Where are your potential clients? They’re probably on social media. With Facebook alone having over 1.86 billion monthly active users, businesses need to be on social media to connect with potential clients. When it comes to social media for lawyers, however, it’s not that simple.
In addition to cultivating a strong social media presence, lawyers must follow advertising and ethics rules within their jurisdictions. They also need to be careful about interacting with specific clients—or potential clients—over social media.
So, how can you be sure that your social media posts are not breaking any rules?
We’ve put together a few tips to help keep your law firm compliant when using social media—and some tips on what you can do to market your law firm using these networks.
1. Don’t post anything false or misleading
This one is fairly straightforward. Whether you’re posting something false, or whether you’ve posted something that’s mostly true, but omits a key detail, you’ll be breaking the rules.
Rule 7.1 from the ABA states:
A lawyer shall not make a false or misleading communication about the lawyer or the lawyer’s services. A communication is false or misleading if it contains a material misrepresentation of fact or law, or omits a fact necessary to make the statement considered as a whole not materially misleading (emphasis ours).
2. Don’t solicit clients directly, and know when you’re advertising
In most jurisdictions, you can’t post anything that amounts to a direct solicitation of a client. For example, if someone tweets that they’ve fallen and hurt themselves on an icy sidewalk, tweeting back “Let’s sue the city!” is not a good move.
However, you can post something more general on your own (not as a direct response to someone). If it’s been a particularly bad winter in your city, you could post something like, “Have you slipped and fallen due to the crazy Michigan weather? Call us!” This isn’t a direct solicitation, but is a message inviting potential clients to hire you for your pecuniary gain, i.e., advertising. Be sure to adhere to your jurisdiction’s advertising rules.
Want to learn more about marketing your law firm online? Download our free guide, The Lawyer’s Guide to Marketing Your Firm Online.
Some jurisdictions do allow for direct solicitation of clients, but you’ll need to make sure you’re following any additional advertising rules. Lawyers in Florida, for example, may solicit clients directly using written communication, but only under extremely specific conditions.
According to Florida’s Rule 4–7.18 of the state’s rules of professional conduct, a lawyer may only solicit clients directly if doing so does not conflict with other parts of the rule (e.g., no soliciting to a client if you already know he or she doesn’t want to hear about your services). And, in addition to rules surrounding whether or not you can solicit directly, there are no less than nine requirements for what the communication needs to look like.
For short posts on social media, it might be safer to simply avoid direct solicitations.
3. Don’t call yourself a specialist or expert
You may have a stellar track record on divorce or child custody cases, but in most cases, you’re breaking the rules if you say that you’re a “specialist” or an “expert” in family law. You’ll need to be formally certified by a state or local authority in order to use that language.
Rule 7.4 from the ABA states:
A lawyer shall not state or imply that a lawyer is certified as a specialist in a particular field of law, unless:
(1) the lawyer has been certified as a specialist by an organization that has been approved by an appropriate state authority or that has been accredited by the American Bar Association; and
(2) the name of the certifying organization is clearly identified in the communication.
4. Don’t connect with people on social media under false pretenses
Legal advertising on social media is one thing, but there are also rules to follow if you’re using social media for case research.
For example, if you happen to notice the profile of a witness or juror for your case on Facebook, don’t send them a message about how you went to high school together if you’re really looking to do research for your case. If their profile is set to private, you’ll likely be violating ethics rules.
For example, Ethics Opinion 843 from the New York State Bar states that it’s fine to gather information from public profiles, but that it’s not okay to “friend” someone (or direct someone else to do so) in order to gain access to non-private information.
5. Know when to keep your personal and professional lives separate online
You’re not required to have separate personal and professional social media accounts as a lawyer, but having separate accounts will make it much easier to stay compliant.
For example, if you integrate your Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn accounts with other apps, doing so sometimes allows those other apps to see your connections. If you’re connected to a client on social media, you’ve told a third-party about that connection without your client’s permission.
Using separate, personal social media accounts, free from any client connections, allows you to integrate with apps without facing this problem. For your professional accounts, you can carefully choose which apps and services to connect with.
6. Don’t get drawn into heated debates
The U.K.’s Solicitors Regulatory Authority (SRA) requires lawyers to maintain the trust that the public places in them. Part of that means staying out of scuffles online. In its guidance on questions of ethics for social media, the SRA says:
You should carefully consider the tone and not just the content of any social media communication. Even comments that you reasonably consider to be in good taste may be considered distasteful or offensive by others. It is advisable to avoid getting drawn into heated debates or arguments; comments designed to demean or insult are likely to diminish public confidence in the profession.
