Since 2014, solicitors’ strategic use of social media has becoming firmly engrained in many a firm’s business development to reach potential prospects. In the same period, the number of platforms and online tools have continued to increase – providing more routes than ever for firms to market their services and enhance their visibility.
What hasn’t changed is the propensity for a minority of social media users within the legal profession to be less than prudent in their online activity. The consequences of a solicitor posting an ill-considered statement on an online platform is likely to attract a backlash and undermine their own reputation for the long term. They’re likely to be subject to disciplinary proceedings and be handed a regulatory fine (not to mention bringing their firm into disrepute.)
Earlier this year, for instance, a solicitor from Kilmarnock, Scotland was fined £2,000 by the Law Society of Scotland after appearing to post on Facebook that Auschwitz was “like Paisley but without the social problems”.
Last year, a former Shoosmiths solicitor was fined by the Solicitors Regulation Authority for sending threatening tweets to MPs and for tweets that incited abuse over a seven-month period. Luke Holden was fined £2,000 and faced £600 in costs.
The Society’s guidance is not so much a warning (that’s the SRA’s remit), rather it’s positive encouragement to use social media effectively and to increase understanding of its use in the legal profession. As the note acknowledges, social media offers commercial benefits, facilitates engagement with clients and other professionals, provides networking opportunities - and the chance to debate and share opinions (the highest risk area as far as unwise posts are concerned).
“One of the important considerations is… the potential blurring of the boundaries between personal and professional use, and the importance of recognising that the same ethical obligations of professional conduct apply in an online environment,” it states.
The note sets out these ethical obligations and how they apply in the context of solicitor-client online relationships (both previous and existing), as well as the risks where no such online relationship exists.
It only takes one unwise comment or opinion - or even a 'like', a ‘share’ or ‘retweet’ - and the individual's reputation could be damaged. It may also reflect badly on the profession generally. Similarly, solicitors should steward their information carefully and honestly on networking sites such as LinkedIn.
There are, of course, significant benefits for lawyers and firms in harnessing social media, which we don’t need to spell out here. Equally, the risks are well known - including defamation, privacy and confidentiality breaches, misinformation and offensive or abusive posts.
The majority of law firms already have a robust social media policy in place, but if you don’t - make it a priority. The note provides useful guidelines on what such a policy should include, what its purpose should be and how it is to be managed. If you’re a small firm – you might not even need a written policy.
Practical case studies are invariably useful to put any guidance into context. Back in 2014, the Society asked firms about the benefits and risks they experienced in the social media tools they used, how the risks were mitigated and how they handled the responsibility. They were also asked about their own policies and procedures for reviewing social media activity.
Those interested in the experiences and practices of selected firms can read the case studies in the practice note here. Indeed, all solicitors’ firms, compliance officers, individual lawyers and those in business development are urged to read this new guidance.