I was invited to a mid-sized law firm a few weeks ago to meet with a small group of lawyers for whom the firm who hired LexBlog to develop and help execute a social media strategy. As we were wrapping up, one of the lawyers introduced me to the firm’s managing partner.

The managing partner asked me what I and my company do. When I explained that we help professionals, primarily lawyers, develop a powerful Internet presence through the effective use of social media, I got a look like “Oh, that’s cute.” Though we chatted a few more minutes, I couldn’t help but feel that this law firm leader was proud of the fact that he couldn’t be bothered with social media – that he had more important things to do. My gut told me he thought social media was a time sink.

This morning I ran across a piece in the the Harvard Business Review by Dorie Clark entitled ‘Social Media Is Making You a Smarter Leader.’ The message from Clark (@dorieclark), a strategy consultant who has worked with clients including Google, Yale University, and the National Park Service, was one I could have used talking the managing partner.

It’s easy to point to the problems with social media: lost productivity from employees checking Facebook at work, new “personal branding” responsibilities to tend online, and a general deluge of information that’s impossible to keep up with. When we do hear about the benefits of social media, it’s usually in a business context (praising the rise of “viral marketing on steroids”) or focused on a macro, societal perspective (NYU professor Clay Shirky has famously cited the “cognitive surplus” resulting from online tools like Wikipedia, which allow people to contribute small amounts of time or effort, but in the aggregate create vast new informational resources).

There’s less focus on the individual benefits of social media. But I believe it’s actually prompting us to become better people and smarter leaders.

Clark cited three overlooked results from the use of social medi that she’s seen in her own life, and in professionals she admires.

  1. We sell better. Thanks to the Internet, we’ve all become data scientists, assiduously measuring what works and what doesn’t, and what will pique a customer’s curiosity. I’m not simply saying, however, that social media has forced us to focus on surface-level concerns. Rather, it’s sharpened our awareness of a fact that has always been there: to succeed in life, we have to know how to persuade and intrigue others.
  2. We listen better. What’s the sign of a top-notch social media user? I recently conducted a workshop for a client seeking to build relationships with elected officials. Together, we trawled the web examining their targets’ online habits. Some traditional pols weren’t on Twitter at all. Others had dipped their toes in the water, using the service as a PR message board, blasting out links to press releases and favorable news coverage. The most sophisticated users, and not surprisingly the ones with the most followers, had twitter feeds littered with @ replies — evidence of their engagement, responding to and commenting on others’ posts. It’s hard to quantify your listening skills in the real world: do your employees feel heard? Does your spouse think you’re paying attention? But online, every comment you respond to, retweet you send, or question you answer is a structured form of practice for one of the most important skills a person can have: listening, and truly engaging.
  3. We move faster. Some would question whether moving faster is actually better. What about the value of reflection? Or the danger, as Stephen Covey put it, of mistaking the urgent for the important? Those are real concerns, of course. But there’s also a real benefit in, for the first time, being able to participate in (and add value to) the news stream as it unfolds. One recent example was the massive number of Twitter messages about Hurricane Sandy, which allowed individuals to share updates and help others, cognitive surplus style.
I’ll add three more.
  1. We see better information. By following sources and subjects (Google alerts) in an RSS Reader, we are seeing information tailored just for us coming from professionals who are best equipped to write about the subject. Who better to share to insight and commentary on a subject than a professional located where the rubber meets the road. Such information was never possible before the democratization of publishing with the likes of blogging and other online publishing.
  2. We learn by processing what we read. It’s one thing to read an article, it’s totally another thing to gather enough context of the article to feel comfortable sharing the article on social media or referring to the article at length in a blog post. Stephen Covey explained that teaching is a more effective way to learn because you internalize and conceptualize more fully when you know you will be teaching. Social media is all about learning to teach.
  3. We grow a valuable network. As Coach Lou Holtz says we can only grow from the person we are today to the person we’ll be 5 years from know by the people we meet and the books we read. Blogging and social media has allowed me to build a personal and professional network the likes of which I could have never had before the net and social media. I have met online and face to face people ranging from billionaires who founded public companies to a homeless person in Chicago via Facebook. I have learned so much from these folks and countless others in between. This network also allowed me to build relationships which has enabled me to grow my company from one person in the garage to a team of 35 serving thousands of people across the world.
Clark warns that any tool, social media included,  is only as good as the person operating it.

Of course you can fritter away time on Facebook, or descend into a rabbit hole of clicking Wikipedia links. But I’m convinced the very structure of social media — the skills it requires — is prompting us to develop valuable leadership strengths. And if social media really can make us more nimble, more interactive, and more persuasive, we should stop wringing our hands about whether to let employees watch YouTube at work, and focus on ensuring all of us are leveraging social media to become our best selves.

Part of me wanted to ask the managing partner if he had any idea what he was missing with social media – not to market, but to be a better leader for the law firm. But it was not the time or place – and Mom always told me to be nice to my elders (of which there are not as many today).

I don’t have to tell anyone that law firms face a lot of business and organizational development challenges today. It seems to me that law firm leaders would benefit from growing their network and gaining knowledge through social media.

What do you think? Could law firm leaders learn by using social media? Could law firm leaders grow a network through social media, a network that they can learn from and collaborate with? Should law firm leaders just use social media so they can lead the firm’s use of social media across the board?

Image courtesy of Flickr by Kheel Center, Cornell University.