At the Connecticut Bar Foundation’s Law & Technology Symposium on Friday at UConn Law School, we spent some time talking about social media and the power of social networking.

Many were convinced; some were not. For employers, it’s still a scary subject. The loss of control and of messaging is just too much for many employers to still deal with.

For those who are still skeptical, let me relay this story:

This morning, I stopped into the local coffee/donut shop, one that has been around for 50 years and is surviving despite the Dunkin Donuts & Starbucks that pop up. 

It’s quaint, with hand-written signs around and counters in a semi-circular fashion dotting the place. It has no website (gasp!).  

Sitting on stools at the counter, people were sharing the latest goings on with each other. None seemed to be there with others, but rather to talk in the company of "strangers".  Talk of the Masters. Of local budgets and politics.  Of stuff.  

As I was waiting, one person stopped me to say hi and congratulate me for my recent inclusion in Hartford Magazine as one of the area’s "Top Lawyers" in Labor & Employment law.  I don’t run into him often, but I thanked him, asked briefly how he was doing, got my order and headed back home. 

For me, and countless others, the use of LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter (and now, Foursquare), are all modern day re-creations of this local donut shop.  You stop by, see a few people you might know, say hi, talk about Lefty’s unbelievable round at the Masters on Saturday, and then move on to some place else.  

If you stop by a social networking site (or the local coffee shop) and don’t interact with people, it’ll just be a fairly boring place.  You might just think its a place to get donuts.  But if you persist, and take the time to listen and, on occasion, to interact, you can discover that it’s more than that.  It’s a place to deepen the relationships you have with real people and maybe meet some people who share a common interest.

In pulling together speakers for the symposium, I drew on my experiences — both through social networks and otherwise. Some relationships have originated online — like Bob Ambrogi, an attorney in Massachusetts who often writes on media law issues.  Or Ryan McKeen, who writes A Connecticut Law Blog.  Or Susan Cartier-Liebel, who runs the Solo Practice University.  

Some have been forged through actual working relationships, like Victoria Chavey — who I used to work with. Or David Atkins, a partner of mine at Pullman & Comley.  

And some have been forged through a combination of both in-person and online, like Brent Robertson and Kevin O’Keefe, who I’ve chatted with more online, than in-person over the years.

In all of these instances, social media though has contributed to the relationships.  We share a story of interest, or a personal achievement.  We interact, much like the people at that donut shop.

The idea that social networks are "just" for online interaction is a fallacy. It is a place where the connections you have can been broadened, deepened, and cemented.  It is not a solution, per se, but a tool that can be used to achieve goals and outcomes.

If you still think your local donut/coffee place is just a place for donuts, then perhaps online social networks will never make an impact for you. But if you take the time to stop by, listen, and interact, you might realize that your local hangout (and that online social network) can be so much more.

For employers and law firms, banning the use of social networks by employees, can deprive your employees of the connections that they have on an every day basis.  Having a social media policy so that employees can know the limits of their usage, can help bring the benefits of social networking to your workplace without the total loss of control.