Posted by: johnocunningham | March 22, 2012

Social Media Ethics Rules: Important But Not Scary

Interesting post on the LegalWaterCooler blog – demonstrates the need for lawyers who are active social media users to check the state ethics rules of the states in which they are practicing law and/or reaching out to potential clients.

The LegalWaterCooler post delineates a handful of the ethical intricacies associated with social media in just one state – Florida.  But it is instructive as to the typical issues that can arise in any state when you use Twitter, Linked-In, Facebook, blogs or other social media.

I think the important thing to remember is that state bars do provide answers to ethical inquiries, as shown in the post, and they are usually based on common-sense application of traditional ethical rules. Thus, you naturally can’t be deceitful in using social media (to get information) and you can’t divulge client confidences or privileged material.

If you are wondering whether you can “friend” a client, post an analysis of a case on your blog, or engage in a Linked-In discussion group, just call your state bar ethics office. In my experience, they are usually friendly and helpful.

They also may have printed booklets to share or helpful links to FAQs, and they might tell you something you never thought to ask (such as: when you have to file social media profiles or page links with the state bar as ‘advertising’ in those jurisdictions that review lawyer ads).

I know you lawyers sometimes worry about the fact that your social media posts can be picked up by someone in any jurisdiction, and you don’t accidentally want to run afoul of a rule in one of 50 states or numerous countries. So often, you just stay “out” of the fast growing social media field.

But if you are not offering legal advice, nor soliciting or accepting clients from other jurisdictions, those concerns are highly unlikely to be warranted by any actual enforcement actions. Really, the state bars have better things to do than to chase after millions of social media users for hyper-technical issues.

Also, I think you will find in talking to state bar authorities that they are most concerned about the ethical behavior of  lawyers subject to their licensing authority and the way that impacts actual clients.

If you are trying to use social media to engage in the unauthorized practice of law in their jurisdiction, then you could have a serious problem. Otherwise, you have lots bigger things to worry about than what you tweeted (such as, what you advised that CEO yesterday when he pressed you for a permissive legal interpretation that he wanted to hear).

NOTE: This post is not intended to constitute a legal opinion or advice, and it offers only a common-sense analysis of state bar ethical concerns about social media. Consult your applicable state bar ethics office for definitive interpretations of law and ethical rules.

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