming to his site, and it actually floated his business. But he never set out to do that. That was just a byproduct of publishing good stuff to the web and letting the search engines do the hard work from there.
DAN: I think that’s probably a great example of a quintessential blogger, isn’t it? Somebody that’s just trying to get stuff out of their head and on paper or on the computer screen every day of the week. “I’m just going to do it because I need to get this out, and I just want to communicate it somewhere, wherever that somewhere is.”
TIM: Yeah, completely. What are some other platforms that you’re finding that are emerging in terms of being able to provide real value for a legal firm?
DAN: I think it’s still the traditional get the fundamentals right. Get a great website, think a lot about user experience. Law firms are notoriously bad for choosing their websites based on another firm’s website. “We like the look of that website. Can you just do that?”
TIM: Yes, I’ve seen a lot of that.
DAN: Yeah, it happens so often. There’s very little thought about user experience, and [audio cuts out 00:17:54 – 00:17:58] different pages at the bottom of the page, craft this “What should I read next?” And then take the person to a navigational exposé, if you like, of things that now might interest them. So you start to steer the user, steer the potential client into areas that you want them to go as opposed to letting them go this free-for-all. So I think there’s so much stuff that can be on offer for firms who really want to think intently about user experience on their websites. I think that’s a fundamental.
And of course, blogging. Blogging, as you mentioned, just not in the traditional sense, but thinking about different ways and different mediums that people might engage, be it through a podcast, be it through the traditional writing blog, or be it through video.
I think there’s almost a need, Tim, in law firms of a sizable nature, to have an innovation director. Somebody that can actually spark things in the minds of lawyers to say, “Hey, that case that you did last week where we got that really good settlement for that client, we now need to get a testimonial from that client. We need to get that client brought in. We need to do a story about it. We should do a case study and we should do a video, and maybe we should do a podcast as well.” It’s that type of discussion that rarely happens in firms, but it should.
TIM: Yeah. I’m happy to hear you talk about the website. For me, website first, social second. The website is the branded property; you want to bring people back to it and, as you say, be able to lead or push them around the site to deepen that engagement, first the credibility and then the cultivation, most likely as a telephone call.
The different platforms out there, the different mediums we’ve got – podcasting is a powerful one, and especially in professional services, I imagine there’s a great opportunity for people to talk about complex things. Video is probably still overlooked; would you agree?
DAN: Yeah, absolutely. Very much so. And the videos that we’ve done with firms have been highly, highly watched, and engagement rates have been fantastic. We use a platform called Wistia on all our firms’ sites, which gives us wonderful metrics in terms of measuring that depth of engagement.
And it works. It works phenomenally well in the legal space.
TIM: So we’re talking about deep diving media and publishing platforms. I’m thinking a blog, video, and podcast are three ideal platforms to really get deep insight into what for the rest of us is very complex subject matter.
DAN: Absolutely, I agree. I think that’s the trifecta. If you can nail those three, then that’s a great start.
TIM: Do you find that some law firms naturally specialize in particular areas, but if you come from the perspective of the web and how it values niche ideas or very small ideas a lot, because there’s less written about them and it’s harder to get good stuff, do you find that there’s maybe an opportunity for people to start to niche more and try and dominate smaller pockets of the market rather than being a one-stop-shop for all legal services?
DAN: Yeah, I agree completely. I think this is where small firms particularly can start to differentiate themselves from other bigger players. The bigger players out there can be quite sloppy and lazy when it comes to content creation and content marketing generally. I think there’s lots and lots of opportunity for firms to become quite prominent thought leaders by niching things right down.
There’s a firm that we work with that’s in a small, regional location; they’ve just been acknowledged as one of the best Queensland law firms. It’s been particularly through – I mean, they are great lawyers, they’re outstanding lawyers – but they also blog often, and they’re not reticent about using cross mediums. So we’ll do blog posts that contain a video or podcast quite regularly.
So yeah, there’s maximum opportunity, I think, for particularly those small practitioners out there to really niche down and make a name for themselves.
TIM: You must’ve seen a situation where a law firm says, “Right, we need to get onboard with the social. We’re going to find the marketing person or somebody we can send over to a course” – maybe one of mine, hopefully. And they come back in and then they’re all excited about the possibility that they understand the mechanics of what they need to do and the vision of what they want to achieve, but they come up against the management or partners not being onboard with them in terms of it’s solo. “This is your job, your responsibility; you go out and do it.” But they’re going to struggle, aren’t they?
DAN: Yeah, most definitely. The evolution of our company Fast Firms has evolved out of that. We started off as predominantly being a web design, web development, and mobile app company for law firms both in Australia and the United States.
But we soon found that firms were saying “We really don’t trust the SEO provider that we’ve got. We don’t really know what they’re doing and they’ve got really sloppy reporting. And we heard about this Google Penguin. Should we be worried about what this company is doing?” So we thought, “Okay, we’d better do something with this.” We brought in expertise to handle that.
But certainly content as well. Content marketing is another thing that firms just often don’t have time to do. It’s very difficult for a lawyer that’s caught up in a busy practice to then start thinking about, “Actually, I’ve got to start blogging.” I mean, as much as we’re rock solid on why they should do it, I think within firms there’s some quite tight constraints, particularly around billing, that doesn’t give them the indulgence that they would like to blog.
