Enterprise social networking - Ignoring new trend should be a crime

The year 2012 was a fast 12 months for DWF, a national law firm with big aspirations. Three mergers complete and a near miss on a fourth all in support of the firm’s current stated mission – become a top 20 firm. DWF, under the current leadership, has changed gear to a pace that is near incomparable in the legal sector, a sector which is undergoing a metamorphosis into something that is more recognisable to those in other consumer and business focussed sectors. Changes in regulation have been the catalyst to this shift in landscape with some business failures and many more firms merging to survive or, in the case of DWF, build a new position in the first division of legal services.

The rapid rise through the league table brings challenges for the business on a number of levels which are at least; operational maturity, harmonisation with the newly merged businesses and, importantly, building out new innovative ways of delivering legal services. DWF is entrepreneurially led, the continual quest for unique ways of distinguishing the business from others in the field goes on despite the increasing scale of the business.

Video conference services were completely upgraded and cloud sourced along with a BYOD policy and unified communications – the standard tools end users are becoming familiar with. However, other connectivity mediums such as social tools were becoming better understood and their use, particularly with the younger generation of lawyers, is becoming tools of choice. Social tools have come from off the enterprise demonstrating that it is more than just a passing fad and that there are benefits to be had in the business with private social networks. I would be the first to admit that if you are looking for a technology investment around social with an attractive ROI, you may not find it here – we are in the realms of the ethereal.

This is fine of course because despite the best efforts of management consultants, academics and the like to create a science from the subject of IT and business management by insisting on an ROI for everything, we are dealing here with people and human behaviour. Humans, as we know, don’t always respond consistently or predictably to a given set of inputs and, indeed, this is the very feature of the human condition I sought to provide for within what has traditionally been a very logical and rules driven business.

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And the problem being solved was...

In a nutshell social networking at DWF assists with:

1. Creating a space for sharing information around existing client relationships and seeking out new business opportunities by connecting the right people with new thinking. Increasing the firm’s geographic spread was a strategic ambition, particularly with key moves into Scotland allowing stronger relationships to be established with existing clients and greater potential for being invited to work for new clients looking for a nationwide multi-jurisdiction law firm. With more offices came the need to improve the way people interacted and technology has a significant part to play in building bridges and cementing relationships both internally and externally.
2. Bringing clients closer to us with private client facing social networks and demonstrating an innovative step. Technology facing the paying consumer in the legal market is not as well developed as other sectors and so looking to use social tools with clients, albeit not exclusively as it depends on the clients preferences, was considered to be a great step forward. This is particularly important as the demographic of the client is wide so DWF has to have a broad appeal in style and capability.
3. Giving everyone in the business a voice – inverting the triangle we call it using the notion the leaders in the business are, at times, subservient to those working on client files who have intimate knowledge of those things that are not working in the business; business improvement ethos.
4. Slow the number of email discussions taking place. As we all recognise, email has and does serve an extremely useful function, however, it has to be recognised that it is not a perfect tool for ad-hoc discussions that may have wider audience participation. It is desirable that many discussions come off email on to a more appropriate tool allowing greater transparency and involvement.
5. Project support particularly around DWF's five mergers in 13 months. In the latter mergers, the firm used Yammer to pool project resources to minimise the high level of circular email traffic on issues and the high level of documentation on the move.

This may sound a little lightweight with no hard and fast cuts in operational overhead or a technology that enables exciting new lines of income; this is about the hearts and minds which in merged law firms is a critical component. Failure to understand the soft aspects of people behaviour will unravel the potential value in the merged entity. After all, in a law environment, the lawyer is the product.