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Do lawyers warning of social media perils even use social media?

October 3, 2016

The Indiana State Bar Association held its annual meeting last week. There was one session on social media and online networking.

I would never have noticed, but for the title of The Indiana Lawyer’s story as reported by Olvia Covington, “Social media create potential for ethical violations.” Rather than cover the benefits of social media — to lawyers and the public, via lawyers engaging the public — bar associations tend to focus on the perils of social media.

Though the Indiana presenters, Attorney Judy Woods and library manager, Howard Trivers, reportedly focused on ways legal professionals could get the most out of social media for research, the session, from Covington’s report, went on to warn of the perils of social media in general.

The perils, per Covington’s report:

  • Lawyers — especially those who frequently use social media — should heed an ABA opinion, concerning judges, to draw a line between their personal and professional online lives.
  • Legal professionals should become increasingly cautious when they log into various sites.
  • Attorneys should use caution when discussing their work online in that doing so can lead to ethical problems.
  • Social media posts can, at times, constitute legal advertising, which can get attorneys in ethical trouble.
  • Attorneys should list all states where they are admitted on every social media site they maintain so that they never give the impression that they are trying to solicit work in a state where they are not admitted.
  • Warned that even law firm employees who are not licensed attorneys can find themselves in violation of ethical standards based on their social media use.

Sure there’s truth in the above and other cases cited by Woods, but reading the warnings, I couldn’t help but wonder how regularly Woods and Trivers use Facebook, which 96% of the public uses, and Twitter, which leading lawyers, including in-house counsel, are using to engage other lawyers, the public, bloggers and the mainstream media.

The answer, unfortunately, is not that much, if at all.

This spring, I was speaking on an ABA section panel on social media with three other lawyers. None of the three blogged nor used Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn, other than as a resume and digital rolodex.

The outcome was a one hour session that would scare the heck out of any lawyer who didn’t know any better about social media. I tried, but I was outnumbered.

Sure, bar associations ought to highlight ethical risks associated with social media. But when doing so in presentations to lawyers, bar associations ought to have lawyers who regularly use social media in their professional life (becoming a better lawyer, business development, professional networking, engaging with the public) and personal life.

Only then would the professionals presenting have a context of the potential of social media and understand that the networking being done via the phone in a lawyer’s pocket or purse is the most powerful networking the world has seen.

Only then would the professionals and the bar associations appreciate the power of social media for lawyers to establish trust with the people and make legal information and legal services more accessible.

Trivers and Woods, from what I read, are extremely talented professionals. I have no axe to grind with them, nor should anyone else.

Legal professionals, and the public we serve, just deserve experienced professionals when it comes to counsel on something as important as social media.