How to Avoid Unethical Conduct When Using Social Media

Melody Z. RichardsonMelody Richardson, Social Media

On February 12, 2016, Melody had the pleasure of instructing attorneys from around the state on how to avoid unethical conduct when using social media. This cutting-edge topic was of great interest to the audience, many of whom are just starting to venture into social media as a means of marketing their practices.

The entertaining power point presentation of this serious topic may be found here.

As our society lives more and more online, understanding how to use social media within the bounds of Georgia’s Rules of Professional Conduct becomes increasingly important. Thus far, only one attorney in Georgia has been disciplined for improper use of social media. That situation arose when the attorney’s former client posted negative reviews about the attorney on three different consumer rating websites. The former client actually created fictitious identities so that the posts appeared to be from three different clients, and the posts were quite vindictive. The attorney, unfortunately, responded to the negative posts by revealing confidential information about the client. Due to mitigating circumstances, the attorney received a public reprimand, but other states have disciplined attorneys who have revealed information learned about a client during the course of the representation much more harshly. An attorney in Georgia was reportedly awarded $405,000.00 in damages against an attorney who posted false statements about the attorney on consumer websites. A lawsuit is clearly a better way to respond to false statements on the internet.

Client reviews have become an integral part of rating systems on consumer websites such as Avvo and LinkedIn ProFinder. An attorney needs to be wary about those endorsements, however, as Comment 2 to Rule 7.1(a)(2) states that the prohibition against creating unjustified expectations would ordinarily preclude an endorsement because the information may create the expectation that similar results can be obtained for others without reference to the specific factual and legal circumstances. The best practice, therefore, is to include a disclaimer on any website that has client endorsements to make clear that the results of every case vary depending on the facts and circumstances of the case and that the attorney does not represent that the outcome will be the same.

Finally, the other area of social media that has gotten numerous attorneys throughout the United States in ethical trouble (i.e., suspended from the practice of law) is posting too much client information in blogs or on a personal Face Book page. For example, a Public Defender was fired from her job and ultimately disciplined after posting a picture of her client’s leopard skin underwear on her personal Face Book page. The client’s family members had brought to the jail where the client was a guest pending trial, clothes for the client to wear to trial. The attorney captured a shot of the underwear when it was held up by a security guard going through the clothing. The caption with the picture was “appropriate court attire.” Even without a name or other identifying information, that post was deemed a violation of the attorney’s obligation to maintain her client’s confidences.

If you haven’t already, you can view the slides from the presentation here.