I couldn’t help but feel in reading Tresa Baldas’ National Law Journal article on employers limiting access to social media that employers were actually bragging about cutting off access to Facebook, Twitter, and blogs.

Back-to-back studies, the most recent issued Tuesday, show a big chunk of corporate America is banning communication wonders like Twitter and Facebook from the workplace.

According to the latest survey of more than 1,400 U.S. companies, more than half (54 percent) said they prohibit employees from visiting sites such as Twitter, Facebook and MySpace while on the clock. The survey, by Robert Half Technology, a provider of information technology staffing services, was based on telephone interviews with U.S. companies of 100 or more employees.

Another recent survey delivered even graver news for the social media world. According to an August survey by ScanSafe, a Web security provider, 76 percent of companies are now choosing to block employees’ use of social networking — up 20 percent from February — which is now a more popular category of sites to block than those involving shopping, weapons, sports or alcohol.

Law firms are leading the way in the blocking craze. Per Baldas:

Indianapolis-based Barnes & Thornburg has blocked all access to Facebook. Twitter is still available, however. Gunster Yoakley & Stewart of West Palm Beach, Fla., blocks Facebook and Twitter for all its support staff, including secretaries and legal assistants, but lets lawyers use the social media tools.

Even crazier are the findings of an informal survey of 231 law firms conducted by Steve Matthews and Doug Cornelius and published in the ABA’s Law Practice Magazine which found 45% of the law firms blocking social media. Of those law firms who blocked social media, what mediums did they block?

  • Facebook 85%
  • MySpace 77%
  • Twitter 26%
  • LinkedIn 14%
  • YouTube 55%
  • Blogs 22%

The main reported reasons for blocking:

  • Loss of productivity
  • Viruses
  • Confidentiality
  • Bandwidth consumption

What’s happening screams ignorance and lack of trust. Neither of which are high on the list of traits for law firms heading anywhere.

Maybe things have changed since I started practicing law almost 30 years ago. Back then law firms got their best work by word of mouth. Both lawyers and non lawyer personnel were expected to represent the law firm well in all they did (some things we were more proud of than others). We knew the more our employees came in touch with other people, the greater the opportunity people got to know them, and when the need for a lawyer arose, the people our employee’s met would think of us. Novel concept? Hardly.

Heck, I can remember being pushed out the door to Rotary and Kiwanis meetings. No small feat when they kicked off at 7:30 AM with grown women and men singing from song books that looked like those Sister Mary Rose passed out in the second grade. But the whole idea was to meet doctors, realtors, bankers, and other local business people.

I vividly remember my senior partner, George, asking me to be more like Gerry. Gerry played golf at the country club and hung out in the grill afterwards. He went to all types of civic events. All the stuff I didn’t like – and frankly felt uncomfortable participating in. But George wanted me to grow my practice.

Now we have one of the most effective mediums – the Internet – for time and cost effective networking and we’re telling lawyers and other legal professionals they can’t use it. Can’t use it because of fears born out of ignorance. That’s nuts.

I don’t know about the leadership in your law firms, but in the law firm’s I led, I valued three things: 1) Personal growth of my employees (to be better people, for their sake and for their families); 2) professional growth of my employees (I wanted my employees to go anywhere they wanted, I wanted them to chase their dreams); and 3) to have fun (we spent more time awake working than we did at home, so we sure as heck better have fun at work).

Professional growth, personal growth, and fun needed to be based on trust. I wasn’t walking around looking over people’s shoulders to make sure they were working. My employees knew the big picture of service to our clients. My employees had important things to do. I placed great faith in them. I didn’t need to breed distrust by having rules dictating personal behavior in the work place.

To find problem and fault in things you don’t understand (many in law firm management have not a clue about social media) and use this ignorance to demoralize employees and hamstring those looking to use the Internet for networking is a step backward.

Leaders in law firms looking to compete in a world that’s changing faster than ever before need to adapt, to learn, and to empower the employees who work with them.

