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Lawyers have a lot to learn about digital content and social media. A second study confirms US law firms haven't grasped the potential of digital and social technologies, as CMSWire reported two months ago.

The new study by Living Ratings (.pdf), a London-based firm that analyzes how financial, professional services, property and technology firms are using digital communications, found most American law firms are struggling with technologies.

It essentially confirms the findings of the earlier report by consulting firm Good2BSocial and Above the Law, which concluded US law firms are beginning to dabble in social technologies, but the practice is still limited and "ineffective."

Lawyers are Just Not Social

The Living Ratings study benchmarks The American Lawyer’s 2013 Am Law 100 against 50 key criteria in seven categories: web presence, web content, social media presence, social media content, social media influence, Twitter frequency and Twitter response.

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Living’s Client Strategy Director Greg Hobden added that not one of the firms earned scores higher than 70 percent. "Across all ratings categories, our analysis shows clear evidence of a need for higher quality design, user experience and branded content across corporate websites and social media," he said.

Despite the relatively low scores overall, a few firms deliver "unique and impressive" digital experiences that show how digital brand content and social media communication can form a key part of a law firm’s corporate communications suite. Here are the top five, along with their scores:

Of course, CMSWire would be remiss if it failed to note that even high ranking firms have had social media missteps. One of the most publicized was Nixon Peabody's not-so-inspiring theme song that went viral in 2007. The firm created it to celebrate the fact that Fortune magazine named it one of the 100 "Best Places to Work." But the song is as cringe worthy as Marnie Michael's version of "What I Am" in the HBO comedy "Girls."

Success, Challenges

What are those firms doing right? Reed Smith, for example, allows users to sign in to its online community for a "more tailored reedsmith.com experience." Once users are logged in, they can create customized Pdfs and save them to their personal binders, as well as bookmark and share content. The report states:

Reed Smith put their brand proposition, 'The business of relationships,' at the heart of their digital experience. It informs everything from the natural and approachable photography of the firm’s partners and the excellent 'I Have A Question' mechanism on the home page, to the Practices & Industries-focused navigation and the News & Knowledge based social media output. Reed Smith wraps the user in a client-centric experience. Their proposition is not a label, it’s an operating principle."

Living Ratings contends law firms are facing two key challenges:

First, their websites fail to substantiate their "clients come first" mantras — in both website structure and navigation. At most firms, the "About Us" section is the priority, while client-centric, issue or sector-related content appear way down the agenda. In addition, social media content and messaging focuses mainly on law firms’ achievements such as new hires or awards. There is a lack of focus on relevant, client specific issues.

Second, they need to improve the quality of their content. Creative, engaging and substantive content is the one thing that can unite and enhance all the digital channels, the report noted.

Lawyers Recognize the Issue

Many lawyers apparently agree. "A fresh approach to marketing is imperative for law firms and lawyers to thrive in an increasingly competitive market," the American Bar Association (ABA) concurs. On May 1 and 2, the ABA's Law Practice Division will hold its fourth biannual Law Firm Marketing Strategies Conference in St. Louis, Miss., where marketing experts will discuss strategies and business development solutions, including how firms can "create and market their own unique messages."

And just a few weeks ago, an article in Law Week Colorado stressed the need for lawyers to embrace social media:

For various reasons and with some exceptions, the legal profession has only tentatively explored the possibilities social media has to offer. Whether this is due to an intrinsic distaste for change among attorneys or confusion regarding the rules they must follow on social media per their ethical rules – it’s a tad unclear. What is certain, though, is that more and more lawyers are taking the social media plunge, and these lawyers are by and large discovering a largely untapped resource for promoting themselves and their firms while interacting with potential clients in novel ways."

According to a 2013 American Bar Association Technology Survey, 81 percent of US attorneys use social networks for professional purposes. Almost all — 98 percent — use LinkedIn, while 33 percent use Facebook, 19 percent use Twitter and 27 percent have blogs. While there is still room for improvement, the adoption of social technologies is getting better: as recently as 2010 only 17 percent of firms reported maintaining a presence on social media.

So what can lawyers and law firms do? Allison Walsh, the principal of Rainseed Marketing in Salt Lake City, argues that it is time for them to embrace the new digital realities. In a post in Law Technology News, she contends, " if you passed the bar, you can learn social media tactics."

She offers a dozen suggestions, starting with recognizing the need for a digital strategy. She further advises against hard selling on social media, maintaining a consistent presence on social networks and blogs and, yes, be authentic. She adds:

Marketing really isn’t rocket surgery. Neither is social networking. There is a new language to learn with social media, but it’s not difficult and you were smart enough to pass the bar exam, so you are smart enough to learn this."

Just one piece of advice: You may want to avoid anything musically inspired ... unless you're  former Bloomberg lawyer Charles Glasser, who actually knows a few things about a guitar.