So yeah, very difficult for a person, I think, who’s done a course to come back into an organization and be the hero of the cause if the others aren’t supportive of it. That said, there are exceptions, of course, where the firms realize they’ve got to be there.
There’s a great example of a firm that we work with on the Gold Coast, and it’s actually in the KPIs of all the people within the firm that they have to generate blog posts. They have to be open to using cross mediums – which is wonderful, because it actually gives them a bit of a nudge.
TIM: Yeah. I would like to think that lawyers are all around social media policies, or is this a case of cobbler’s shoes, that they’re looking after everybody else and not looking after their own house?
DAN: I think it’s a specialist area, and I think that mostly law firms don’t have a really big idea about what they should do in that regard. I think it’s likely vacant space, Tim.
TIM: Am I right in thinking that there’s a default position from legal people that they understand the implications of a misstep, so they’re less inclined to want to do anything at all, and use that as an excuse as to why they shouldn’t be on social?
DAN: I think it has been traditionally that way, although we’ve seen a significant shift in the last 12 months where firms are saying, “Look, the marketing prerogative is so strong that we’ve got to play in these spaces. Let’s just forget about the implications or the repercussions of doing it badly.” I think it’s almost at that point in many firms, including the big firms as well. Some of the big firms don’t have a social media policy, so they just ban it completely. It’s just not [inaudible 00:25:53].
TIM: You mentioned that before, that big firms can often be slower and slower to react and take advantage of opportunities. I certainly see a lot of that around. They’re actually resting on their laurels, they’ve got market position, they’ve got brand profile, and it’s like “Why do we need this other stuff?” But in actual fact, it can be an enhancement of what they’ve got already, can’t it?
DAN: Oh, absolutely. The big firms have been significantly challenged by lots of different things. We’ve got this glut of lawyers in the country at the moment, and the law schools continue to pump these law grads out to jobs that don’t exist.
There’s examples in the U.S. of law firms doing things very, very differently, where the old model of work for 50 years in a firm, almost like 24/7, and hope that you get a partnership, that type of model is starting to break. And particularly being influenced by younger lawyers who are starting to say, “Actually, I only want to work 3 or 4 days a week, maybe 3 days a week, and this is the type of work that I want to do.” So there’s lots of change in the industry, and it’s in for a shakeup in all directions.
TIM: Just this last question: what advice would you give to somebody that’s about to graduate, and maybe they don’t have a position to go to? As you say, there’s a glut at the moment. They can’t just sit back and watch afternoon television. What would be your advice in terms of setting themselves up in the best possible way to try and get noticed and found and take advantage of some of the technologies that they’ve got freely at their disposal?
DAN: I think the first thing is to rekindle the passion that they had that took them to law school, that they probably just got [inaudible 00:27:44] at the end of it. They’re probably a bit lost, they’re probably a bit bamboozled and thinking, “Gee, I’ve just come out 4 years at the other end of this thing,” or 5 years if it’s a combined degree, and their head’s spinning thinking “What does this all mean?”
I think rekindle your passion and find something that led you to law school or that sparked your interest in law school, and start blogging about it, start writing about it, start getting known in that particular area. And don’t wait to get snaffled up by a law firm. Just create your own destiny now. You’ve got multiple tools to do it. There’s nobody becoming somebody so quickly in this space and very quickly.
So I think start now. Get a blog and then continue thinking about other mediums and other ways that other people should hear your voice.
TIM: Absolutely, get a blog. I find that I do have some people coming to my courses, and there’s a few of them that are there just for the certificate, that they think it’s going to look good on their CV. But what I’m saying to them is you need to get an online portfolio up so that when you go in for the job interview, or at least when you put your job application in, you’ve got something to demonstrate that you’re actually walking the talk.
That blog, I just think that would be the first thing I would advise anyone in a professional services space to set up and start playing with. I love the idea that rekindle the passion, because that plays in nicely to my ideas around niche. Don’t try and be all things to all people, but if you want to try and dominate a space, find out something small that really ignites your passion and deep dive on it.
DAN: Yeah. And it’s a lot easier if you’ve got that passion. The writing becomes easy.
TIM: Yeah. I have also heard people say that they start writing a blog and they’ve got a particular idea as to what they want to write about and where they want to go with it, but end up changing directions halfway through. And if they didn’t start the process, they wouldn’t have found the new direction to be able to pivot on.
DAN: Yeah, very true. I’ve seen that, too. And the other thing, of course, is you’ve got to have the resilience and the fortitude to keep going with it as well, because there’s no quick wins in this space insofar as blogging is concerned. Unless you’re writing something really quite controversial or provocative. But most people that are blogging, it’s hard work, as you and I both know, Tim.
TIM: No, completely. I often quip that the twin traps of content marketing is stopping too soon to see a result and stopping once you see results.
DAN: That’s right. I’ve been caught on both of them. I’m a living example of it.
TIM: You’ve just got to keep going. Excellent. Dan, where can people find you?
DAN: Best place to find me is at fastfirms.com or on LinkedIn. I’m fairly active on LinkedIn. And of course, Twitter. My handle is @dantoombs.
TIM: Excellent. Dan, we’ll talk again. Stay in touch.
DAN: Thanks very much, Tim.
TIM: Okay, ciao.