Three years ago, as the outside world shut down, the legal profession faced an extraordinary challenge – staying connected to colleagues and clients with no in-person contact.
Lockdown saw a huge spike in social media use, and while personal use was a given for most lawyers, few had yet been convinced by its professional value, with most resisting the hype and leaving Twitter to their communications people.
However, those long lockdown months saw prodigious levels of quasi-professional oversharing. On LinkedIn, M&A heavyweight Bruce Embley followed his move from Freshfields to Skadden with a series of video explainers on M&A trends and SPACs; Herbert Smith Freehills energy head Lewis McDonald strummed Crowded House and Radiohead covers on his acoustic guitar and posted the videos; and many others found like-minded, work-adjacent communities on what was increasingly dubbed ‘Facebook for professionals’.
‘I was working on a hybrid model and LinkedIn proved to be an incredibly effective and time-efficient way to meet new people, to network and coalesce around causes I cared about.’
Akima Paul Lambert, Hogan Lovells
Was this just a lockdown-induced period of collective insanity, or has the pandemic genuinely galvanised social media’s status as a ‘must-have’ for the modern, commercially-minded lawyer?
To post or not to post
Akima Paul Lambert had an eventful lockdown. After going on maternity leave in 2020, she was part of a litigation team which moved from Debevoise & Plimpton to Hogan Lovells in early 2021, joining her new firm as a partner.
With the usual post-move flurry of networking and client events severely curtailed, she had to find new ways to hit the ground running.
‘My use of social media increased during lockdown,’ she recalls. ‘This was also the time of the great awakening post George Floyd, my move to a new law firm, becoming a partner and becoming a parent for the second time. I was working on a hybrid model and LinkedIn proved to be an incredibly effective and time-efficient way to meet new people, to network and coalesce around causes I cared about.’
Allen & Overy associate Justin Farrance was just three days into the first seat of his training contract at the firm when the first lockdown began. Living alone in London, with limited options for socialising, he took to LinkedIn to offer his services as mentor. As he puts it, that post ‘exploded’, and from that, his charity GROW Mentoring, which he runs with Clifford Chance (CC) trainee Lucy Cole, was born.
Three years on, GROW has paired over 4,000 aspiring lawyers with a professional mentor, and Farrance was recently appointed as the Magic Circle firm’s first global ambassador for diversity, equity and inclusion.
‘LinkedIn has been so pivotal for my career,’ he reflects. ‘When I started, I didn’t have connections in law. I was entering a profession which is often dominated by connections. Without any of those, it felt like a real blank slate.’
‘If you make a mistake, you correct it publicly and quickly. That’s the terror of writing about law – somebody saying “this is outrageous, you’ve got it wrong”.’
Adam Wagner, Doughty Street Chambers
While LinkedIn had previously been seen by many as little more than a personality-free forum for PR announcements, lockdown shifted that view. Take-up skyrocketed in the early days of the pandemic, with LinkedIn reporting a 2,781% growth in engagement between January and March 2020. The platform saw a 6.2% uptick in users during 2020 and a further 4.2% rise in 2021 (in comparison, Twitter’s equivalent numbers were 4% and 0.2% respectively).
For Aleksandra Wawrzyszczuk, head of LawtechUK, a government-backed initiative launched in 2019 to support innovation and tech growth in the legal sector, the connectivity aspect of LinkedIn was crucial: ‘The more I started noticing how other people were building their profile, the more I started thinking about using LinkedIn as a tool to grow knowledge generally and try to build interdisciplinary change and collaboration between the law and tech spaces – not to promote myself so much, but more to spark conversations.’
Alex Herrity, director of legal solutions at adidas, also saw the benefits of LinkedIn, particularly in the context of his 2021 move into a role focused on legal operations and tech. ‘I found that social media, particularly LinkedIn, was a great way to keep track of a huge amount of information and insights about the legal industry all in one place.
When I started to post about legal ops and tech topics, the levels of engagement were much higher than I expected, which made me realise that there are plenty of people actively looking for this type of content.’
