Technology

Much Chatter About Twitter

Web 2.0 service is getting its message across

Posted Apr 1, 2009 7:50 PM CDT
By Barbara Rose

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Photo by Dan Eberly

Also see "Twitter Resources."

Milwaukee attorney Chris Moander began experimenting with Twitter about a year ago, curious about all the buzz surrounding the Web 2.0 communication service. Twitter’s business value initially eluded him, but things got interesting when he started following a local mover and shaker whose interests matched his. Within four months of attending the man’s “tweet up”—a gathering in real space of people connected through Twitter—he had picked up four new clients.

“It was chain reaction; it spread out from there,” says the 29-year-old former solo who recently started working with Dahlberg Przybyla Law. “It’s about engaging in a community, and communities matter. You actively seek out a community you know would be beneficial to you.”

Contrast his experience with that of Richard Georges, a St. Petersburg, Fla.-based solo practitioner who writes the FutureLawyer blog on legal technology. For him, Twitter feels more like an intrusion, a potential distraction and source of stress. Rather than helping him build relationships, all those messages competing for his attention depersonalize communi­cation by speeding it up, stripping it of context and opportunities for thought­ful rumination.

“It’s kind of like passing notes in grade school,” the 61-year-old says. “It’s very seldom I have time to sit and watch conversation pass by, and that’s what Twitter is—group conversations, hundreds of thousands of them,” he concludes. “It’s just not providing that bang for the buck that technology needs to deliver before I’ll use it every day.”

GROWING LIST OF APPLICATIONS

Which view will prevail? for now, Twittering lawyers are the profession’s rarer birds. But many are convinced that Twitter or a successor technology with comparable immediacy and reach will go mainstream, exerting growing influence over business communication.

The free Internet-based service allows subscribers to broadcast messages of 140 characters or fewer answering the question, “What are you doing?” Friends and others can follow these “tweets” on their desktops or mobile devices.

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The 3-year-old service has an estimated 3 million users, and they include more than 560 lawyers and legal professionals, according to a list updated in January by Adrian Lurssen on the JD Scoop blog at JDSupra.com. Some use Twitter as a marketing tool. Others find it helpful in locating resources, getting questions answered and staying abreast of legal and tech developments.

Companies from Southwest Airlines to Zappos, the online retailer, use it to connect with customers. Presi­dent Barack Obama, the most notable among Twitter’s political users, mobilized his supporters during the campaign. Corporations monitor the service to react to tweets about service lapses and other potentially damaging developments.

In the legal world, Phila­del­phia courts post news and announcements. And some reporters have been able to use Twitter in courtrooms, reporting on trials blow by blow.

The downside? Clumsy attempts to exploit Twitter can backfire. A chorus of criticism greeted a public relations agency’s tweets on behalf of a Seattle law firm last year when the agency sought putative class members for a potential action against Verizon Wireless.

Clients, meanwhile, increasingly inhabit a world where frequent, often impulsive messages leave digital traces that are subject to discovery in a legal dispute.

“I have no doubt that sooner or later a Twitter message or something very much like it will find its way into litigation,” says Washington, D.C.-based Douglas E. Winter, who heads Bryan Cave’s electronic discovery unit. “Litigation has always been, on a certain level, about evidence of communication: what was said, when, who said it.”

HIGH HOPES

Twitter evangelists enthuse about its potential for networking, driving traffic to their blogs and building their practices. Some lawyers say it’s just plain fun.

“I hope it doesn’t get trashed” by people using it for self-promotion, says Kelly Phillips Erb, a Philadel­phia-based tax attorney who blogs at taxgirl.com and tweets about her life as a mom as well as her law practice. “I never went to Twitter looking for clients. I’m looking for people I find interesting and witty, who have tips for me, and those tend to be other moms and dads. It’s a really nice way to get feedback and converse with people.”

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LawScribbler at
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Kevin O’Keefe, chief executive of LexBlog Inc. in Seattle and a social media expert for law firm marketing, recalls thinking initially that Twitter was “the silliest thing I ever saw.” Then he began using it to pass along useful links and to “retweet” interesting posts. In a matter of weeks last year the number following him grew from 300 to more than 1,500. By early Jan­uary it had topped 1,900.

“You think if I was the largest law firm in New York and I hired Ogilvy [public relations], they could give me that kind of following? I doubt it,” he says. “Like anything in professional services, work comes through word of mouth.”

When he tweeted from Wrigley Field last summer about a home run by Chicago Cubs catcher Geovany Soto, his message elicited a tweet from a client in Des Moines. The following week, the client’s firm ordered three new blogs from O’Keefe’s firm.

“It was like I was playing basketball in a gym, and the person sees me and says, ‘I’ve been meaning to call you,’ ” says O’Keefe, who tweets as often as 40 times a day.

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