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Thursday Thinkpiece: Canadian Legal Professionals’ Information Activities–What Do They Do, and How Do They Tweet?

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Canadian Legal Professionals’ Information Activities: What Do They Do, and How Do They Tweet?
In Canadian Law Library Review 43:4

Hannah Steeves, Instruction & Reference Librarian at Sir James Dunn Law Library, Schulich School of Law, Dalhousie University

Excerpt: Two sections, Literature Review and Further Research, have been omitted, along with footnotes. They can be found in the original via the link above.

ABSTRACT

The use of social media in professional settings has increased significantly over the past decade. This article presents the results of a statistical analysis performed on a sampling of Canadian legal professionals’ Twitter accounts between 2015 and 2016. A series of tweets were reviewed and subsequently categorized to determine the most common types of information activities occurring on social media accounts, specifically Twitter, from legal professionals.

INTRODUCTION

The use of social media and social networking platforms in a variety of professions, including the legal profession, has significantly increased over the past decade. In 2008, research performed by LexisNexis and Martindale, two of the leading providers of legal content and management resources, showed that more than 50 per cent of US attorneys actively used social media and social networking professionally. Similar research by the International Bar Association (IBA) in 2012 that received responses from 60 bar associations worldwide showed that 78 per cent of participants believed that the use of social media and social networking tools were advantageous for the legal profession.

One social media platform that legal professionals often use is Twitter. Twitter’s self-defined purpose is to

contain information you will find valuable. Messages from users you choose to follow will show up on your home page for you to read. It’s like being delivered a newspaper whose headlines you’ll always find interesting—you can discover news as it’s happening, learn more about topics that are important to you, and get the inside scoop in real time.

The microblogging aspect of Twitter is useful for professionals as it creates posts that are concise, focussed, and clearly depict the intention of the profile owner. Legal research requires precision with highly relevant, quality results while the business of law requires advertising and marketing. Twitter fulfils both these requirements, as it is both a real-time, convenient, and accessible database for current awareness as well as a public platform for self-promotion for legal professionals.

Research that provides a better understanding of legal professionals’ information activities will help to clarify best practices and research methods for legal professionals in an increasingly digital work environment. These findings will also elaborate on the information activities of legal professionals by clarifying their position within existing information behaviour models and providing additional information for the creation of information models directed towards lawyers specifically and, potentially, professionals as a group.

Objectives

The purpose of this research is to determine and categorize the information activities of Canadian legal professionals on Twitter. The objectives for determining and categorizing their information activities will include:

  1. Do providers make posts to refer and/or to provide links to current awareness or self-promotion?
    a. Does one of these categories occur more frequently?
  2. Are there other categories of information?
    a. If so, which occurs most frequently?
  3. Does one of these categories, including the undefined categories, receive more engagement in the form of retweets and/or likes?

Clarification of the way that legal professionals interact with information through their activity on Twitter should assist in determining their real-time information needs.

Hypothesis

  1. Current awareness and self-promotion will be the two most common information activities legal professionals perform online.
  2. Legal professionals will post current awareness materials more frequently than materials for self-promotion.
  3. Additional categories of information activities will exist, but they will be less prevalent than current awareness and self-promotion.
  4. One category of an information activity will have a higher rate of retweets and likes.

Definitions

Self-promotion: Content that provides announcements on personal involvement in presentations, publications, probono work, receiving awards, etc., related to the legal profession. Self-promotion is a method of enhancing professional image in a positive way to their colleagues, clients, and general public.

Current awareness: Content that is relevant to the legal profession, including case law, recent decisions at all levels of court, periodicals and other legal publications, legislation and additional government resources, news, conference proceedings, blogs, etc.

Alternative categories: Content that could not be described under the previously listed definitions of current awareness or self-promotion.

Methodology

To better understand how legal professionals are using Twitter to interact with information relevant to their work, a snowball sampling of Canadian legal professionals’ Twitter accounts was used. Snowball sampling uses a predefined list of users identified as experts by a medium outside of Twitter. This technique is useful when focussing on national-level or topical-based user groups. The predefined lists were drawn from Canadian Lawyer Magazine and a Twitter list created by a leading Canadian privacy and technology lawyer. Only open Twitter profiles were considered due to the nature of the data extraction tool and the assumption that the nature of the definitions aligned with account owners who were trying to reach a large audience and would, therefore, not maintain a private account.