Tweet and sour
While LinkedIn was emerging as a safe space for many lawyers looking to maintain professional connections during the pandemic, Twitter remained its edgier social media cousin.
After coming to prominence in the late noughties, it had long been heralded as the social media platform of choice for forward-thinking lawyers, but despite its outsized influence in media spheres, doubts endure due to its notoriety as a home for controversy, conflict and misinformation.
Legal ethics professor Richard Moorhead neatly sums up the contrast between platforms. ‘LinkedIn is a bit like a work conference; Twitter’s more like a golf club bar or noisy pub; an iconoclast’s paradise.’
Despite this rowdy reputation, Twitter has been an undeniable success for a select group of individuals who have made a name for themselves on the platform.
One such example is Dan Neidle, who first embraced Twitter while a tax partner at CC.
As a lesser-spotted example of a Magic Circle partner with a sense of humour on social media, he identified a niche in the under-served area of tax law, and his posts began to cut through the noise – despite the associated risks.
‘If you’re in a large law firm, the risk of saying something which greatly pisses off a client is very real. So the only things you can realistically post about are things which are so technical that no client will care, or something which clients will be happy about.’
‘You have to find a way which is interesting – and presumably you do think your practice is interesting, or you wouldn’t be working in it, unless you’re some kind of lunatic. For me, I always found tax interesting. And there are tax points that are in that sweet spot between the boring and controversial. So it’s just about getting it across well, and there was an opportunity to do that.’
Neidle acknowledges the support he got from the firm’s PR team, which bought into the process from the start.
‘They knew me; that I’m sometimes quite sarcastic, sometimes a bit mean, and that I’d be like that on social media – and they got that. Often people at other firms would say to me: “How come you’re allowed to do that?” The reason was that it was good for the firm, and there was no downside. I’ve never had a single client complaint.’
After retiring from CC in spring 2022 to found non-profit Tax Policy Associates, Neidle took his Twitter engagement to new levels, tweeting every stage of his investigation into Nadhim Zahawi’s tax affairs, which eventually led to the Chancellor being dismissed from his position.
Despite his liberation from the tyranny of client considerations, he remains acutely aware of the risks of posting to a following of almost 100,000.
‘Twitter can be a really tough place – it can be difficult for your mental health to put yourself out there.’
Justin Farrance, Allen & Overy
‘Since the Zahawi brouhaha, which was bizarre and unexpected, I have a much bigger audience, so I need to be careful. If I accuse someone of tax avoidance, that’s likely to become a quite big thing. And if I’ve got it wrong, that’s a big problem. So, oddly, I think I’m more cautious now than I was immediately post-CC.’
Lockdown also saw Adam Wagner – the Doughty Street barrister who successfully built a huge social media following throughout the 2010s with his tweets and blogs about human rights – firmly establish himself as a go-to social media source for Covid legislation updates and their implications for civil liberties.
‘For two years, I was chronicling, on a daily basis, this bizarre, unprecedented use of law to control people’s daily lives’, he recalls. ‘One reason I ended up being the Covid law authority was because I was the only one left who was bothering to wait till almost midnight on Sunday evening, reading the latest damn regulations and trying to figure them out.’
While attracting such a large audience – Wagner has more than 125,000 followers on Twitter – has huge professional benefits, exposure to the angry mob can be challenging. Wagner has found that certain disciplines can help mitigate the negative consequences of being at the centre of public discourse.
‘One rule I have is that if you make a mistake, you correct it publicly and quickly. That’s the terror of writing about law – somebody saying “this is outrageous, you’ve got it wrong”. But if you’re in it for the long haul, and you present yourself as somebody who listens to people, then you might lose a few battles, but you generate credibility and trust.’
Heated debate is never far away on Twitter, and recent discussions around the cab rank rule – specifically, whether lawyers should be able to refuse to act for companies supporting new fossil fuel projects, or prosecute climate protestors – have been typically lively in recent weeks, with many of the legal Twitterati – the likes of The Secret Barrister and Good Law Project founder Jolyon Maugham – needing little encouragement to wade in.
