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Monday, December 21, 2009

Florida Ethics Opinion Underscores Risks Associated with Social Media for Attorneys

by Mehmet Munur

Florida Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee recently issued an opinion that answered the question “Whether a judge may add lawyers who may appear before the judge as ‘friends’ on a social networking site, and permit such lawyers to add the judge as their friend” in the negative. Though social media can be a valuable tool for any profession, the opinion emphasizes why attorneys should consider the risks involved in contributing to social media. While not mentioned in the opinion, attorneys should also consider other risks associated with listing specialties, receiving client testimonials, and unintentionally forming attorney-client relationships.

Commentators, such as Professor Stephen Gillers (see NY Times Article) have argued that the judges may be oversensitive to judges “friending” attorneys in Facebook, I believe that the opinion is just the beginning in a series of opinion that are likely to highlight related issues that may come up in social media. Before joining LinkedIn, we considered the Ohio Supreme Court’s guidance on some of the issues mentioned above. First, we considered whether we could join such an organization in the first place and be listed as attorneys. Ohio Supreme Court Opinion 88-4, though superseded by the Ohio Rule of Professional Conduct 7.4, stated:

A lawyer may ethically be listed in a legal directory or law list provided the listing does not contain a false, fraudulent, misleading, or deceptive statement or claim.

This opinion probably refers to MartinDale Hubbell listings, which are dominated by attorneys. While LinkedIn is professional in nature, attorneys in no way dominate it. I remember seeing that LinkedIn included about 700,000 attorneys (apologies for the lack of citation) out of their 50 million professionals. Nevertheless, the Ohio Supreme Court opinion highlights issues involved in joining such social media outlets in the first place. Therefore, attorneys must ensure that their listings in any social media do not contain false, fraudulent, misleading, or deceptive statements.

Issues related to attorneys’ specialties may also arise on social networks. The Supreme Court of Ohio only recognizes a few areas of specialization, such as admiralty, trademark, and patent law. Therefore, avoid listing specialties unless you are actually specialized under Rule 7.4. LinkedIn includes a "specialties" section by default field in profiles, which if overlooked, may inadvertently describe an attorney to have specialized in those areas. Therefore, double-check your profile to ensure that you have accurately listed your specialization.

Another cause for concern is client testimonials. While the prohibition against client testimonials have been superseded, Model Rule 7.1 states that a “lawyer shall not make or use a false, misleading, or nonverifiable communication about the lawyer or the lawyer’s services.” Note that the Model Rule, which came into effect in 2007, “does retain the DR 2-101 prohibition on unverifiable claims.” Therefore, “[w]hatever means are used to make known a lawyer’s services, statements about them must be truthful.” The Ohio Supreme Court Opinion 2000-6 further states that:

a law firm’s public communication of client quotations describing the general nature of the legal services provided, responsiveness of the law firm, and other non-substantive aspects of the firm’s representation is improper under the professional rules of conduct. This view is based on the current rules in the Ohio Code of Professional Responsibility and is consistent with ABA Model Rule 7.1, the Comment thereto, and the advice offered by the Board in Opinion 89-24.

Therefore, it may be a good idea to ensure that client testimonials are verifiable to an objective degree or avoid client testimonials altogether.

While the Model Rules are silent on the issue of the formation of an attorney-client relationship, the Restatement Third of the Law Governing Lawyers section 14 provides that:

A relationship of client and lawyer arises when:
(1) a person manifests to a lawyer the person's intent that the lawyer provide legal services for the person; and ...
(b) the lawyer fails to manifest lack of consent to do so, and the lawyer knows or reasonably should know that the person reasonably relies on the lawyer to provide the services

Such an issue may arise while answering LinkedIn questions or a direct inquiry by another Facebook or LinkedIn member. Inadvertent formation of an attorney-client relationship bring with it all of the conflicts issues that an attorney should consider before representing a client.

Therefore, attorneys should double-check their jurisdictions’ ethics guidance to ensure that they are not running afoul of ethical rules that have been in at work for some time but may arise in ways not previously imagined.

See also Legal Blog Watch regarding a related South Carolina opinion regarding law enforcement officials and judges.

You can also find a link to the ABA Model Rules here.

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