A total of 67 accounts were compiled in the initial list. This list was reduced to the 25 accounts with the highest number of followers. This decrease is based on the assumption that followers are an indication of authority, validity of content, and consistent engagement. The most recent 50 tweets from each of these 25 accounts (1,250 tweets) were extracted from Twitter into 25 individual .txt .csv compatible files via Professor Michael Smit of the School of Information Management, Dalhousie University, through the use of a command line tool called GET statuses/user_timeline. These sheets were edited to contain only the most recent 50 tweets with information relating to the date the tweet was published, number of likes the tweet received, number of retweets the tweet received, and the text of the tweet for categorical analysis. Retweets were not included in the 50 tweets unless they had content added by the account owner to supplement or alter the original tweet. Each file was examined individually, and data was transferred to a master list after the text of each tweet had undergone categorical analysis.

These tweets were categorized under the previously defined information activities of:

  • Current awareness
  • Self-promotion
  • Alternative

The alternative content group was subsequently analyzed to determine if other categories of information activities were identifiable through reoccurring content themes. Once the tweets were categorized, a quantitative analysis determined which category was the most frequently posted by legal professionals.

The retweets and likes were sorted to determine the category that contained the largest number. The number of total retweets and likes per category were totalled to retrieve the sum of each. The number of tweets in each category was used to determine how many tweets received a retweet or a like. This total number was divided by the number of tweets within each separate category to return the percentage of retweets and likes for all categories.

The accounts were limited to individual legal professionals and excluded institutional accounts, such as law libraries, courthouses, or law firms. This exclusion was due to lack of identification regarding who is posting content and obligations to represent institutional opinions or neutrality. Simply put, legal institutions were assumed to have different information activities on Twitter than individual legal professionals. As the primary goal was to analyze the provision of information and its intended use, conversation tweets (replies) and retweets were also excluded.

Limitations

  1. This study excludes legal institutions that host Twitter accounts due to the variations in information activities they are engaged with on Twitter and the inability to identify whether they have a singular or multitude of owners/contributors.
  2. Due to the volume of tweets available and the time frame associated with this study, this analysis was performed on a small scale and is not completely representative of the population of legal professionals in Canada.
  3. The selection of the top 50 tweets occurred on March 5, 2016. Twitter is frequently updated, and this analysis may be affected by trending events that occurred within the relative time frame prior to or on this date.
  4. Although social media and networking platforms like Facebook and LinkedIn are used, Twitter is the sole focus of this study due to the availability of open data.
  5. This study does not focus on passive or intentional searching for the retrieval of information from Twitter. It focusses on the provision of information and its intended use for others.

Results

Sample Population

The 1,250 tweets were drawn on March 5, 2016. The tweets were sent between October 16, 2015 and March 5, 2016. The majority of tweets (86 per cent) were posted within a 12-day period between February 23, 2016 and March 5, 2016. This indicates that the account owners were actively engaging in communication via Twitter. The population of the final 25 accounts consisted of 24 per cent women and 76 per cent men. A 2014 publication from the Law Society of Upper Canada found that, although more women are called to the bar and enter the legal profession by an average of 4 per cent more than men, they often experience a change of status within the first 5 to 10 years of their careers. A change in status indicates that they have opted to take leaves or pursued alternate career paths outside of a legal organization. As a result, the gender ratios are approximately 45 per cent women to

55 per cent men at the associate and general employee level and 21 per cent women to 79 per cent men at the partner level.31 Although these statistics rely heavily on legal professionals who practice law, the majority (63 per cent) of the final sample used for this research were practicing lawyers. This suggests that the sample was an appropriate representation of the current legal field.

