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Lawyers ought not be friends with clients on Facebook?

Lawyers not friending clients on facebook?California ethics lawyer, Megan Zavieh(@Zaviehlaw), writes at Lawyerist that for ethical reasons lawyers ought not be friends with clients on Facebook.

The ethical reasons, per Zavieh:

  1. Facebook will make you look like you are having fun. When a client sees you having fun the client may file an ethics complaint when you’re delinquent in returning a call or file a pleading at the last minute.
  2. Facebook will make you look too wealthy. Your clients will see a reasonable bill as extortion.
  3. Clients may see a remark such as having a rough day in court as reflecting information about them and have their confidence shaken in your ability to maintain attorney-client confidentiality.

Say what? This is going too far in scaring lawyers from using what is probably our most powerful socia network to build and strengthen relationships with the people whom mean the world to lawyers—clients, prospective clients, and business associates.

Long before we had the Internet and Facebook, lawyers socialized with clients. They each had of a lot of fun together. We did things together and talked about stuff that had nothing to do with legal matters.

Sports talk, kid’s events, charitable boards, Christmas parties, faxing jokes back and forth, golf events, and God knows what else. And when you’re from Wisconsin, like me, a fair amount of the socializing involved alcohol and got a little raucous—to say the least.

We lawyers got our work done and developed life-long friendships with many clients for whom we represented their businesses and families for decades.

Could such activity lead to an ethical problem? I guess so, but so could the indiscriminate use of a cell phone. We took the risk—assuming we ever thought of it as a risk.

Like it or not, Facebook is used to socialize with friends and business acquaintances. To the extent you opt out of socializing with clients and prospective clients using Facebook, that’s okay. You’re just at a disadvantage in ‘connecting’ with clients and business associates, while your competitors are. Over time you run the risk of becoming irrelevant in the lives of people who are nurturing relationships in social settings online.

Bruce Johnson, The Chair of Privacy & Security Practice at Davis Wright Tremaine in Seattle, starting using his Facebook page 5 years ago. Representing information industry clients on issues involving media and communications, he starting sharing successes of these clients on Facebook.

Clients and their employees started befriending Bruce. This led to Bruce not only sharing relevant media, advertising, and first amendment news, but also vacation pictures with his family.

Later on came wonderful pictures with his grandkids in an easy chair in front of the windows of his high rise condo overlooking the Puget Sound.

To me, Bruce’s Facebook is the stuff life is made of. The joys and thoughts I would want my clients to share in—and which any client worth their salt would enjoy. The discussion of such items would certainly be the precursor to any substantive business discussion.

Sure. I get Zavieh advising that the safest route is to stick to LinkedIn for client interaction, to use Facebook privacy settings which prevent clients from seeing you experience life, and to prevent clients from knowing anything about your kids.

That’s the take little or no risk view and lawyers get bad to be risk adverse.

I don’t believe such action is warranted in most cases. Such action deprives lawyers part of the essence of a successful and enjoyable practice – that’s friendships and meaningful connections with the people you serve.

Lawyers also need to realize people hire lawyers they like as people, not just because of their legal prowess. Remove an opportunity for people to get to like you, and and you’re making it tougher for individuals and their businesses to hire you.

Could you develop such relationships without Facebook? Sure. It’s just harder without it—Facebook is the largest social network in the world and the fastest growing groups joining Facebook are older, affluent people.

And like Zavieh said, “Social media is clearly not a fad going away anytime soon, and it is a powerful force that can be used for good.”

Image courtesy of Flickr by sjsharktank.