How we went from five Twitter followers to making social media a key part of our law centre’s survival

 

I began life as Hackney Community Law Centre’s development officer on a three-month contract in January 2012. There was no job description but I knew what I had to do and overhauling HCLC’s website was my first major task. www.hclc.org.uk was awful. It had no purpose. It was difficult to navigate.

Visitors wouldn’t have had any clear idea of how HCLC could help. I therefore set about organising a redesign and was fortunate that an experienced web designer and tech enthusiast offered to build HCLC a new website pro bono. His brief was to help HCLC speak to the many different individuals and groups that were interested in our work: the local people looking for help with a legal problem; the law students and Hackney residents wanting to volunteer; the people interested in social justice issues; the potential project partners and collaborators; and the interested journalists and academic researchers.

After the redesign was completed, the website prominently displayed the newly titled sections ‘How We Can Help You’ and ‘How You Can Help Us’ and also included space on the homepage for stories and photos that we hoped would help bring HCLC’s clients and the work of our charity to life.

With the website sorted, I turned to conducting an assessment of HCLC’s social media presence. Due to the previous lack of resources to manage that function, it was minimal. Although HCLC’s chair Ian Rathbone made heroic attempts to update our Facebook page, HCLC’s silence on twitter was deafening. I took over HCLC’s tweeting (to our loyal five followers) but rather than feeling downhearted, I saw it as a challenge.

I decided that I wanted HCLC’s Twitter presence to try to give people an insight into the law centre’s varied and interesting ‘personality’, which was eclectic and multi-faceted. We were a professional law firm but we were also a charity. We were based in Hackney, an edgy and deprived area but now with parts that were considered trendy and becoming gentrified. Our local area, and our clients, were multi-ethnic, multi-faith, multi-lingual with multiple problems. I felt that HCLC’s social media presence needed to attempt to convey this complexity – and HCLC’s role within it.

Connecting with – and holding the attention of – a range of people and organisations who all had their own distinct reasons for being interested in our work would also be key. The local Hackney residents, businesses, parents or voluntary groups who sought out the ‘community’ aspect of Hackney Community Law Centre; the aspiring solicitors and barristers from non-traditional backgrounds who lacked the contacts or confidence to forge a legal career but would be buoyed by seeing HCLC’s non-traditional solicitors win national awards; the members of the traditional legal profession who hadn’t known much about HCLC previously, but would now be able to follow us directly and find out for themselves that we really were amazing lawyers, and not just a sleepy charity that they felt sorry for, but didn’t respect professionally.

So we stepped up HCLC’s twitter activity to try and shine a light on HCLC’s day-to-day work, letting our followers know about our solicitors’ hard-won legal victories. Armed with an excellent camera (lent to us by a well-wisher), we also sought to make people smile by visually capturing and tweeting HCLC’s magic moments such as the time when one of our grateful disabled clients came to the office armed with a forest of flowers.

We excited our Guardian reading Twitter followers when we announced that columnist Owen Jones had become a HCLC patron and we gained the respect of the legal profession when – after winning a landmark housing case in the UK Supreme Court – we tweeted a photo of our emotional client Saba Haile, reminding our fellow legal professionals why they first went into law. Once our Twitter presence grew stronger, we began to make Twitter friends with new allies such our local atheist church. We were touched when the church raised over £500 for us at their Sunday ‘Good not God’ services. We then also began to use Twitter to thank the grant funders who support HCLC’s hard-working solicitors.

These multiple Twitter strategies must have worked because the five loyal Twitter followers we started with in January 2012 soon grew and now we have over 4,000. However it’s not the number of followers that I believe has made HCLC’s social media strategy a success. Instead, I think that it’s the quality of interaction and relationships – especially with funders and potential project partners – that being on Twitter has brought to HCLC.

Just last month, for example, HCLC worked in partnership with an organisation called Legal Geek – whom we also met through twitter – and benefitted from its organising Europe’s first-ever law tech hackathon in our honour. The hackathon involved over 50 coders and tech experts – some flying in from Romania, the United States and Gibraltar – working through the night to conceive, build and pitch new technological solutions to help HCLC deliver our services more efficiently through tech. HCLC would have never met Legal Geek or the brilliant coders from winning team Freshfields, and all the other excellent teams, if we had not got serious on Twitter.

The world has changed and its future is firmly online, with recent research finding that British-based children and young people are spending more time on the net than watching TV for the first time. Those are the legal clients of the future.

If law firms, particularly those in the not-for-profit sector, wish to survive in this age of increased financial pressure, they cannot afford to close their minds to ‘social media’.

Miranda Grell

About Miranda Grell

Miranda Grell works at Hackney Community Law Centre and Haringey Law Centre as a development officer. She was the 2014 recipient of the Law Centres Network Reita Clarke Memorial Award

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