The trust factor in online networks

Three separate items about social networking for lawyers hit my feed reader today, each of which deserves a read. At SLAW, Steve Matthews of Stem Legal says Facebook is not a viable marketing tool for lawyers, in part because its closed-door nature prevents a lawyer’s marketing efforts from reaching a wider audience. In the ABA’s Law Practice Magazine, Denise Howell and Ernest Svenson compare Facebook, LinkedIn and other online tools for lawyers and talk about the power of online profile. Finally, LegalWeek looks at the utility of social network platforms for in-house counsel, with a particular focus on Legal OnRamp, and sees a generally bright future.

As I’ve written before, it’s important that we don’t conflate the online networks of the future with the present Facebook model. Not trying to diss Facebook too hard here — I like Scrabulous as much as the next English major — but the term “social networking” is now all but synonymous with Facebook, and has imported all of Facebook’s benefits and limitations (it’s similar to how “blog” has hard a hard time escaping the gravitational pull of millions of bloggers grinding political axes or writing about their cats.)

To my mind, Facebook’s greatest limitation is its artificiality, or perhaps its spinnability: you can control your page and paint the picture of yourself that you want the world to see. You can choose your friends, tell only the stories you want told, and vary the level of access people can have to those stories. No wonder marketers love Facebook — it’s the ultimate PR platform. Incautious Facebook users (of which there are several million) don’t think or bother to be so calculating, and reveal more of themselves to the world at large than they should. You can tell them from their drunken shirtless photo albums, for a start.

But more sophisticated Facebook users craft their page carefully, using it as a gallery on which to hang their commissioned and closely supervised self-portraits. They list the books they want you to think they read, rather than the books they actually have read, controlling the message of their identity as firmly and cynically as any political spin doctor. The results are far more impressive to the casual reader, but the real person behind the facade never shows up, except by accident. You can’t count on authenticity from Facebook, because we can’t trust that a person is who he portrays himself to be.

The life of a lawyer, of course, is at its heart about trustworthiness, in every respect: trust in the lawyer’s expertise, in the lawyer’s reliability, in the lawyer’s discretion, and perhaps most important of all, in the lawyer’s integrity. But no one is trustworthy in a vacuum. Every lawyer builds his or her foundation of trustworthiness on an accumulated series of relationships with others: sometimes colleagues, sometimes staff, but overwhelmingly clients. Reputations are built from the street level up, through successful interactions with clients to whom they have proven themselves trustworthy to a greater or lesser degree.

Well, the Internet is nothing more nor less than history’s largest street, and every client lives and works there. This is where online networks hold their greatest promise (and threat) for lawyers: they are going to become the newest playing fields and barometers of trustworthiness. On the Internet, everyone who has ever dealt with a lawyer can connect with everyone who ever will. There is no capacity for spin. There’s no option for inauthenticity. There’s nowhere to hide.

The greatest and most successful lawyers have always been those who offered the best services and built the best relationships with clients — they forged unbreakable links of trust. The Internet is very good at recognizing and rating trust, from eBay sellers with gold-plated reputations for reliability to writers whose work is consistently Dugg time and time again. The collective judgment of a great many people is a powerful force.

Tomorrow’s online networks will put trustworthiness in play on the biggest stage ever invented. They will reward lawyers whose focus is relentlessly on service, thoughtfulness, integrity — on other people. And it will punish those whose focus wanders elsewhere. There’s nothing new, or bad, about that. And if helps return our profession to its roots as a calling to serve others, then we’ll all have cause to celebrate.

The most successful unions of the legal profession and the online networking model will be those that redouble the bonds between lawyers and clients, encouraging and rewarding the development of trusting relationships. That’s where to place your bets for the future of lawyers in a fully networked world.