  • Not to mention the fact that employees can access the very same sites being blocked via their smart phones. They’ll access the websites one way or another. I agree–it’s simply silly to limit access. Perhaps imposing rules regarding the amount of time spent on social networking sites might be reasonable, but clocking access altogether is pointless.

  • Kevin, I think the comparison to the way we’re all encouraged to network in person, yet blocked online, really hits the nail on the head. Also, and I wrote about this last week on my own blog, it’s the lack of good management that fuels this. We simply don’t see enough managers who are capable of setting the expectations, and holding people accountable for meeting and exceeding them. I went on for a few paragraphs about it on my site, I won’t do the same here, but anyone who’s interested can follow the link to my blog. ;-)

  • Kevin –
    Those are not the right percentages for blocking from my survey.
    On the survey 45% said their firms blocked access to some social networking sites. Of those that blocked, 85% blocked Facebook, etc. The graphic is Law Practice Magazine did not make this clear.
    There are still a staggering number of firms blocking access. Which is completely ineffective anyhow. Anyone can pick up their blackberry, iphone or smart phone of choice and access social media sites. Never mind home access.

  • kris

    We shouldn’t run away from it or close ourselves to the real world. It’s there no matter what we do.
    We should be looking for ways on how to use it productively. =) Adapting to changes, not closing ourselves from the inevitable change. =)

  • Changed the phrasing Doug. Pulled summary of your survey from another’s blog post on it – they had the figures wrong. ;)

  • Your post is giving me painful flashbacks of the Kiwanis patriotic songs … great work they do, but updating the means is a big bonus and a taste we apparently share.

  • I can see at least two defenses for employers blocking their employees’ social media access (or making efforts to).
    First of all is the productivity question. It seems clear that a worker (whether she is an attorney or not) could logically be restrained from watching cable television at work. The worker could get important news from CNN or another channel, but management’s decision to give up that potential gain in the face of likely overall productivity loss makes sense. While cable television is merely one way (receipt) of data, and social media allow more two-way interaction, that does not alleviate the risk.
    Secondly, while it is true that workers can almost certainly access many of the same sites and applications on their phones than they can on their employer-provided machines, it seems reasonable that an employer’s liability for tortious acts may be reduced if the employee used his own hardware and internet access–similarly to an employee using a personal automobile, rather than a company car.
    This is not to say that blocking (or attempting to block) access is wise or a good business decision, but while there certainly appear to be opportunities for forward-looking firms and companies to allow (or encourage) unfettered access to social media, a more cautious approach (once the legal landscape has become known and risks become more clear) does not seem irrational.

  • I don’t really buy the productivity loss reasoning, especially in terms of professional staff. I’m sure many firms have other ways to encourage productivity – budgets and billing targets perhaps?

  • Using social networking sites for work might actually boost production over all because you can connect with co-workers from all over and use them in productive ways.

  • I agree with Victor. I’m not sure I’ll ever understand the “loss of productivity” argument in the legal setting. Whether your work is hourly or project-based, it is measurable. Why does it seem firms don’t feel comfortable measuring it?
    But on another note, I have several friends on Facebook who are law firm associates and I am often surprised by the randomness of the comments they make during the day.
    I think law firms would be wise to step up and train associates on how these tools can be used to build business before they get completely away from them.

  • At the risk of revealing my lack of passion about either side (interest? Yes. Certainty in advocacy on either side? No.) I’d like to point out this article from Fast Company on Monday:
    The gist of it is that neuroscience has found evidence of what many of us have long suspected: breakthroughs often happen not in the middle of a long session of hard work, but when one’s brain has a chance to decompress and process things at another level. A night of sleep/in the shower/during the commute… things pop into our heads. New perspectives, follow-up questions, and solutions occur to us.
    Does this extend to cigarette breaks (do people still do those?)? Or to lighthearted Facebook or Twitter checks? I’m not sure, but it certainly seems possible to me that even IF there is a direct productivity hit with attorneys/workers spending less time working, the breaks the brain is getting could make that time more productive both marginally and in absolute terms.