The accounts ranged from 1,520–85,800 followers due to the varying prominence of the legal professionals within the field. The breakdown of types of legal professionals is displayed in figure 1. The total number of types of legal professionals was seven, with several account owners holding multiple positions related to the legal profession (e.g., practicing lawyer and professor). The legal professionals identified as practicing lawyers practiced in eight different areas of law, as displayed in figure 2. These areas include business, family, Indigenous, international, labour, personal injury, privacy, and technology. The accounts acquired through the Twitter list created by the leading privacy and technology lawyer may have created a denser population within the areas of technology and privacy, as they practice in these areas of law and likely follow accounts that display content relevant to their area of practice. Eighty per cent of the account owners maintained their own individual websites or contributed to shared websites as authors, editors, and web developers. The remaining 20 per cent were visible on their employers’ organizational or institutional websites but did not generate their own content. Geographically the lawyers were located across Canada, in Ontario (64 per cent), British Columbia (20 per cent), Nova Scotia (4 per cent), Newfoundland (4 per cent), Quebec (4 per cent), and Nunavut (4 per cent) to cover five provinces and one territory.

Categorical Analysis

During the analysis of the tweets, it was discovered that several accounts had duplicate tweets that contained identical content. It was assumed that these duplicates were not intentional, and these tweets were discounted from the analysis to eliminate bias within one category. The total number of tweets analyzed was reduced from 1,250 to 1,243.

The content analysis was done by matching the contents with the previously defined categories: self-promotion, current awareness, and alternative. To accurately categorize the content, all tweets containing links to additional content were opened in separate browser windows and the added content was examined to determine the appropriate categorization. This examination included observing the overall text content, the author, publisher, editor, developer, and organization with which it was associated. It was assumed followers would have information on any blogs or periodical publications that the account owner would post updates on; therefore, if contextual information was not provided in a post (e.g., new post up on John Smith’s Law Blog: newpost.johnslawblog. com), it was still considered self-promotion and not current awareness.

Hypothesis 1 & 2

Current awareness was the most frequently practiced information activity by Canadian legal professionals with 577 (46 per cent) of 1,243 tweets being categorized under this definition. Self-promotion accounted for 291 (23 per cent) of 1,243 tweets and was the second most frequent information activity. Hypothesis 1 and 2 are supported by these findings.

Hypothesis 3

Once the alternative categories column had been populated, it was analyzed to determine consistent themes. Hypothesis 3 was supported by the inclusion of the following definitions of additional categories of Canadian legal professionals’ information activities:

General Communication with Other Legal Professional(s): Content as communication directed at specific individuals that were also identified as legal professionals or to legal institutions, organizations, publications, etc.

Personal Opinion on a Legal Topic: Content focussing on a specific topic pertinent to legal professionals with an explicitly expressed opinion from the account owner without a link to an alternative document or resource on the topic.

Personal Political Opinion: Content focussing on a political topic with an explicitly expressed opinion from the account owner that indicated a bias toward or against a specific politician or party.

Job Posting: Content related to a current opportunity within the legal profession directed at the entirety of their followers.

Unrelated to Legal Profession: Content that did not relate to the legal profession.

The category that occurred most frequently was unrelated to legal profession with 208 (17 per cent) of 1,243 tweets. Two categories occurred at the same frequency: personal political opinion, which included 74 (6 per cent) of 1,243 tweets, and general communication with legal professional(s), which accounted for 71 (6 per cent) of 1,243 tweets. The remaining additional categories, personal opinion on a legal topic and job posting within the legal profession, occurred 18 (1.5 per cent) of 1,243 and 4 (0.5 per cent) of 1,243 tweets, respectively. These findings also support Hypothesis 3, as the additional category unrelated to legal profession occurred 6 per cent less than the next most frequent predetermined category of self-promotion.

Hypothesis 4

The category with the highest number of retweets was personal political opinion with 64 per cent of tweets within this category receiving engagement through retweets. The category with the highest number of likes was general communication with other legal professional(s), with 79 per cent of tweets within this category receiving engagement through likes. Hypothesis 4 was not supported by these findings, as the rate of retweets and likes was not confined to one category. The remaining retweet and like rates per category are displayed in figure 3.

Discussion

Both the predetermined categories and the additional categories suggest that the primary information activity of lawyers is providing, or sharing, information. This type of information activity is supported by the definition of Twitter as a real-time newsfeed designed to suit individuals’ interests. It is the platform that best suits their needs for the provision of information.

Although not included as a hypothesis, during data analysis it became apparent that determining the frequency of participation by each individual account owner within the sample population would be an important factor in establishing the popularity and success of each category. Figures 4 and 5 display the participation rates for each category. These findings correspond to the number of tweets as stated in the results section and support the previous findings.