Wagner is more circumspect about jumping into such back-and-forths: ‘One rule I’ve always had is to try not to write anything tribal – try not to be personal about anything, and don’t go for the individual. With the debate over the cab rank rule, there are certain lawyers who will say: “This is a bunch of sanctimonious, virtue-signalling, irresponsible idiots. I’d like to think I’d never take that position. Because as soon as there is a valid debate, by going for the individuals, you’re avoiding the debate.’
While the term ‘personal brand’ provokes visceral reactions among many, the broader concept is of course nothing new, with hard-won reputations built on the back of years of intense networking, media savviness and personal connections. While many of those opportunities were previously only available to those in positions of privilege, social media has to an extent democratised business development, affording all lawyers a new level of access to an audience of potential clients.
‘Growing my network and increasing my presence on LinkedIn has allowed me to make valuable connections that realistically would not have happened otherwise’, states Herrity. ‘The legal sector, especially in tech and operations, is a truly global industry, and through LinkedIn I’ve been able to learn from and collaborate with people from across the world.’
Paul Lambert concurs. ‘Quite a few leads and instructions I have obtained over the last few years have come from social media or because someone remembered me because of something I posted on social media.’
An engaging social media presence can also lead to a wealth of other opportunities – for those organising post-pandemic events, campaigns and conferences, social media has shone a light on a more diverse selection of legal professionals.
ITV brand protection lawyer Holly Moore, the founder of That Law Blog on Instagram, has leveraged her social media presence to collaborate with the Department of Education, The Law Society, the Solicitors Regulation Authority and BARBRI among other industry organisations.
Elsewhere, Moorhead’s social media posts about the Post Office case have also had real-world consequences, with his recent appointment by the government to advise on the compensation scheme for victims of the scandal. ‘When the Post Office case was breaking in 2019, a partner I know started bending my ear about it, so I started to read up and, my word, was there some stuff in there. So I started writing about it, and people were clearly interested and could see it was important.
That sort of thing can lead to invitations to talk to in-house teams and professional organisations, which is important because I’m trying to persuade those people to think differently about their work.’
Diversity of thought
The emergence of a more diverse set of voices on social media has also shone a light on alternative perspectives on the profession, a welcome shift given longstanding questions around social mobility.
For Paul Lambert, diversity initiatives had long been a key aspect of her professional profile, and so taking this to her social media made perfect sense, inspired in part by her US colleagues: ‘I have always used media to highlight diversity initiatives and I see it as an inextricable part of the work that I do.
It isn’t a separate type of work. I started posting thoughts on inclusion and diversity on Fridays as it was a nice round up to the week after all the heavy law-related posts and I was inspired to present it as a series by one of my colleagues, [Washington DC-based partner] Lillian Hardy, who posted every day for Black History Month.’
Social media has also opened up discussions around alternative routes into the industry, given the longstanding concerns over private school domination of City law.
Moore, who was part of the first cohort of candidates to take the solicitor apprenticeship route to qualification, has used her Instagram account and blog to document the experience for those considering following in her footsteps. ‘The SQE was a big driver for me using social media in the way I do. I hadn’t seen anybody like me, from my background or taking this route to qualification, speak openly about their experiences. I wanted to be the person that I didn’t have, somebody others could follow, ask questions, relate to, and trust.’
As DE&I ambassador at A&O, Farrance – who is openly gay – is an evangelist for social media’s role to uplift those from non-traditional backgrounds. ‘On LinkedIn it’s easier for diverse people to find a community, and it’s become a bit of a safe space for me. There is a real sense of community where, if I’m winning, other minorities feel like they are also winning.’
Many barristers have enthusiastically embraced Twitter, topping up their day job with some off-the-clock jousting, and that ‘liveable online courtroom’, as criminal defence barrister Joanna Hardy-Susskind characterises it, has offered profile-raising opportunities for those outside of the standard Oxbridge networks.
Hardy-Susskind’s social media ‘big break’ came in 2019 when a series of tweets on sexism in the legal profession received mainstream media attention, and she is an advocate for Twitter’s role as a ‘leveller’ for people like her from state school backgrounds.
