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Social media pitfalls

In light of the SRA’s principles, Joshua Lenon provides guidance to lawyers on the correct use of social media

25 September 2017

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With billions of users, social media has become the place where most people learn, engage, and communicate, making it an excellent resource for solicitors. Whether it is enhancing your professional reputation, networking with peers, or even making yourself available to potential clients, social media is a tool with great potential.

It is, however, not without its pitfalls. Solicitors need to be mindful of the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s principles and outcomes surrounding the publicity derived from social media. The ease, speed, and reach of a simple tweet means your messages can reach global audiences in the blink of an eye. If you follow some simple steps, the benefits of social media can be easily reaped while avoiding most of the lurking risks.

From the beginning, separate the personal from the professional. SRA principle 6 mandates that solicitors behave in a way that maintains public trust in you and in the provision of legal services. Social media rewards participants that present themselves authentically; don’t shy away from showing personality or opinion. But be sure to post deliberately, not in haste or emotionally.

If you want to share content that is highly personal or not something you want associated with your professional capacity, set your accounts to private. Create and use separate accounts to post firm-related content. Facebook business pages for your firm, and a separate personal account restricted to family and friends, is one example of how to handle the divide between the personal and publicity.

Don’t post anything false or misleading. Whether you’re posting something false or something that’s mostly true but omits a key detail, you’ll be breaking the rules. Chapter 8 of the SRA’s code of conduct focuses on the steps your firm takes to garner publicity, which includes social media. Outcome 8.1 prohibits publicity that is not accurate or misleading.

Social media is communication; treat it as such. Legal advertising is one thing, but there are also rules to follow if you’re using social media for case research. You are allowed to research case matters over social media, but be mindful of outcome 11.1 (not taking unfair advantage of third parties). Do not attempt to connect to opposing clients or other private accounts under false pretences or to obtain access to privileged information.

Solicitors should also be mindful of confidentiality concerns. Whether communicating directly with clients or speaking on public forums, be aware that information shared via social media is widely viewed. Social media is designed for easy communication, but it should not be used for sensitive information. Evaluate the security and privacy policies if you intend to use social media for sensitive, one-to-one messaging.

Don’t get drawn into heated debates. As part of maintaining the trust the public places in them, the SRA recommends solicitors stay out of scuffles online. In its guidance on questions of ethics for social media, the SRA says:

“You should carefully consider the tone and not just the content of any social media communication. Even comments that you reasonably consider to be in good taste may be considered distasteful or offensive by others. It is advisable to avoid getting drawn into heated debates or arguments; comments designed to demean or insult are likely to diminish public confidence in the profession.”

Be mindful of creating solicitor-client relationships. If you respond to a specific question from a potential client on Twitter, you could be inadvertently creating a retainer relationship — triggering the ethical obligations that go with it. It is a good idea to direct potential clients to private messaging, and save the details for a formal meeting.

Think like a counter-intelligence agency. Avoid letting others glean too much information beyond what you deliberately post. Turn off unnecessary disclosures like geo-location data. Such details could be used to discern with whom you are meeting.

Joshua Lenon is lawyer in residence at Clio

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