The predetermined categories of current awareness and self-promotion were the most common types of tweets. These categories can be identified as significant information activities that legal professionals engage in regardless of environment. A new information behaviour model specific to legal professionals could be designed including, or based on, these categories and sharing information activities. It also supports Leckie, Pettigrew, and Sylvain’s research that links roles and tasks to specific information activities. The provision of current awareness information and the action of self-promotion information are two separate tasks that are related to specific roles. For instance, drafting is a role that requires current awareness research as a task. Leckie’s five roles could be categorized under each of these associated tasks to provide a clarification of the type of task associated with each role.

Current awareness was identified as the most common information activity that legal professionals perform online and accounted for almost half of all tweets that were analyzed. These results, combined with the definition of Twitter as a news source, correlate with Mote’s research that indicated that professionals with a wide scope possess the highest information needs. Legal professionals are engaging in highly consistent information activities through the provision of current awareness via tweets. Twitter’s platform for providing information could be used as a technical model to improve electronic legal databases and develop recommended systems for legal resources. The high frequency of current awareness also provides information on the real-time research needs of legal professionals that could be used to improve institutional intranets to display relevant material to the appropriate demographic (e.g., based on type of profession, area of law, geography, etc.) as resources are updated internally.

The frequency of current awareness tweets in the study supports the notion that legal professionals require finding tools for frequently updated databases. Twitter simultaneously acts as a database that is frequently updated by leaders in the area of law while being a repository of these resources organized by individuals’ personal interests. It thus provides a model of a platform through which best practices can be developed and subsequently implemented within alternative databases that possess the legal rights of distribution of large legal publishers of resources like case law or statutes.

The highest rate of likes occurred within the additional category of general communication with other legal professionals. This category provided a link to an external resource the least often. These tweets did contain some discussion with other legal professionals about resources but were primarily congratulatory in nature. When a colleague engaged in an activity that contributed to their professional development (e.g., publishing a book, speaking at a conference, accepting an award or promotion, etc.), the 64 per cent of the sample population that participated in general communication with other legal professionals was likely to tweet a congratulations or compliment and receive likes on this tweet. These findings may indicate that mutual respect and appreciation among colleagues is an effective method of networking and self-promoting via Twitter.

An unexpected theme that appeared in the alternative category were tweets related to the ongoing American presidential electoral process and the most recent Canadian federal election. Although politics certainly have the potential to affect the law, political tweets concerning the ongoing American election or the most recent Canadian election that contained opinionated commentary from the account owner were categorized within alternative and subsequently defined as personal political opinions. If the tweet shared a political update without opinion, it was classified as current awareness. This was to differentiate between tweets with bias and without, as the definition of current awareness does not indicate that a personal bias is present in the dispersion of recent information.

Generally, it is recommended that professional accounts remain silent on personal opinions on polarizing topics such as politics. However, the geographic and political separation of Canada and the United States combined with the dramatic nature of the US election at this time in 2016 may create a setting where Canadians respond positively to these results. This may be indicated by the high rate of retweets that occurred within the additional category of personal political opinion.

Conclusion

This analysis of legal professionals’ information sharing activities on Twitter indicates that the information needs of Canadian legal professionals are largely related to current awareness to support up-to-date legal decision making and self-promotion to increase their presence and reputation within the legal community. These information activities were supplemented by five additional categories of information activities that support information sharing as a significant information activity in which Canadian legal professionals engage. Further research into the definition of self-promotion may assist in understanding the intention and effectiveness of providing self-promotional information. Assessing the opposite information activity of acquiring information via Twitter by Canadian legal professionals would provide an interesting comparative analysis as well.

Additionally, the data describing the rate of retweets and likes suggests that best practices on professional Twitter accounts could be improved through the provision of more current awareness and self-promotion in the form of congeniality amongst colleagues. Databases, intranets, and their related finding tools could be improved based on the information provided through the rate of retweets and likes on specific current awareness topics and an examination of the demographics of an account owner. Finally, the seven categories discussed in this research could assist in supplementing or clarifying existing information behaviour models related to legal and other types of professionals. Twitter is a popular tool for legal professionals, as it is the database that best suits their professional needs.

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