Microsoft's Litigation Chief Scored on Social Media, Should Other In-House Lawyers Follow Suit?

In July, Microsoft deputy general counsel David Howard wrote about his company's revamped preferred partner program, posting the news on LinkedIn. More than 130 people gave the post a "thumbs up," and more than 30 people shared the news directly through LinkedIn. On Twitter, lawyers raved.

"We're proud to be one of 13 law firms included in @Microsoft's new outside counsel Strategic Partner Program," the official Twitter account for K&L Gates said in a post. Matt Wahlquist, legal operations manager at Paypal Inc., called Howard's piece "fantastic" in a tweet.

A rare occurrence: an in-house counsel authored a piece of external-facing news and shared it on social media, and after hitting publish, people shared, commented and liked it. Newspapers reported on it. A conversation about billable hours and alternative fee arrangements gained new life.

"Like all social media, there's absolutely the potential to have conversations around important topics, and how an in-house legal department uses it is really dependent on the message they're trying to send," said Ryan Garcia, managing legal director of social media, retail, gaming and consumer contract management at Dell Inc. 

Despite that potential success, creating an external social media strategy for in-house counsel is a difficult process, according to experts. A company needs to figure out its messaging, how articles will be shared, how the news helps the company and how to match the author's voice to the company brand. And, you have to convince in-house lawyers to post on social.

"In-house lawyers are usually the 'no comment' people," said legal consultant and Legal Executive Leadership CEO Susan Hackett. (A Microsoft press representative said the company declined to comment on this piece.) Hackett said using LinkedIn, for many in-house counsel, is the most comfortable platform, as it's almost a parallel to what many private practice attorneys are allowed on their firm websites—a chance to post their experience, expertise and legal credentials.

The way most companies and law firms utilize social media is as a form of advertising, said Stephanie Corey, the co-founder of legal operations consultancy UpLevel Ops and former in-house legal ops director at Flex, VMware and Hewlett-Packard. That, too, runs contrary to how in-house lawyers are trained.

"You'll see people who are selling their businesses who know they've got to be out there on social media, using Twitter and LinkedIn. They publish things that will bring potential clients to them," Corey said. "In-house teams are coming from a different perspective. They don't need to sell their services."

Corey said companies need to devise a specific strategy for external communications if they want their in-house counsel using social media. It's different from an internal communications strategy, Corey said, as a company has to make sure the lawyers are either speaking to the company's brand or making it look good.

A risk in an external strategy is the potential blowback that could come from a misinterpreted social media post, Corey said. Some companies walk a fine line of having "edgier" online personalities, Corey said, such as Wendy's, which has a Twitter account famous for its clever comebacks and unprovoked insults to competitors (when a user once asked the Wendy's Twitter account to help it find the nearest McDonalds, Wendy responded with a picture of a metal garbage can). But for in-house lawyers and their employers, there's little reward in such a risky approach, Corey said.

Few companies allow their in-house counsel to have an outward-facing voice. However, general counsel and chief legal officers at Microsoft, Google, Mozilla, Cisco, Dell and Yahoo have all written articles either for company-hosted blogs or social media sites. In fact, after Yahoo completed its purchase of Tumblr, former Yahoo GC Ron Bell wrote public updates on the blogging site about Yahoo's struggles to accurately report on the number of national security letters it received from the federal government.

Like Bell's use of Tumblr, Microsoft deputy GC Howard's use of LinkedIn might be connected to an acquisition—in this case, his employer's 2016 purchase of the professional social networking sitefor $26.2 billion. But, Dell's Garcia cautioned not to read too much into it. He said that legal departments that have shared news about their outside counsel relationships in the past have chosen LinkedIn as their platform.

"We can gaze into the tea leaves and try to find out why, if this post on LinkedIn is maybe connected to [Microsoft's] acquisition of it, but if Microsoft had not bought LinkedIn, would this article be so out of place?" Garcia said. "Not really."

Contributing Author

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David Ruiz

David Ruiz is the in-house counsel reporter for the San Francisco-based legal affairs paper The Recorder. Ruiz has written for The Sacramento Bee,...

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