It’s 2023, and social media is king. With hundreds of platforms from which to choose, some more popular than others, social networking can be a powerful tool for its users, including law firms and individual attorneys.
Today, the attorney or firm that isn’t highly visible on Facebook, X (formerly Twitter), LinkedIn, YouTube or Instagram is the outlier. In addition to personal use — celebrating fitness goals, showing off that perfectly prepared meal, or just sharing one’s thoughts about anything — lawyers use social media for professional networking, business development, education, and marketing, among other purposes.
At Robinson Bradshaw in Charlotte, Chantal Sheaffer is the director of marketing and business development. She said that the firm, one of the larger in North Carolina, uses X, LinkedIn and Instagram to engage with its followers and enhance its brand. It shares formal firm news and updates while also featuring less formal content that introduces its followers to the firm and showcases its professionals. Recently, the firm touted its pro bono, diversity and inclusion efforts while celebrating the appointment of one of its attorneys, state Rep. Brandon Lofton, to the N.C. Courts Commission.
“There are many benefits: audience and reach, an outlet to give a behind-the-scenes look, and of course connection with clients, employees and friends of the firm. It also gives us a platform to tell our own story,” Sheaffer said.
Not social media, but still
Though not considered traditional social media, podcasts are becoming increasingly popular in legal circles. Michael Burney, director of business development and marketing for Collins & Lacy in Columbia, produces the firm’s podcast, “The Legal Bench.” The podcast, going on its fourth year and nearing its 60th episode, says it offers “The latest, from the Attorneys Who Know” and provides an outlet for Collins & Lacy’s lawyers to demonstrate their knowledge of the firm’s multiple practice areas.
Burney, who has a background in communication and broadcasting, said the goal of the podcast’s audio-only episodes — many of which are born from attorneys’ written blogs — is to shine a light on the industries the firm serves in defense litigation and its talented defense lawyers.
“It serves as a strategy to showcase content relevant to our different practice groups … while also providing an outlet for our attorneys to demonstrate their knowledge,” he said. “Also, it’s just an interesting way to make and cultivate new contacts.”
Recent podcast titles include “How Accident Reconstruction Engineers Work Effectively with Defense Attorneys,” “Trucking and Marijuana,” and “DELTA 8 THC in Consumer Products.”
“We try to feature content that’s of interest to our clients as well as to the general public,” Burney said.
For all the benefits of social media, it is not without risk. Lawyers must be careful to avoid legal pitfalls and ethical violations.
In 2012, then-South Carolina attorney Dannitte Mays Dickey was reprimanded for posting misleading statements on several websites, including a social media site. (He is listed by the state bar as not in good standing and living in California.)
According to court records, Dickey ran afoul of the state’s ethics rules when he, among other flubs, lied about handling matters in federal court, listed about 50 practice areas in which he had little or no experience, and labeled himself a “specialist” when the court had bestowed no such designation. According to the South Carolina Supreme Court, Dickey relied partly on non-attorney web designers “who assured him that the advertisements would comply with respondent’s ethical requirements.”
Another attorney, this one in California, was sanctioned several years ago for Photoshopping herself amid A-list celebrities and posting the images on the internet. A state bar judge noted that the superimposing of her image onto images of George Clooney, Barack Obama, Kim Kardashian and others — and posting the pictures to her professional website — were intended to “confuse, deceive, and mislead the public.”
Not all social media blunders are so grand, however. Some are more like teachable moments.
Before beginning work at Microsoft, Raleigh attorney T. Greg Doucette operated his own firm, with a heavy focus on criminal defense. With more than 100,000 X followers and having been verified before the blue checkmark was for sale, Doucette was what one might consider a prolific tweeter (when X was known as Twitter), often posting about current and former cases. He was cautious about running afoul of the Rules of Professional Conduct, using pseudonyms and being intentionally vague about case details to not identify his case or client.
But at least once, by his admission, Doucette “screwed up without realizing,” sharing a case photo that was recognizable by those in the neighborhood who read the accompanying viral story. Doucette immediately contacted the client and his mother and obtained a publicity waiver that he says he should’ve gotten in the first place.
“I was just so [angry] about the details that I ranted about it before thinking about the repercussions of vitality,” Doucette said. “I was more cautious after that.”
Sheaffer of Robinson Bradshaw didn’t go into detail but said that the firm, which manages its own social media presence, has a social media policy in place to help avoid common pitfalls.
A little advice
Emails inquiring about state social media guidelines were not returned by the North Carolina State Bar and Courtney Troutman of the South Carolina Bar.
While American Bar Association Rules do not expressly define social media ethics, the organization offers recommendations that can be used. For example, someone who “consults with a lawyer about the possibility of forming a client-lawyer relationship with respect to a matter is a prospective client,” according to ABA Model Rule 1.18(a). This might come into play when a lawyer making a social media post unintentionally uses language that forms an attorney-client relationship or provides legal advice, according to a National Law Review article.
“The best way to avoid this is by expressively using verbiage that states where the lawyer is licensed and that their content isn’t intended to form an attorney-client relationship,” the article reads.
In addition to leaving no room for doubt about licensing and representation, the article’s author offers five more tips for avoiding social media mishaps that could potentially be more than spilled milk.
Perhaps the most applicable is the idea that confidentiality is key. Pursuant to ABA Rule 1.6(a), “a lawyer shall not reveal information relating to the representation of a client unless the client gives informed consent.” Even if the information is public record, attorneys are cautioned against sharing even hypothetical situations that might run afoul of confidentiality.
Lawyers should choose a connection wisely, ensuring they know who they accept as a “friend” on social media.
“Lawyers have unintentionally presented a conflict of interest with their clients strictly based on social media contacts,” the NLR article states. “The same line of logic applies in relation to judges and avoiding the appearance of favoritism or bias.”
As in the Dickey case, lawyers should be cautious when advertising on the internet. False or misleading communications regarding a lawyer or their services violate ABA Rule 7.1. The line between a social media post and an advertisement might be a thin one, so attorneys should appropriately disclose all relevant information and refrain from misleading readers.
Lawyers should also keep in mind that they need to police not only themselves, but nonlawyer staff, lest they be held responsible for a post they didn’t make or perhaps even know about.
Burney, who runs the podcast for Collins & Lacy, also manages the firm’s social media accounts. He said that while the firm employs an outside agency to create graphics and post content, anything that is posted has undergone strict scrutiny.
“Nothing goes out that doesn’t come from us and is not approved by our management,” Burney said.
Lastly, many experts opine that it is a good idea for lawyers to keep their personal profiles private, limiting the number of individuals who can see the profile and lowering the chances of inadvertently running afoul of ethics rules.
Saad Gul, a North Carolina cyber law attorney, knows about staying safe online. Gul runs a personal X account with a clear legal flavor, and posts with an abundance of caution. He clearly states in his bio that he is “not your lawyer” and that his posts are not legal advice. His method of remaining on the right side of ethics rules is one of employing a degree of common sense.
“The rule I follow is that I basically err on the side of caution,” Gul said. “I try to stay away from politics … to be as even as possible to not alienate friends or potential clients. You do have to realize that you can be as careful as you want to be, but there are some people who will take offense to something you say.”