What lawyers need to know about social networking and ethics

September 25, 2012

Social media has greatly impacted the practice of law. Not only have social networking platforms like blogs, Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn changed how attorneys can reach potential clients, they have also changed the way attorneys interact with one another and the public.

While the legal community has, for the most part, welcomed this new technology, social networking has also raised ethical concerns. The fact of the matter is that the Model Rules of Professional Conduct were written before there were such things as tweets and friend requests.

After years of examining the issue, the ABA Commission on Ethics 20/20 released a report late last year recommending that no new Model Rules were needed to guide lawyers on the ethical use of social media technology. However, the commission said “clarifications and expansions of existing Rules” were needed.

Ultimately, what lawyers—who use social media tools—need to know is that while the game may have changed, the same ethical rules apply.

Here are a few examples:

  1. Don’t solicit services. While this may seem like a blanket rule forbidding all advertisement, it actually applies narrowly in most states. This means that a post or tweet would have to target a specific potential client and offer legal services to that person. Of course, check your own state bar solicitation and advertising rules for more information.
  2. Don’t share privileged client information. It is possible to expose client confidences even if you don’t provide names. As long as enough information is given so that clients can be identified, an ethical violation has occurred. The best way to avoid this problem is by not blogging or tweeting about your own clients.
  3. Don’t accidentally form an attorney-client relationship. Many attorneys avoid interacting with potential clients on social media platforms out of fear of doing this. However, according to the ABA’s ethics commission, a lawyer only does this by giving the client a “reasonable expectation” that he or she is willing to form the attorney-client relationship.

With these ethics tips in mind, continue to use social media platforms as a way to market your firm, interact with colleagues and provide valuable legal information to the public. When in doubt, use common sense and it is unlikely that your social networking will get you in ethical trouble.

Source: American Bar Association, “Summary of Actions by the ABA Commission on Ethics 20/20,” Dec. 28, 2011