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Chicken Little and the ethics of lawyer blogs

Lawyers are foolishly getting sucked into a discussion of whether lawyer blogs should be regulated as lawyer advertising and, if so, how. The latest example is an article in this morning’s Chicago Tribune that Lawyers Face Right to Blog.

The article provides a nice discussion on the ethics of blogging and possible restraints quoting lawyers from around the country, including myself. But rather than jump into such a discussion, why not just recognize that this discussion itself is nuts.

Blogs are just a different medium of communication. Lawyer communications take place in person or via mediums such as the phone, mail, fax, email, websites, and now blogs. We do not need separate ethics rules governing each medium of communication. The same rules apply when talking in person as on a blog.

Sure, many lawyers like to get into esoteric arguments splitting hairs as to the difference between different communication mediums. That’s just one of the many ways lawyers prove they left their common sense behind the second year of law school.

Put some things in perspective. I’m sure there were lawyers debating the ethics of using phones. Some lawyers used them when first invented and did a more effective job communicating with people. At the same time I’m sure there were other other lawyers debating the ethics and looking for their state’s ethics body to say yes, it’s okay to use the phone.

In 1996 when I put up a Web site to market my law firm, I loaded it chock full of helpful questions and answers for injury victims and their families. I worked with AOL to develop on line chats with lawyers and consumers.

I participated everyday in message boards at AOL and then created my own so other lawyers and I could help people. I created 4 listservs so the best lawyers in the country could interact with people in need of straight talk on personal injury, medical malpractice, workers compensation, and employee rights matters.

I didn’t give legal advice (just general information for education purposes), didn’t do anything where a reasonable person could argue there was an attorney client relationship, didn’t saying anything misleading, didn’t solicit work, didn’t violate conflicts rules, and did not do things which result in blowing client confidences.

At the same time, lawyers were saying why the heck would anyone need a website – and of course that ethics rules would prevent websites and all the things I was doing to try and help people. Heck some ‘experts’ were saying law firms with web sites would have to put ‘controls’ on their websites so they could not be viewed in states where the lawyers did not have a license to practice.

I took two positions. One, I was going to follow existing ethics rules. As part of doing so, I read everything I could on the issue and sought the counsel of ethics experts. And two, that lawyers were put here to serve people. I just could not believe ethics rules would prevent me (and a very dedicated team in my law office) from serving people who were starved for practical legal information.

The outcome? We built a virtual law community of legal articles, message boards, chats, listservs and the like covering numerous areas of the law. We moderated the community to make sure that existing ethics rules, not new rules governing virtual law communities, were being complied with. It’s now incorporated into Martindale-Hubbell’s lawyers.com.

Not once did I stop to ask for permission from a state’s ethics governing body nor did I spend a lot of time worrying about them clamping down on what were doing. Neither I nor the thousands of lawyers who proudly participated in that community were ever the subject of an ethics grievance for the work we were doing to help people.

Of course there were the Chicken Littles running around then saying the sky was falling and it’s happening all over again with the advent of lawyer blogs.

It’s this Chicken Little mentality and the discussion generated from it that is attracting news coverage on the ethics and lawyer blogs debate. Covering a story that no one in the their right mind could believe (lawyer ethics rules preventing lawyers from sharing helpful information with the public?) is highly entertaining. And of course plays into all the articles which cast lawyers and our profession in bad light.

Let’s just tell it like it is. We do not need new ethics rules addressing blogs written by lawyers and judges who don’t know the first thing about blogs or for that matter communicating with real people via the Internet. And that this cat is out of the bag – lawyer blogs are here to stay. Lawyer blogs break down the barriers between non-lawyers and lawyers, share helpful information with the public, help people evaluate lawyers, and are improving the image of our profession.

No ethics body is going to put a lid on lawyer blogs. Any lawyer who fears they may is screaming the sky is falling.

