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Chicken Little and the ethics of lawyer blogs

November 7, 2006

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

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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