State Bar urges caution with social media

By Tom Gantert

Legal News

With more than 800 million active users, Facebook has become the social media tool of choice. Some newspapers now require Facebook accounts to comment on news articles.

But Michigan's judges and attorneys face concerns over ethics involving how they use their own Facebook accounts.

At least four states--Florida, New York, Ohio and South Carolina--have issued ethical advisory opinions about potential ethical issues involving social networking, according to the Michigan Bar Journal.

The state of Florida's Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee rendered an opinion that judges could not "friend" attorneys that go before them in court.

The Florida opinion stated: "The Committee believes that listing lawyers who may appear before the judge as 'friends' on a judge's social networking page reasonably conveys to others the impression that these lawyer 'friends' are in a special position to influence the judge."

Dawn Evans, the director of professional standards for the State Bar of Michigan, said in an e-mail that Michigan hasn't addressed the issue yet. Evans said the State Bar's Standing Committee on Judicial Ethics (which writes opinions on ethical rules by which Michigan judges are bound) and the Standing Committee on Professional Ethics (which writes opinions on ethical rules by which Michigan lawyers are bound) have not written an opinion.

However, The Michigan Bar Journal published an article in December urging judges and attorneys to be cautious of how their actions on a public forum may be perceived. The article was reviewed and endorsed by the Committee on Judicial Ethics.

Andrew Kirkpatrick, a Jackson attorney with Dungan, Lady, Kirkpatrick, & Dungan, said he had a Facebook account for a year but got rid of it.

"The friends you had years ago, they start tagging you in photos and it starts ending up on your Facebook," Kirkpatrick said. "Then clients want to be friends with you. The problem with Facebook is you are in a position where you may be representing divorce clients. There were friend requests that I wouldn't accept. Forget it. It's not worth it, especially if you have aspirations. I'd like to be a judge someday down the road. To me, I just don't see any purpose in having one if you are a professional. People can post whatever they want on there."

Jackson lawyer Janet Kinney said she only has a handful of Facebook friends. She says it's not an issue for her because she's rarely in court and is reticent to share her comments on a public forum.

Washtenaw County 15th District Court Judge Chris Easthope, had a personal Facebook page in 2008 and then got rid of it after reading about the Florida judges problems with social media.

"It just wasn't worth it," Easthope said.

Easthope did create a political page that was members-only when he ran for judge.

"Think twice about every single thing you post," Easthope said. "Eventually, it will be used against you if it can be."

Published: Tue, Jan 31, 2012