Lawyers and law firms are always asking about the ethical implications of social media and social networking. “These Internet business development tools sound interesting, but how can you guaranty me I won’t run afoul of ethics’ rules.”
Despite lawyers’ fears, states are receiving few, if any, bar complaints arising out of lawyers use of the Internet for marketing and business development. Grievances related to lawyers’ marketing efforts are arising out of non internet-based activities.
Dean Margaret Raymond of the University of Wisconsin Law School, addressing last month’s ABA National Conference on Professional Responsibility, acknowledged that the state bar regulators who drafted post-Bates rules did not envision the “second generation advertising issues” that would arise when they attempted to apply those rules to lawyer websites, blogs, LinkedIn endorsements, AVVO listings, and other internet-based client development tools. This from Helen Gunnarsson (@helengunnar), Associate Counsel for the ABA, reporting from the conference for Bloomberg BNA.
Alice Neece Mine, assistant executive director of the North Carolina State Bar, told conference attendees that the attitude of her bar’s ethics committee has evolved over the last decade as its members have examined and become more comfortable with lawyers’ use of new technologies.
We are not seeing grievances related to this brave new world. Most bar complaints about advertising in North Carolina continue to relate to failures to include direct mail disclaimers and result in letters of warning or, occasionally, reprimands.
James McCauley, Virginia State Bar ethics counsel, added:
Nearly all the complaints we receive [regarding lawyer advertising] are complaints from the economic competitors of the lawyer they’re complaining about, not from clients or non-lawyer members of the public.
No great surprise that lawyers are not drawing ethical grievances for their use of the Internet. The Internet, through social networks has allowed lawyers to engage the public in a real and authentic way. At least as far as those lawyers who are looking to be real and authentic.
Social networking harkens back to to the day (pre -1977 and Bates) when lawyers did not advertise or market. We got our work by establishing a strong word of mouth reputation and building relationships with people who mattered.
Rather than look at social networks and social media as an opportunity to broadcast our message and content at the public, lawyers ought to to look at the Internet as a town square or coffee shop. A place to engage. If you must, a place to exercise free speech.
Maybe the state bar regulators are a step ahead of lawyers on this one – they’re not seeing the perils of Internet social engagement with the members of the public we all serve.