After years of avoiding the Twittersphere, Big Law is warming up to the advertising power of social networking. Leaders at several top 100 firms are for the first time hiring full-time social media specialists to manage firms’ LinkedIn, YouTube and Twitter accounts, and many more are making a concerted effort to prioritize social media outreach in marketing campaigns.

It is a marked shift for the risk-adverse legal industry, which — as retailers and restaurants jumped on Twitter and Facebook to hawk discounts and promote products — largely stayed away from social media as a way to pursue new business.

But now, 20 percent of law firms have a full-time social media specialist on staff, and about 40 percent said blogging and social networking initiatives have helped the firm land new work, according to an ALM Legal Intelligence report released in February that surveyed 179 attorneys, managing partners and marketing directors.

Nixon Peabody is in the final stages of hiring its first social media manager, who is expected to start in April. Last August, Latham & Watkins hired Dimitra Kessenides, a former journalist at The American Lawyer who founded the legal publication’s Web site, to oversee the firm’s use of social media platforms. And Dechert last summer promoted public relations specialist Peggy Heffner to a newly created position that focuses primarily on growing the firm’s presence on social networks.

Firms “no longer think it’s a fad, and are trying to embrace it and utilize it in the way other businesses are,” said Sabrina McGowan, public relations manager at McKenna Long & Aldridge who oversees the firm’s Twitter account and works with attorneys to tweak keywords in LinkedIn profiles and blogs to increase the chances of landing top spots in search engine results. McGowan joined McKenna Long in 2010 and developed the firm’s first social media strategy and an internal policy on how firm employees can use social networks.

Social networking sites like Facebook are gaining traction in the legal industy. (Daniel Acker/Bloomberg)

The efforts are brining some success: one litigator at Dechert recently signed a new client days after a LinkedIn request from a former colleague, now an in-house lawyer, prompted him to pitch to that company’s general counsel.

Similarly, Eric Paley, an employment lawyer at Nixon Peabody, scooped up employee benefits work from a multimedia firm after an acquaintance in his LinkedIn network referred him to the company’s assistant general counsel.

A narrow audience

Law firms face a unique challenge in that they often can’t publicize or even talk about client matters, nor can they promise the type of discount that would sing on Groupon. Their audience is not the mass-market consumer, but the in-house lawyer of a company.

Social media marketing “is far more challenging business-to-business than business-to-consumer,” said Andrew Glincher, managing partner and chief executive of Nixon Peabody. “My clients have joked with me over the years my only inventory is my experience and what’s between my ears. It’s a bit different than driving retail sales and having online coupons. A couple years back, most law firms were still not convinced they could reach business clients this way.”

Now firms are learning to sell themselves in more indirect ways — such as urging attorneys to blog about new regulations or court cases they’re not personally involved in. The idea is to get that blog, and the lawyer’s name, in front of a general counsel who’s searching for an outside lawyer with expertise in a matter their business is facing.

“We don’t have a product, we have a service,” McGowan said. “That’s what we’re trying to promote — knowledge and experience.”

Many firms are honing in on LinkedIn and blogs, and shying away from Facebook, which they consider a personal rather than professional networking tool. McKenna Long added two new blogs in January, including one on politics, law and policy that the firm timed to coincide with the 2012 presidential election.

Dechert last month produced the first installment of a YouTube video briefing series, which features several finance and corporate lawyers analyzing investment risks and opportunities arising from the European debt crisis. And Morrison & Foerster, one of few firms that maintain a social media practice group, unveiled its first blog in January, which tracks developments in social media law, including litigation arising from businesses’ use of social media in advertising.

“There are things you can’t share with attorney-client privilege,” Heffner said of the limitations law firms face while promoting themselves on social media networks. “But with the things you can share, it’s just another platform to do that.”