Social media for most businesses = Big Marketing Opportunity. Social media for law firms = Big Ethical Challenge + Big Marketing Opportunity. Bar association ethics rules on client solicitation, attorney-client relationships and law-firm advertising require lawyers to tweet, post and friend very carefully. Rules for lawyers and social media vary by state and local bars, but here are some general cautions:
#1 Don’t assume social media pages aren’t advertising
Bar associations consider law firm social pages as another website controlled by the firm and subject to the rules on advertising. A firm could be responsible for any comments on the page, even if outsiders post them.
#2 Don’t let endorsements go un-monitored
“You just won me $1 million for my auto accident! You’re the best personal injury attorney in town!” a client posts to a lawyer’s Facebook page. Congratulations, but the comment may violate the rules against advertising that compares one attorney to another or that implies a promise that an attorney can deliver certain results.
#3 Don’t get loosely identified as an expert or specialist
Businesses routinely fill out standard forms for social sites like LinkedIn listing their specialties. Individual attorneys may only do that if they’ve been certified for a specialty and law firms may not do it at all. Some lawyers have even removed from their LinkedIn pages the “endorsements” of their expertise posted by clients.
#4 Don’t give legal advice on social media specific to a case
While anybody may try to wrangle free legal advice from an attorney on social media, to answer with specifics could create an attorney-client relationship. Best to stick to generalities and suggest the questioner go hire an attorney. (See the community guidelines for attorneys to answer questions on Avvo.com.)
#5 Don’t get drawn into discussions of law outside the jurisdiction
The internet is everywhere but attorneys are licensed by state (or federal) bars and should limit their online discussion to the law covered by their specific court systems.
#6 Don’t mention specifics of cases or confidential information from clients without permission
After a dispute over fees and work quality, an ex-client complained about a Georgia divorce attorney on review sites; the attorney replied on the site and mentioned the name of the ex-client, the fee paid, the county of the divorce filing and the fact that the ex-client had a boyfriend. The Georgia State Bar reprimanded the attorney for breaking client-attorney confidentiality (which extends even to ex-clients). The attorney also broke an unofficial rule for any type of business: Don’t tangle with customers in public view on social media.
#7 Don’t friend a judge or another attorney’s client or an opposing attorney or jurors or…
Even though a request to connect is an everyday occurrence on LinkedIn and other social sites, for attorneys it may cross into prohibited communication. An attorney should avoid sending invitations on LinkedIn that appear to solicit legal business from new clients. Even before social media, lawyers could not communicate with a person they know to be represented by another attorney, unless the attorney consents—that rule has been extended to friend requests in social media. To avoid an appearance of favoritism, judges can’t be Facebook friends with attorneys in some states.
DISCLAIMER: Nothing in this post should be taken as legal advice. In fact, assume anything mentioned in this post regarding social media for lawyers is subject to change – it’s a fast-developing field. For more information, check out resources from the State Bar of California and the American Bar Association.
Image: Legal question and answer on Facebook.