‘I came into this profession from a background that wasn’t deemed traditional – if I had had a way of seeing barristers acting just like normal people, I would have loved that’, says Hardy-Susskind. ‘I was just meeting incredibly posh, incredibly privileged people and thinking this world is beyond me. So now people can see barristers online tweeting about something embarrassing they’ve done, or that they’ve worked really hard to succeed, I feel like that’s a leveller.’
Wawrzyszczuk agrees. ‘I always think about the next generation of lawyers, seeing these posts and watching videos and getting the resource or the perspective that I never had.
Even ten years ago, if you went on LinkedIn, the content would have been quite dry and there would not have been much engagement. Whereas nowadays, people sharing their experiences and perspectives can inspire you to do things differently.’
For Paul Lambert, ‘social media has helped to advance our conversation because our voices have equal weight. The algorithm is not adjusted so that senior people or those with certain attributes have better access. What we see on LinkedIn is what would happen if organisations were flat – the best and most useful conversations will get traction.’
The dislike button
However, it’s not all likes, retweets and heart emojis. The challenges of social media are well documented, with Twitter in particular widely acknowledged as a difficult platform to navigate given the adversarial nature of many of its users. Following its $44bn acquisition by Elon Musk last year, such concerns have only continued to grow – as well as the ongoing farrago around ‘blue tick’ identity verification – with LinkedIn now widely acknowledged as a ‘safer space’ for professional networking.
Farrance himself is much less active on Twitter due to acknowledging the likely reaction to much of his content. ‘I find Twitter can actually be a really tough place to have a presence – it can be difficult for your mental health to put yourself out there. I will do a post on LinkedIn about being an openly gay man and it can be viewed by 200,000 people overnight. If I did the same post on Twitter, I’d have to brace myself for the mental health aspect of being torn apart and being called awful names, just because of who I am.’
Moore agrees: ‘Opening yourself up to others’ opinions, and potentially some of the negative experiences that social media can bring, can be a real challenge.’
Wagner has also learned from experience. ‘What I’ve realised over the years is where the conflict really emerges is in issues which cross over into party politics. You can stay within your lane, which is really what I tried to do during Covid – it was really important to me, from a mental health and wellbeing perspective, that I didn’t become a warrior for one position or another.’
‘What’s coming behind us is a tidal wave of “online lawyers”, and how we deal with that is going to be a real challenge.’
Joanna Hardy-Susskind, Red Lion Chambers
Lawyers are of course also required to abide by professional obligations on social media, and in 2017 the SRA issued a warning notice about offensive communications, after noting a significant increase in the number of complaints concerning racism, sexism and other threatening and abusive comments.
While adhering to such principles online is just an extension of the expectations of lawyers in everyday life, social media has to an extent blurred the lines between the personal and the professional. For Wawrzyszczuk, ‘I think there’s a very thin line between being personal and oversharing. Personable – yes, but personal, I’m not so sure.’
‘My basic rule is: don’t tweet anything that I wouldn’t want a judge to read’, says Wagner. ‘I’ve always had that rule because I’ve always been terrified that at some point judges were going to start using Twitter, and indeed, it was the case.
‘About four years after I started Twitter, I was in the High Court in a judicial review permission hearing. I was watching and waiting for my turn, and then I heard the judge say: “And as Mr Wagner, who’s sitting in the courtroom, said on Twitter the other day…”.
Hardy-Susskind has had similar experiences.
‘I have had judges who have seen my tweets, and so I do have to be careful about that. You have to keep an eye on the fact that you might be in front of somebody who has read your tweets that morning, and you don’t necessarily want your judge seeing what you’ve been up to in your social life.’
The younger, perma-online generation will arguably have even more difficulty navigating these challenges. ‘The generation below me lives online – TikTok lawyers, “day in the life” content, “my outfit in court” posts – they are putting everything online,’ observes Hardy-Susskind. ‘I think what’s coming behind us is a tidal wave of “online lawyers”, and how we regulate and deal with that sensibly and commercially is going to be a real challenge. We should always ultimately remember that this job is about the client, not about us.’
