The New York State Bar has issued a set of “Social Media Ethics Guidelines.” As New York’s is not a mandatory bar, and these are mere guidelines, and not rules, one might pause and wonder why anyone cares. But as Kevin O’Keefe points out, because it’s New York, attorneys who (like me!) pay attention to the developing intersection between legal ethics and technology will imbue these guidelines with outsized importance.
So on we go.
What do I like about the Guidelines? I like that they state that a lawyer’s duty of competence includes understanding how social media works. For many people today, social media is a far more important communication device than a telephone is.
Do you think you can competently represent clients – particularly consumer clients, in matters where communications between parties may be at issue – without knowing how a telephone works?
The same thing now goes for social media.
I like the fact that the Guidelines repeat the advice I often give: if you want to avoid ethics problems when using social media, don’t post social media updates that take the form of advertising. You get a two-fer that way, since you don’t have to think about the rules, AND you’re less likely to come across as a spammy huckster.
Finally, I like that the guidelines provide solid, common-sense guidance on dealing with social media in litigation, from counseling clients to investigating opposing parties and jurors.
What don’t I like about the Guidelines?
I don’t like the fact that the Guidelines continue the silliness of deeming taboo the innocuous term “specialist.”
I don’t like the fact that the authors of the Guidelines are apparently unfamiliar with 47 USC 230(c)(1), and how it would preempt any attempt to find in the rules a requirement that attorneys be responsible for things that third parties independently post about them online.
I don’t like the fact that the Guidelines summarily conclude that specific legal advice can’t be given over social media. Of course it can; “social media” includes channels that are both distributed (public) and direct (private). It’s perfectly appropriate – although perhaps not advisable – to communicate with clients over private social media channels.
And what’s more, a lot of that stuff that lawyers think is “legal advice” when posted on social media? It’s not.
And finally, what I REALLY don’t like is the same thing that gets my goat on most efforts like this: the fact that, despite having dozens of authors, many of whom are no doubt fine attorneys, the Guidelines make little-to-no effort to reconcile the ethics rules with the First Amendment constraints in which they must operate.
Let’s remember: even in New York, attorneys have First Amendment rights.