Although demand for social media-related legal counsel is growing exponentially and has piqued some BigLaw interest, the practice area remains largely dominated by midsize law firms and boutiques, including one newcomer that claims to be the world’s first dedicated solely to social media legal issues.
It is largely boutiques and BigLaw outsiders — and now a one-attorney shop in Miami dedicating itself to social media law — that have been nimbly carving out space for these low-leverage platforms, which promise value-add opportunities for their client base, according to experts.
“It’s a different kind of practice, more akin to a tax practice,” said Peter Zeughauser of consulting firm Zeughauser Group LLC. “They don’t need a lot of associate support.”
Larger law firms generally have people with expertise in social media law, but most at the top of the BigLaw ranks have not invested in dedicated platforms in large part because the work — such as reviewing employment policies on social media use — doesn’t often require large teams or bring in significant fees or billable hours, noted Sarah Morris of recruiting firm Lateral Link.
Of course, there are exceptions among the BigLaw ranks, notably including technology and business law powerhouse Morrison & Foerster LLP.
And with companies across several industries increasingly facing a complex mix of employment, intellectual property and advertising issues related to social media, interest in these practice platforms has jumped among firms of various sizes, according to experts.
“It has [seen] exponential growth, just like all digital traffic in general,” said Zeughauser, noting data that suggests an 18-fold increase in cross-border Internet traffic between 2005 and 2012.
On Tuesday, that growing need prompted attorney Ethan Wall to open the doors to The Social Media Law Firm in Miami, which claims to be the world’s first firm solely dedicated to social media legal services.
Wall, who had a social media, Internet and intellectual property practice at Richman Greer PA earlier in his career, is a one-attorney shop for now, though he already has plans to build up.
“I’ve become so busy so quickly I’m in the process of bringing on two new interns interested in social media legal issues,” said Wall, noting that his client base currently ranges from the largest credit union in California to a one-person startup in New York City.
His interest in the practice area was ignited about seven years ago, when he began getting questions about Myspace and Facebook while delivering presentations on intellectual property issuers to certified public accountant clients.
“The lightbulb went on in my head that there are tens of thousands of attorneys working on intellectual property law, but no one was working with social media,” Wall said.
After authoring four books, starting a law school course on social media law and traveling to speak at conferences and provide training — all things that Wall acknowledges “are not necessarily helpful to a firm’s bottom line or billable hours” — he decided to strike out on his own.
Wall is also behind the company Social Media Law and Order, which seeks to educate lawyers, law firms and legal marketers on how to use social media in the practice of law and how to comply with advertising ethics rules.
For Wall and many midsize and smaller firms, social media law offers a largely untapped gold mine of opportunities for new client work as new regulations arise in this domain.
“Technology advances faster than the law can adapt, but that doesn’t mean social media is the Wild West with no rules,” Wall said. “As more companies are facing social media legal issues … I think the writing is on the wall that it’s time for businesses and law firms to address social media issues.”
Some Silicon Valley law firms have offered social media law services since the early aughts, but it has really been the last decade where firms across the continent have begun zeroing in on this emerging area of the law as a new business opportunity.
For example, Ontario law firm Harrison Pensa LLP launched a platform in 2013, and intellectual property firm Klemchuk LLP opened up its group in 2011 with partner Darin M. Klemchuk as the leader.
And among some of the larger firms that have practice groups are K&L Gates LLP, Olshan Frome Wolosky LLP and Kaye Scholer LLP. Meanwhile, Day Pitney LLP has a social media task force within its intellectual property and technology group, while Thompson & Knight LLP has an advertising and social media group, and Dilworth Paxson LLP’s social media law group commemorated its one-year anniversary last month.
“We, as a firm, saw this as an area that could be certainly a value-add proposition for our existing clients,” said Eric B. Meyer, the chair of the Dilworth Paxson group.
Meyer noted one of the exciting things about launching and branding the group occurred when he began to realize all the capabilities that the firm had among its existing attorneys. As with many other firms’ social media law platforms, Dilworth Paxson’s is a “melting pot” of attorneys from a cross-section of existing practice groups, including employment, corporate and intellectual property, among many others, according to Meyer.
But launching the dedicated group allows Dilworth Paxson to target new clients in need of social media law counsel as well as better educate existing clients on the services the firm can provide in this domain.
“I like the idea of putting it out there so our clients know,” Meyer said. “They don’t have to guess that we have these capabilities.”