May 2012 Bar Bulletin
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May 2012 Bar Bulletin

Professionalism in a Social Media Age

By James T. Yand


Social media continue to dominate the headlines as go-to sites where news and information are exchanged by individuals as well as businesses.1 Social media have become a multibillion-dollar industry as companies invest resources to create sites to interact with existing and potential customers. Likewise, lawyers and other legal professionals are deciding whether to join this virtual marketplace.

Finding your place in social media can be overwhelming. Numerous articles and web programs rave about the mystical power of social media to attract attention to your practice and generate new clients.

Some lawyers are slow to adopt social media, concerned that unresolved ethics questions could put them at risk of violating ethical standards or casting their image in an unprofessional light.2 It is important to understand that the medium may be new, but the same rules still apply to the message. In other words, the same familiar ethical and professionalism rules guide lawyers' conduct even in this new frontier.

What Policies Should Apply?

It is helpful for lawyers to review some of the situations that arise when using social media. Professionalism, as distinct from ethics, is focused on civility, including issues of etiquette, demeanor and conduct. The amorphous quality of professionalism makes it more difficult to easily classify the various types of conduct that might be considered unprofessional as distinct from unethical.

The first area of concern is the standard of decorum that attorneys owe to their firms or employers - a standard that extends to law clerks and judicial chambers. One example is private firm information posted or blogged about on websites, such as information about associate bonuses or working conditions. Private data, gossip, policy or strategy could be viewed as the firm's property, and sharing the information outside the firm might result in economic or reputational harm to it.

Lack of decorum increasingly happens on the Internet and comes in different forms. In general, Americans have sensed "[a] growing proliferation of incivility on the Internet." In 2010, some 51 percent of Americans considered blogs the most uncivil, followed by social networking sites (43%) and Twitter (35%).3 These figures suggest that there is real risk that attorneys also engage in social media behavior that the legal profession should view as unprofessional.

The social media explosion tends to encourage impulsive lawyers to share stories, pictures or comments on Facebook and other sites that may embarrass or cause harm to coworkers or colleagues. This may not directly disrupt the workplace or the courtroom, but can affect relationships with one's fellow associates and clerks, and the tenor of the office environment generally.

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