A few Big Law partners are on the site, but they seem uncomfortable—like when they make obligatory, early-evening cameos at paralegal going-away parties. The reaction of this partner, contained in a status update, is typical: “Philip is still unsure what he is supposed to think about this whole Facebook thing.”
Another, more obvious value of Facebook—and the reason cited by Allen & Overy for lifting its ban—is that it’s an amazing networking tool. Lawyers are relentless networkers. This is because law, even at the highest levels, is not neurosurgery or nuclear physics. It’s a profession where what you know is probably less important than who you know—and who your friends know, and who your friends’ friends know.
Older lawyers join the City Bar and ABA committees left and right, attend an endless series of black-tie benefits at Cipriani, and subject themselves to that unpleasantness called golf. Young lawyers can’t be bothered with all that—they’re too busy billing hours. So instead they network from the (dis)comfort of their Big Law offices.
To be sure, other social networking sites, like LinkedIn or LawLink, are more transparently geared toward business development. A Facebook “poke” is probably not going to land you a Fortune 500 client (or even a date for Saturday night). But due to its ginormous membership, the networking potential of Facebook can’t be denied. When it comes to networking, size matters. (It helps that Facebook is just this side of professional respectability. As Jon Fine of BusinessWeek puts it, “Facebook now combines aspects of Saturday night’s MySpace with Monday morning’s LinkedIn.” In other words, Facebook is more fun than LinkedIn, but more sober and dignified than MySpace, whose 200 million users appear to be 14-year-old girls and the 40-year-old men who love them.)
Although I use Facebook primarily for fun, I’ve had several “Facebook friends” who have turned into real-life, professional contacts. This phenomenon will surely grow over time. Right now the networking potential of Facebook is in its infancy, since its users tend to be relatively youthful. But if it can hold on to them as they evolve from young associates into law-firm partners and general counsels, then it could become a major networking force within the legal community.
Another reason lawyers adore Facebook is that it allows them to reclaim their individuality. The typical lawyer at a Gotham megafirm goes from being an interesting individual—with opinions, idiosyncrasies, likes and dislikes—into a cog, albeit a well-paid one, in a giant machine. So what to do, when you’re feeling like an utterly fungible device for the production of billable hours? Join Facebook!
At your law firm, you may just be timekeeper No. 2141. But on Facebook, you’re an Individual, with Activities and Interests and Favorite Quotes. You can spout off about the Petraeus report, post photos of your rock climbing trip, or review 3:10 to Yuma, for all the world to enjoy. Occasionally someone will comment on something you’ve posted, conveying the illusion that someone actually gives a damn.
Perhaps the best explanation for Facebook’s popularity, though, is the simplest: it’s a great procrastination tool. Anything that allows lawyers to entertain themselves while sitting in front of computer screens and looking diligent will be a runaway hit.
And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go update my Facebook status: David is trying to think of a good ending for this piece.