Five Tips for Using Social Media

By Paul Southwick, Davis Wright Tremaine and YLS Futures Committee member

More lawyers are using social media to attract clients and connect with colleagues. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and blogs are powerful tools for advertising and building an online reputation. However, when a user fails to use social media in a professional manner, significant reputational damage can occur.

As a case in point, during a child-custody trial in North Carolina, the judge "friended" the husband's lawyer. As the trial progressed the two communicated about the trial through Facebook. After the case ended, the wife found out about the "friendship" and moved for a new trial and to disqualify the judge. The judge removed himself from the case, the wife received a new trial and the state's Judicial Standards Commission issued a public reprimand to the judge.

To avoid these kinds of situations, attorneys and other legal practitioners should remember the following five principles:

  1. Be careful who you friend. You do not have to accept a friendship request from a partner or associate in your office, or from a judge or opposing counsel. A good rule of thumb is to separate your professional and social networks. Connect with other professionals through LinkedIn and connect with family, friends and close colleagues through Facebook. Also, stay away from friending someone for a dishonest purpose, such as to investigate the person in connection with your case.

  2. Be familiar with and use your privacy settings. Familiarize yourself with the privacy settings available for your accounts. Then use those settings to limit the people who can view your information and the type of information they can view. Privacy settings are often complicated, so test your settings to make sure they accurately restrict your profile.

  3. Remember that nothing posted online is truly private. Even with strong privacy settings in place, you should presume that anything you post online is available to the public. For example, your information can become public if a friend shows or forwards your tweet or Facebook message to another friend or you forget to logout of your account at a public or shared work computer.

  4. Avoid unauthorized solicitation of clients. Networking can cross the line into unauthorized solicitation of clients. Use common sense to avoid this pitfall and consult relevant rules and ethics opinions.

  5. Don't talk about your clients, your cases or your judges. The rules on client confidentiality and work product apply to the use of social media. Be careful not to disclose client confidences or your work product through blogging or tweeting about your work. Also, be careful what you say about a judge; it might come back to haunt you at your next hearing.