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  • http://blogbusinesssummit.com Teresa Valdez Klein

    Hey Kevin,
    I tracked back to this entry, but it doesn’t appear to be showing up. Do you hold trackbacks for approval?
    In any case, here’s the link to my post.
    -Teresa

  • http://www.greatlegalmarketing.com Ben Glass

    You are exactly right but the question we should probably be addressing is “just what is that lawyer to do when the Bar raises its sword?” I talk to a lot of lawyers around the country who are just plain scared of the chicken littles who seem to be running/creating some of the ethics rules.
    I mean.. look at New York’s attempt to regulate “pop-ups.” Not only a totally stupid thing to do but “pop-ups” are yesterday’s technology… wait till they see what’s coming next in terms of web technology.
    So, Kevin, I’m with you, but what’s the answer..how do we stand up and fight the “powers that be?”

  • http://www.reallawyernews.com Jamie Parks

    Kevin,
    Yourself and a hand full of others are reaching vigorously into the stormy clouds of social responsibility and rearranging the skies into a beautiful future. I admire your candor towards a profession that has been labeled as substantially failing in regards to fulfilling its social and ethical obligations to society.
    Indeed, this Law2.0 wave that has emerged, in essence is being enabled by ‘the people’ who are fully embracing the new technologies that are being brought to the Internet every day. I like to think of the web as the real time human ‘communicator’ that supersedes space and time and allows for each and every citizen of the developed worlds to obtain and share information freely and unregulated.
    The blogosphere polices itself, and we all know that it doesn’t take long to be held accountable for a bad move. Three to four years ago, this type of communication was impractical and mostly unavailable for the majority. Yet, due to the wide spread adoption of broadband and the affordable ease at which it is to publish rich content for the world, every day we are seeing more and more users empowered and interacting with the blogging medium.
    Blogs and the web are offering the courageous, ‘real’ legal professionals of the world a tremendous opportunity to muscle their way up from out of the scummy sewers that have drenched this arena over the past 50 years.
    These silly and foolish debates over what constitutes ‘ethical marketing’ for a law firm will eventually resolve in proving that the lawyers who publish blogs are not only lawyers with guts but they are far more reliable and committed to client servitude than the type of scum that currently brands American billboards and late night television spots.
    If anything, lawyer blogs are extending the arm of accountability. I believe quite adamantly, that those who choose to carry on despite the naysayers, and continue to publish meaningful content and foster genuine interactions with their audiences will be the ones who have made some extreme and extraordinary differences in our communities and in our world.
    This opportunity is being afforded to practitioners in hopes that they start regrowing some of that luminary human skin that was once worn so valiantly during their zealous three year investment in law school. My advice to old school practioners is to simply start making some bold public moves… this will light a fire inside your heart that will never go out.
    It’s no secret that the courts are among the most demonically inefficient and inaccessible as well as forbidding institutions in this country yet they still remain the only way that we as seekers of justice can go about obtaining rectitude. As we move closer into proximity of becoming an awakened global society, we will only stand the chance of evolving these inoperable justice systems into a facilitator of truth, by first reaching into our very own consciousness and flipping the switches – - switches that tear down walls and see bionically through the differences that divides us. Blogs are in essence these internal switches.
    The greatest sacrifice today is that of time, and quite frankly, fewer people are willing to engage in it. On the contrary, those that courageously risk the investment of their own time into teaching and utilizing the available ‘human centric’ technologies, are in the end leveraging their knowledge and authenticating the overall practice of their law firms.
    In addition, those who blog will also come to find that by exposing their inner qualities on a daily basis to the world, they will be exploring and validating the core purposes and principals of their very own lives. These souls shall be held in high regard as the few honorable, brave, and transparent beings whom pioneered the technology of the web into a truly activated global democracy of Truth and Justice for all.
    Lastly, your blog contains a wealth of wisdom and although I rarely do comment, I believe each of your posts are usually worthy of a treatise as such =)
    I can only hope every lawyer in America eventually encounters your writings and the LexBlog network. Keep up the outstanding coverage!