As part of my speaking and writing about social media and professional ethics, I try to reassure attorneys that they really don’t need to worry too much about the intersection of social media and the slow-to-adapt state bar rules governing attorney advertising. But this reassurance is based on the presumption that attorneys will use social media properly – as a way to engage, connect and otherwise communicate authentically with others.
Sadly, not everyone gets the memo. Here are the top 5 ways attorneys can be stupid about social media and run afoul of the ethics rules:
1. Tweet Without Thinking. When I started out as a litigator, you had to wait to get back to the office before you could vent to the world about how crappily the judge treated you. And only your colleagues or spouse had to listen to you. But with today’s smartphones and the social web, there’s very little filter between a benchslap and sending out a status update that you instantly regret. At worst, such errors in judgment can lead to malpractice claims and discipline for interfering with adjudicatory proceedings. At best, they damage your professional image. Never put any thoughts into social media that you aren’t proud of or happy to see shared.
2. Treat Social Media Updates as Ads. It’s called “social” media for a reason – it’s about connection and exchange. So why do so many attorneys and firms continue to view social media as nothing more than a high-tech billboard for the one-way blasting of marketing messages? If you’re not willing to take the time and risk to connect with others, you’re wasting your time with twitter, Facebook or blogging.
3. Use Social Media to Solicit. Unless someone blasts out to their network that they are looking for a lawyer, it’s a safe bet that a person expressing angst over an accident or legal problem isn’t expecting to be solicited to hire a lawyer. Twitter may offer the ability to be automatically notified whenever someone in your town sends an update including the phrase “car accident,” but that doesn’t mean you have to use that tool to try and find new clients. While it is unclear whether such a message would run afoul of the “real-time electronic” solicitation prohibited under the rules of most states, it’s uncouth, crass and not effective enough to be worth the risk.
4. Overstate Your Accomplishments. It should go without saying that lying is a bad idea in most any context. But in social media – where again, the goal is engagement and two-way communication – the cost of lying is magnified. And the internet makes it ever easier to draw this information out. You can’t hide the fact that you don’t have a lot of experience, didn’t go to the greatest law school, or haven’t won any notable cases yet. Don’t obfuscate or pretend otherwise. Lying about who you are, or the results you can achieve, is the surest path to the social media doghouse – and sanctions.
5. Write Your Own Reviews. Online reviews are still a new thing for the legal profession. But word of mouth is inexorably moving online, and the experience of industries like hospitality, dining and consumer products – where a wealth of consumer reviews abounds – will soon prevail in the legal industry. It may be tempting to get a head start by writing your own reviews and posting them online. But there’s a word for this: “astroturfing.” As in “fake,” “phony,” “faux.” And it’s ILLEGAL. It’s false advertising. And if you get caught doing it, it’s a sure bet for an ethics violation – or worse. And if you think it’s easy to get away with, I can tell you, as someone who oversees the backend of a client review forum, that there are increasingly sophisticated ways to identify astroturfing that attorneys are probably not aware of.
For far more detail on this stuff – as well as a run-through of the first amendment limitations on the regulation of attorney speech AND one hour of free Ethics CLE – be sure to attend my free webinar at 10:00 am PST on August 2. Click here to sign up.