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I got into a discussion this week with Emma Durand-Wood (@emmaewood) of Stem Legal on the value of Facebook for a lawyer’s business development efforts.

Wood, referencing a situation where her husband was looking for a niche business lawyer, blogged about where clients go when seeking a lawyer. Her point was that lawyers ought develop a presence where it matters — and I don’t disagree with that. Her husband didn’t have a referral source so felt compelled to go online to begin his search.

What I took issue with was the implication that Facebook offers little value to lawyers. In a study cited by Wood, word of mouth topped the list in importance, search engines were the first place people looked online, and Facebook offered little value in finding new clients. There were other things ranging in value to a lawyer, including a website, yellow pages and Yelp.

When word of mouth tops the list for lawyers, and I’d add relationships are right there, isn’t networking in a real and authentic way the most important thing a lawyer can do? When people spend what seems to be half their lives on online, with the majority of that time on Facebook, the most popular place for networking in the world, isn’t Facebook invaluable for building a word of mouth reputation and relationships?

Wood’s response in a Twitter discussion was that not all consumers of legal services are on Facebook so a lawyer needs to cover their bases elsewhere online. I agree. I’d never suggest that a lawyer put all their eggs in Facebook. I wouldn’t even start with Facebook in my online networking as a lawyer.

But it doesn’t matter if your prospective clients are on Facebook for Facebook to work for networking. A lawyer’s clients are not necessarily on a Rotary, Kiwanis, bank, or hospital board a lawyer sits on. Yet those boards are invaluable for lawyers developing relationships of trust with people of influence in their community, the type of people who refer people to lawyers who they trust.

Those boards worked for me as a personal injury lawyer and one of my partners, a divorce lawyer, in addition to my partners who did business work.

Our small law firm in rural Wisconsin grew to be the largest in Western Wisconsin (admittedly only 16 lawyers) without any advertising or promotional materials. We did it through word of mouth – doing good work and getting out networking, business-wise and socially, so that people referred work to us.

Facebook is that civic board, softball game, or bar stool conversation of today. Sure face to face still rules, but online social networking engagement accelerates and nurtures relationships.

Online social networking enhances a lawyer’s word of mouth reputation as being a good person and someone who can be trusted. People will turn to those who’ve come to trust you for the name of a good lawyer.

Sure, lawyers ought to build out their online presence in multiple ways. God knows a website, directly listing, and ads get you eyeballs quickly. But they’re not as valuable to you as a word of mouth reputation and referrals. That’ll take longer and today it’ll mean understanding Facebook.

Image courtesy of Flickr by Camila Leite Oliveira.