7. Be mindful of creating lawyer-client relationships
If you respond to a specific question from a potential client on Twitter, you could be inadvertently creating a lawyer-client relationship—triggering the ethical obligations that go with it. ABA Formal Opinion 10–457 talks about lawyer websites, stating that “[w]ebsites that invite inquiries may create a prospective client-lawyer relationship” and that lawyers who respond to website inquiries should consider this possibility. This article from the ABA suggests that social media poses the same risk.
In short, be very, very careful when interacting with potential clients over social media. It may even be a good idea to save the details for a formal meeting.
The SRA has similar advice:
Retainers can arise by implication and you should therefore take particular care to avoid inadvertently entering into a retainer online. It may be sensible to avoid entering into any kind of ‘discussion’ with potential clients about their matters; you can save this for the first appointment.
8. Don’t send confidential information via social media
To preserve client confidentiality, it’s important to always communicate via secure channels, and social media isn’t exactly secure.
Per the Law Society’s practice note on social media, SRA Outcome (4.1) states:
[Y]ou must ‘keep the affairs of clients confidential unless disclosure is required or permitted by law or the client consents’. The use of social media exposes you to the risk that confidential information may be inadvertently (or otherwise) disclosed, as illustrated in some of the examples above.
Social media may be good for law firm marketing, but for client communications, there are other mediums. It’s best to use a secure portal like Clio Connect to share client information, and a secure messaging app like the Signal App from Open Whisper Systems to send short messages.
9. Don’t disclose your location
Another social media faux pas that might add up to a breach of client confidentiality? Disclosing your location. The SRA states:
[F]or example, by advertising the fact that you are in a particular location at a particular time (perhaps via a ‘geotagged’ status update), you may risk inadvertently revealing that you act for a particular client.
Translation: Avoid posting locational updates to social media when you’re meeting with a client—even if you’re not posting about your meeting specifically.
10. Check the rules in your jurisdiction
Every jurisdiction has its own social media rules, but there are some broad similarities: In the U.S., most states’ rules align with the ABA’s model rules of professional conduct. In the U.K. and Europe, advice on social media from the Solicitors Regulatory Authority (SRA) and the Law Society of England & Wales also broadly aligns with what the ABA says.
Still, there are some stricter rules in specific jurisdictions. For example, the State Bar of California has published a number of ethics opinions on what constitutes advertising for lawyers in that state. Opinion 2012–186 looks at specific posts:
- “Case finally over! Unanimous verdict! Celebrating tonight!”—does not constitute advertising.
- “Another great victory in court today! My client is delighted. Who wants to be next?”—Constitutes advertising, as the last sentence suggests availability for employment.
To be safe, it’s best to check the rules in your jurisdiction in addition to following the tips in this post.
What you CAN do on social media
All of those rules might make it seem tough for lawyers to advertise on social media. However, there’s plenty you can do to get your firm’s name out there without exposing yourself to potential ethics violations. You can:
- Provide information about yourself as a lawyer. In the bios of your social media profiles, for example, it’s perfectly acceptable to include the law school you went to, conferences you’ve attended, and/or articles you’ve written. This can help you build credibility with potential clients.
- Share “general” legal information. Posting about specific cases on social media is a definite no-no, but you can write a post about more general legal information. For example, if you’re a family lawyer, you might post about dissolution of marriage, child custody, or an interesting celebrity breakup (provided you’re not representing them), to help position yourself as an authority in this area to potential clients.
- Share information about yourself as a person. Depending on your practice area, potential clients may want to see your human side as well as your professional one. As long as you’re using good judgement, it’s okay to post a selfie or a photo with your food. Consider: Australian lawyer Andrew Wiseman has made quite a splash posting photos of himself at the gym.
Social media for lawyers: Powerful if you’re careful
There’s a lot for lawyers to consider when using social media, but that doesn’t mean it should be scary. In fact, specialists such as Samantha Collier of Social Media for Law Firms argue that lawyers simply need to be on social media to attract clients.
Not every social media site will work for every law firm or practice area. However, by carefully considering which sites are right for you (check out our post: Is Facebook Advertising Right For Your Law Firm?), and by adhering to the rules mentioned above, you’ll be well on your way to getting the most out of social media—without putting your firm at risk.