The Firm: LinkedIn endorsements can cut both ways

 David Donovan, The Daily Record Newswire

Good news! Someone you went to high school with and doesn’t understand what kind of law you practice has endorsed you on LinkedIn!

Except that may actually be bad news. While LinkedIn, the social network for the business world, continues to grow in importance for attorneys, some of its features may present ethical considerations that attorneys need to be aware of.

While still no Facebook, LinkedIn is becoming a behemoth in its own right. The service has more than 200 million members worldwide and gets more than 50 million unique visitors each week. Those page views drive up a LinkedIn page’s position on internet search results for an attorney’s name. Kevin O’Keefe, the CEO of LexBlog, a blogging and social media site for attorneys, says that’s the most important search term for consumers of legal services. A LinkedIn profile often comes up at the top of the results, possibly higher than an attorney’s professional website. For that reason, lawyers need to think about the impression a profile makes.

“Lawyers need to ask, ‘What does my profile say about me?’ ” O’Keefe said. “A profile can create an intimate relationship with people. The alternative is a person will look at it and say ‘This person doesn’t like technology. They’re not well networked with other attorneys.’ ”

However, the potential problems for attorneys extend beyond simply making a bad impression. In September 2012 LinkedIn introduced a new “endorsements” feature, giving the site a fresh buzz of activity. Comparable to “likes” on Facebook, they allow users to, with one click, “endorse” a connection for a particular skill.

That ease has led many to question whether the endorsements have any value at all, especially when many users are nonplussed to find themselves endorsed for skills that have nothing to do with their actual job. For many professions, that isn’t much of a problem, but attorneys are subject to ethical rules that preclude them from “engaging in communications that are untruthful or misleading,” and that applies with full force to their LinkedIn pages, experts say.

“Some of my family members are constantly endorsing me for skills I don’t have. My personal experience is that often I see these things and think, ‘Who do these people think I am?’ ” said Alice Mine, an assistant director for ethics at the North Carolina State Bar. “I think it would be untruthful to accept those endorsements if they’re not true. Attorneys have a duty to monitor what’s on their LinkedIn page, and they will be held professionally responsible for the content of that page.”

Fortunately, LinkedIn does allow users to hide endorsements so no one else can see them. Users can click the “Edit Profile” tab and proceed to “Manage Endorsements.” Users can then choose which endorsements, if any, they wish to share publicly.

O’Keefe said endorsements are so common and easy to generate that they have been devalued. Users tend to discount them. But he felt that even if lawyers have to watch out for dodgy endorsements, it shouldn’t discourage them from using the service.

“I think I’d be much more worried about how much work I’m going to lose, how foolish I look by not using it than worry about the trouble I could get into by using it,” O’Keefe said. “That said, you can’t have anything on there that’s false or misleading. Use your commonsense and be guided by the ethics rules that have always guided you.”

Mine identified two other potential tripping points, one being the use of the word “specialize.” LinkedIn allows users to discuss their specialties, but that term has a specific meaning under our rules, and an attorney cannot claim to be a specialist in a particular area without being board certified in it. Mine also said that an inquiry will go before North Carolina’s ethics committee this month about whether an attorney can send or accept Facebook friend requests or LinkedIn endorsements from a sitting judge.

Opinions differ on how much a LinkedIn page can help bring in new clients, but some attorneys say it’s a useful way to keep a connection with current or former clients.

“LinkedIn is rapidly becoming a key tool for my marketing and networking goals,” said Karen Luchka, an employment law attorney with Fisher & Phillips in Columbia. “One of the largest benefits of LinkedIn is that is helps me to remain up-to-date on any changes that occur in the business lives of my contacts and current clients. That allows me to maintain and grow relationships with existing clients.”

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