The discussion around Gen Z has been a particularly hot topic lately, with increasing numbers of aspiring lawyers who have grown up online now documenting their career progression via blogs, YouTube videos and Instagram accounts – dubbed ‘lawfluencers’ due to their glossy, aspirational content. Many of those building a profile in this space focus on advice to other future lawyers and insights into their own experiences in the profession.
CC trainee Lucy Cole, who now runs GROW Mentoring alongside A&O’s Farrance, has an audience of over 12,000 on Instagram, highlighting the appetite for career-focused content among peers looking for advice on how to make it into the industry. ‘I made it my mission to transparently share how I was navigating my degree and career journey in the hope that at least one person would be slightly more equipped than I was.’
And while some question the credentials of aspiring lawyers as career coaches, Hardy-Susskind argues that this can only help broaden the appeal of law as a career. ‘If the profession is saying we want to attract a wide range of people and they’re able to effectively show different aspects of the job, then all power to them. They’re having fun and not harming anyone. People posting on Instagram and TikTok about the great time they’re having could attract people to this job who never thought they could be a lawyer. This profession has been stuffy for long enough – there’s nothing wrong with a lawyer also being a person.’
Next stop, TikTok?
While corporate partners doing dance challenges on TikTok seems highly unlikely, there’s no denying that the social media landscape is one of constant, fast-paced change. What is trending one week can be quickly forgotten the next, and keeping up with everything can feel like a full-time job. Law firm Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn accounts are increasingly ubiquitous – and even The Law Society now has a TikTok account.
Predicting the future of the legal sector’s use of social media is a tricky ask, but the consensus is that its influence will only increase. Herrity notes that, on the positive side, more and more interesting and practical content will be shared across the industry rather than just using social media as a PR machine: ‘Hopefully we’ll see the back of press release posts about hires or office openings and the endless posts of regurgitated and part-plagiarised articles about the legal topics of the hour.’
Neidle concurs: ‘So many law firms spend so much time writing briefings that are read by essentially nobody – if you produce a long briefing, dump it on the website, maybe put it on LinkedIn with a one-sentence bland introduction, then no-one’s going to look at it. There’s a mini-industry in many law firms of producing them, and the value is minimal in comparison with the time spent. But if you do it as part of a strategy, and use more personal commentary, that makes it more interesting, and it can be much more effective.’
Paul Lambert agrees that the personal approach is the way forward. ‘Firms will realise that their greatest source of marketing will be their people. A long time ago, getting a piece of news on the firm’s official account was important. Now, it is probably only important from a signalling perspective. As Gen Z enters the workforce, we will see different apps gaining greater prominence, and firms that don’t embrace this now do so at their peril.’
Is social media really worth the effort for lawyers? The jury’s out.
‘There’ll be some people for whom social media is a useful tool, depending on their expertise’, states Neidle. ‘For a private equity or M&A lawyer, I’m not so sure there’s really anything for you, but if you are someone who has more of an advisory practice, where you’re doing stuff that has a broader interest, there’s an opportunity for you.’
Farrance also adds that where clients are, lawyers should naturally follow: ‘Our clients are also on LinkedIn. If I’m a savvy, young lawyer, shouldn’t I also be where our clients are, building my profile?’
Herrity is more circumspect: ‘I’m not much of a social media evangelist. The social media I use works for me and my goals at the moment, but that can easily and quickly change. It’s best to take a purposeful approach when considering whether you should start or increase your social media presence and then challenge if the effort it takes will be worth it.’
The personalised approach is one Moore agrees with: ‘Having a social media presence is a totally personal choice. In terms of building your personal brand, social media can be a great way of doing that. However, it is not for everybody, and that’s fine.’
For her part, Paul Lambert is definitive in her stance: ‘It is vital if you would like to be successful, current and marketable. If you don’t care about that, then you don’t need to have a social media presence. Of course, those who are experts in their fields will continue to have a following for some time, but for how long?’ LB