Attorneys are increasingly discovering the power of social media. It provides unparalleled opportunities for networking and reputation building. You can meet clients, network with colleagues, and obtain valuable information using tools like LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter. Nonetheless, social media does present potential pitfalls for the unwary attorney. Attorneys can, and have, inadvertently run afoul of state ethical rules and obligations. Not only that, it’s easy to embarrass yourself if you’re not cautious about what you share online.
The following four tips can help prevent embarrassment—and worse—when you’re online.
1. Don’t accidentally reveal confidential info
This should be a no brainer, but it’s important to remember that your activities on social media sites are not private and confidential. As a result, you have to be extra careful that your interactions with clients, the information you post on websites or Twitter, and your other online activities don’t unintentionally waive attorney-client confidentiality. This may seem straightforward when it comes to the information you share outright in your posts and tweets, but in some circumstances, it’s possible to unintentionally share more information that you intend to. For example, pictures and posts on social media sites are geotagged with your location and time. As a result, it’s important you don’t inadvertently disclose your location and the time of a meeting if you’d like that information to remain a secret.
Similarly, if you interact with clients online, it’s probably best to remind them to be careful when sharing information with you so that they don’t inadvertently disclose confidential information. After all, generally speaking, once you’ve disclosed confidential information, it’s no longer protected by the attorney-client privilege.
2. Don’t unintentionally create an attorney-client relationship
A number of sites allow attorneys to provide general legal advice online to individuals. These services can offer attorneys an opportunity to develop their reputation and connect with potential clients. Nonetheless, there is a risk.
Any time you provide legal education to anyone you want to be careful to not unintentionally cross the line between providing general legal education, and creating a new attorney-client relationship. If you are providing general legal information via social media, be careful not to provide specific advice, solicit confidential information, or recommend a specific course of action. To be extra careful, include disclaimers to make it clear that you are not the individual’s attorney, and that you are not providing specific legal advice.
3. Don’t violate ethical rules of conduct
In part, Model Rule of Professional Conduct 4.1 prohibits attorneys from making a false statement of a material fact or law in the course of representing a client. Similarly, Model Rule 7.1 prohibits attorneys from making false statements or providing false information concerning the lawyer’s services. Attorneys need to be especially careful not to violate these two ethical rules when using social media.
This clearly means that you need to be careful not to make any misstatements or exaggerations about your legal services when using services like Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn. For example, don’t claim to represent clients you don’t represent, don’t exaggerate your experience, and don’t exaggerate your results. Making those types of mistakes could lead to violating your state’s ethical rules.
It may seem obvious that making false statements about your experience and background could land you in hot water. But what about recommendations others leave on your profile? While that issue is unsettled, some jurisdictions have ruled that attorneys are responsible for the comments left on their profile. In other words, if a colleague or former client makes false statements or exaggerations about your services on your LinkedIn profile, you may be held responsible for those comments. To avoid the potential for trouble, it’s probably wise to remove these sorts of comments from your profile.
4. Don’t insult your client, the judge, or your colleagues
It may seem like common sense, but be careful about what you post on the Internet. Although you may not think anyone reads your Facebook page or personal Twitter feed, but you never know where they’ll be shared. I’ve seen attorneys go on tirades on Twitter because they disagreed with a judge’s ruling and I’ve seen attorneys disparage their clients in blog posts, referring to them as “unsophisticated” or “difficult.” And although it might feel good to get it all out at the time you write it, you never know when the person you’re talking about will discover your site or have your post or tweet forwarded to them. For this reason, it’s a good policy to never make comments online about a person that you wouldn’t be comfortable saying to them in person.
Do you have other tips to help attorneys avoid embarrassment and ethical violations online? We’d love to hear your suggestions in our comments section.