Category Archives: LinkedIn

OMG, an Ethics Opinion that Actually Gets the Law Right on Advertising and Online Profiles!

Thanks, New York City Bar Association, for this comprehensive opinion concluding that most attorney uses of LinkedIn are not “attorney advertising” and thus not subject to the attorney advertising rules.

How so? Because, as the opinion notes:

An attorney’s individual LinkedIn profile or other content constitutes attorney advertising only if it meets all five of the following criteria: (a) it is a communication made by or on behalf of the lawyer; (b) the primary purpose of the LinkedIn content is to attract new clients to retain the lawyer for pecuniary gain; (c) the LinkedIn content relates to the legal services offered by the lawyer; (d) the LinkedIn content is intended to be viewed by potential new clients; and (e) the LinkedIn content does not fall within any recognized exception to the definition of attorney advertising.

These parameters are drawn from the definition of “advertisement” in New York RPC 1.0(a). That rule is in turn surely informed by the Supreme Court’s commercial speech doctrine, which only permits regulation such as that found in the attorney advertising rules when applied to communications that are narrowly commercial in nature.

And of course, as the opinion notes, a LinkedIn profile doesn’t meet the definition above:

Given the numerous ways that lawyers use LinkedIn, it should not be presumed that the primary purpose an attorney’s LinkedIn content is to attract new clients for pecuniary gain, unless it contains express language or other equally compelling evidence to support that conclusion.

The line between commercial and non-commercial speech isn’t always clear, but I’ve long argued that the concept draws in a lot less communication than many lawyers believe. It’s great to see a bar association agree with this approach.

Oh, and the New York City Bar’s conclusion with respect to LinkedIn? Same would go for Avvo profiles.

h/t Above The Law

NY Ethics Opinion Whiffs on LinkedIn

I wish more authors of ethics opinions would pay attention to the Constitution. But NOOOOO – here’s yet another ethics opinion, this time from the New York County Lawyers’ Association, that completely ignores the fact that the first amendment governs how state attorney advertising rules are to be interpreted.

Instead, NYCLA takes the tack that it can just read the ethics rules and come up with commonsense interpretations of what they mean. That’s cool and all, but it’s also completely meaningless – and not just because NYCLA is a voluntary bar association, and its word on matters of legal ethics is about as authoritative as a Duane Reade shopping bag.

Here’s a tip: if your interpretation of advertising regulations doesn’t account for the Central Hudson factors, this would be a fair criticism of your position:

Oh, and naturally, without the application of First Amendment limits on regulatory overreach, NYCLA ended up at a pretty dumb place: that LinkedIn profiles require disclaimers, that attorneys need to monitor their profiles for accuracy in content added by others, 1, and that attorneys cannot be categorized by others as “specialists.”

That’s pretty much entirely wrong. Disclaimer requirements are a form of compelled speech, enforceable only to the extent necessary to prevent deception. Federal law explicitly holds that users of websites can’t be held responsible for independent postings by third parties. And prohibitions on the use of words like “specialist” only come into play when such words are accompanied by other words stating that some third party has certified the lawyer as a specialist.

So nice opinion there, NYCLA – but you’re not exactly advancing the profession’s understanding of speech regulation.

Notes:

  1. Which they SHOULD do, but not due to any regulatory obligation.

Critiquing New York’s Social Media Ethics Guidelines

Last week, the New York State Bar Association came out with a comprehensive set of “social media ethics guidelines.”   The creators take pains to point out that what they’ve created is more like the Pirate’s Code than something having the force of law.

 

Which is fair, considering the NYSBA isn’t a mandatory bar association and it has no licensing or disciplinary power over attorneys.

Nonetheless, given the prominence of the organization and the depth into which social media has been delved, these Guidelines are sure to get much attention, and even deference.  So let’s look at how good a job the NYSBA did on the portions of the Guidelines relating to social media and the advertising rules.

 Guideline No. 1.A Applicability of Advertising Rules

The NYSBA says that for social media profiles used for “hybrid” purposes – both personal and business – it would be “prudent” to assume the attorney advertising rules apply.   That’s fair, if a bit conservative.  Social media profiles that have a mixed purpose (as properly used ones would) aren’t commercial speech; there wouldn’t be a need to put an advertising disclaimer on a twitter bio, for instance.  The question would really turn – as the California Bar noted – on the substance of individual social media updates.

