The ethical pitfalls of social media--

By Tony Ogden

Dolan Media Newswires

BOSTON, MA--Social media plays an increasingly important role in marketing for many lawyers, yet some are still staying away due to fears of ethical missteps.

But in large part, the ethical rules of marketing stay the same regardless of the vehicle.

"The usual rules lawyers have to live under outside this context are the same inside" the social media arena, said Andrew Perlman, a professor at Suffolk University Law School in Boston and the chief reporter for the ABA Commission on Ethics 20/20.

Barry Temkin, a partner at Mound Cotton Wollan & Greengrass in New York and chair of the New York County Lawyer's Association Professional Ethics committee, agreed.

"If you knew yesterday that it's wrong to solicit business, then don't do so on your Facebook page," he said.

However, there are a few trouble spots to look out for.

First, "make sure that the lawyer's web pages comply with the ethics rules for every jurisdiction in which they practice," advised Temkin. "Ensure that there are warnings [on each of the lawyer's social media profiles] that no attorney-client relationship is created simply by sending information to a lawyer's web page."

Another concern is the ease with which people comment and post online, which can open the door to overstepping ethics rules.

"With the casual nature of Twitter, you need to be wary not to get caught up in the fact that it is so casual," says Nicole Black, a Rochester, N.Y.-based lawyer and legal technology author. "Tread lightly when talking about other people. You can run the risk of defamation, and when talking about clients and judges, you run the risk of ethical problems."

Being careful what you write in a social media setting is also important because "there's a permanent record of it," said Temkin.

Problems can also arise "when lawyers forget to view their communications through the eyes of prospective clients [and become too] technical," says RJon Robins, founder of HowToMANAGEaSmallLawFirm.com, a coaching program for solo and small law firm attorneys. "As soon as you start getting into and discussing the law, what it means, the implications ... that puts you in the middle of all kinds of ethical issues better off to be avoided completely."

The bottom line is: Be careful not to give legal advice to potential clients over social networking sites.

"If someone asks for help, generally you should give people resources, not advice. Redirect them to a website," suggested Black.

When using social media for case research, "you shouldn't be trying to friend someone over Facebook who's represented by counsel in a matter in which you're involved," said Perlman. However, you can friend witnesses as long as you don't "mislead [them] about what your motivation is."

Entire contents copyrighted © 2011 by Dolan Media Company.

Published: Mon, Dec 19, 2011

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