It is likely that you, along with thousands of other legal professionals, are using social media sites such as LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook and/or Google+ to expand your professional presence in the digital world. If so, it is important to consider how ethics rules apply to attorneys’ online activities. Some ethical rules that apply to your use of social media may be surprising. For this reason, below are some tips for lawyers, experienced and new to the practice alike, on how to avoid ethical lapses when using social media as a legal professional, in accordance with the American Bar Association’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct (RPC).
Tips to Know
- Profiles and Posts can be Legal Advertising: In many jurisdictions across the nation, attorney and law firm websites are deemed advertisements and by extension so are social media profiles;
- Avoid False or Misleading Statements: Because the rules prohibit false or misleading statements apply to lawyer websites the same obligation extends to social media websites. Issues to look out for include the platform branding an attorney as an “expert,” “specialist,” or having legal “specialities” or “expertise”;
- Stay Away from Prohibited Solicitations: Not all states’ ethical rules acknowledge the limited exceptions that allow lawyers solicitations of offering to provide legal services. Unintended solicitations may occur through automated friend requests or invitations on social media;
- Privileged or Confidential Information: There is a potential risk for lawyers to disclose (inadvertently or otherwise) this type of information, including the identities of former clients. Remember, the duty to protect extends to current, former, and prospective clients;
- Friending Judges May Not be OK: Real-world professional and personal relationships are subject to ethical constraints and restrictions depend on the jurisdiction of the governing ethical body;
- Do Not Communicate with Represented Parties: This basic and bright-line rule that forbids an attorney to communicate with someone who is represented without first obtaining consent from their counsel also applies to all social media communications (although not merely viewing posted content);
- Be Careful When Communicating with the Unrepresented: In the social media context, the rules prohibiting such communication requires lawyers to be cautious in online interactions, although publicly viewable social media content is generally fair game;
- Inadvertently Creating Attorney-Client Relationships: This type of relationship may be formed through electronic communications including those through social media and can trigger ethical obligations under the rules. For this reason, make sure to use clear and appropriate disclaimers;
- Unauthorized Practice Violations: A public social media post knows no geographical boundaries. Therefore, be sure that if you decide to interact with non-lawyer social media users you understand you may be bound to multiple jurisdictions’ ethical rules;
- Watch Testimonials, Ratings, and Endorsements: Social media platforms often use general functions that do not take into account the nuances of ethical rules in different jurisdictions. Make sure these comply with the rules and, if not, remove the content from your social media platforms.
Stay in the Know
Despite risks that may be associated with social media platforms for legal professionals using them, the opportunities presented justify the effort to make sure you are in compliance. Learn how to use the technology ethically and you will likely increase your ability to successfully represent your clients.