As putting advertising messages in social media updates is spectacularly clumsy and ineffective, there’s a very simple way to avoid the question of the ethics rules entirely:

Don’t include advertising messages in your social media updates.

Guideline No. 1.B: Prohibited Use of “Specialists” on Social Media

The NYSBA says that lawyers can’t include any information under a heading that reads “Specialist” (and, presumably, the derivative “specialties”).  Some social media platforms may have default headings like this, and the NYSBA view is consistent with New York’s advertising rules (and those of many other states) that prohibit the use of terms like “specialist,” “specialty,” “expert,” and “expertise.”

That doesn’t make it right.  None of these “forbidden words” regulations are likely to survive constitutional scrutiny.  The problem is statements that mislead consumers into thinking some legitimate organization has certified an attorney as a specialist.  Without reference to third-party certification, these statements simply indicate the attorney’s area of focus and attention.  And there’s no legitimate state interest in preventing an attorney from innocuously stating, for example, that they “specialize” in elder law, or have “expertise” in federal energy regulation.

Guideline No. 1.C: Lawyer Solicitation to View Social Media and a Lawyer’s Responsibility to Monitor Social Media Content

This one starts out OK, noting that attorneys aren’t responsible for social media postings made by others – say, reviews on Avvo or comments on a lawyer’s blog.  It’s nice of the NYSBA to recognize this, since the law – 47 U.S.C. 230(c)(1), to be precise – explicitly states that people aren’t responsible for third-party postings.

But then the Guidelines get into more troubling territory.  First comes the assertion that attorneys are responsible for such comments when the attorney “prompts such person to
post the information or otherwise uses such person to circumvent the ethics rules concerning advertising.”

The latter part is fine; as New York attorney Eric Turkewitz famously noted, “outsourcing marketing = outsourcing ethics.”  There’s no question an attorney would be responsible for content created at the lawyer’s behest by a third party.

But “prompted?”  That’s far too overreaching.  Attorneys SHOULD be prompting their clients to leave online feedback for them.  And unless the attorneys are putting words in their client’s mouths, they are not responsible – under the attorney advertising rules or otherwise – for what those clients write. 1

Doubling down, the NYSBA then goes on to state that attorneys have an obligation to monitor third party information posted to their social media profiles, and take down anything that may run afoul of the advertising rules.  If the attorney can’t remove it, they’re supposed to ask the person who posted it to remove it.  And failing that, they should consider whether a “curative post” needs to be made.

While there’s no question that moderation is a good idea, there’s also no question that attorneys shouldn’t have the force of law hanging over the diligence of that moderation.   I’d rather see a state for once recognize that this regulatory interpretation is completely preempted by federal law rather than chilling attorney use of social media.

2. FURNISHING OF LEGAL ADVICE THROUGH SOCIAL MEDIA

Guideline No. 2.A: Provision of General Information

The Guidelines note that it’s OK to provide general information over social media, but not to provide specific legal advice, given concerns about creating an attorney-client relationship and disclosing privileged information.

That’s sound advice, for the most part.  However, it’s not a concern in places – like Avvo Answers or Quora – where the person asking the question is anonymous.  It’s also important to recognize that social media in many ways is simply facilitating the types of general legal discussions that attorneys have always had with friends, colleagues and acquaintance offline.  General information to orient the asker is given first, with more specifics – if necessary – provided in a more formal setting.  There’s nothing unique about social media in this respect.

Guideline No. 2.B: Public Solicitation is Prohibited Through “Live” Communications

I liked this part of the Guidelines, as it bolsters the idea that only “live” communications – whether in-person, telephonic, or electronic – are subject to limitation as solicitation. Soliciting business through social media may be ugly and counter-productive, but it shouldn’t lead to an ethics violation.

The remaining Guidelines relate to how to handle social media questions that come up while representing clients and in litigation.  They seem complete, thoughtful and well-balanced.  And while it’s beyond the scope of this post, I’ll make this observation: for lawyers who represent consumers – particularly in litigation – facility with social media is rapidly becoming a job requirement.

Notes:

  1. Again, thanks to 47 U.S.C. 230(c)(1).