Twitter, the popular social networking and micro-blogging service, has over 145 million registered users as of September 2010, and it adds approximately 300,000 new users every day. The impact of Twitter on the business world has been enormous. It has changed the way companies market themselves and their services, both locally and internationally.
Social networking is quickly catching on with legal professionals too, including offshore legal outsourcing providers. It is especially used for professional networking and client development, among other things. With all the dramatic changes in the practice and "business" of law, including the disaggregation of legal services and legal process outsourcing (LPO) to India, harnessing the power of social networking to brand a law firm is an added and interesting challenge. One challenge for a legal professional or firm is in effectively using the available social networking tools to communicate to the world, while remaining faithful to the profession's ethical obligations.
Twitter Creates a Flat World
The flat world referred to by Thomas L. Friedman in his now famous book, is made flatter by the power of social networking. The connectivity engendered by social networking helps businesses to reach out across borders to their customers or clients and to other related businesses and makes collaboration and co-ordination easy. Twitter levels the playing field. Any company, law firm or person with something interesting to say or something worthy to promote, has just as much "power" as the next one, whether they are a huge corporation or a small one-person firm. Twitter allows a company in India to reach the Western market just as easily as a Western company or law firm (and vice-versa).
Michael Ober from Yahoo Small Business writes about Twitter:
If you aren't Twittering yet, you'd better start thinking about how to integrate Twitter into your business soon. I think this one is here to stay. Dell has already proven that Twitter works for them, after producing over $1M on sale alerts and now offering exclusive deals to their 11,000+ followers.
Sure, Dell is a big name brand. but Twitter is a level playing field. Just as people sign up for your email newsletters today, they can start following you on Twitter too. But here's the big difference - consumers like to stay in control. As soon as they turn over their email address, they lose that control. With Twitter, consumers stay in total control with the "follow" button, and they can choose to dump you (ok, "not follow") anytime they want.
Social Networking and Legal Ethics
Legal professionals now have to think harder than ever to ensure that they don't violate ethical obligations. While social networking is a valuable tool that can help law firms stand out, the instantaneous nature of communication through social media can pose a few dangers as well. Legal professionals have to be very careful not to say anything that will portray them as unprofessional or, even worse, unethical.
Violations of ethics rules through the use of social media could arise from activities such as disclosure of client confidences, discussion of pending matters, use of deceptive investigative tactics, disparaging judges, soliciting clients and so on. For example, the Philadelphia Bar Association's Professional Guidance Committee in its March 2009 advisory opinion addressed certain deceptive investigative tactics used by lawyers on social media. For example, the opinion states that secretly sending a third party to befriend a Facebook user to obtain certain information from her is unethical and amounts to professional misconduct by the lawyer.
Another instance of alleged violation of legal ethics through the use of social media occurred when Sean Conway, a lawyer, blogged about a Florida judge, Cheryl Aleman. Conway criticized the judge for setting an unreasonably short time for criminal defendants to prepare for trial, referring to her as an "evil, unfair witch." In 2008, the Florida Bar took disciplinary action against the lawyer and issued a reprimand and a fine for violations of five attorney ethics rules, including the rule against impugning a judge's qualifications or integrity. In 2009, on review, the Florida Supreme Court upheld the Disciplinary action against Mr. Conway despite his arguments that the First Amendment protected his comments.
The ethical obligation of lawyers using social media is an evolving area of focus for state bar associations. Some state bars such as New York have attempted to regulate online legal communications. The California State Bar ethics opinion 2004-166, found that an attorney's communication with a prospective fee-paying client in a mass disaster victims Internet chat room violated California Rule of Professional Conduct 1-400. Among other issues that the American Bar Association's Commission on Ethics 20/20 has on its agenda for discussion is whether existing ethics rules adequately address the use of social by lawyers.
There is a long way to go before there are any hard and fast rules regarding the use of social media by lawyers. As Leora Maccabee wrote while expressing her thoughts on the legal ethics of using Twitter in Legal Marketing Ethics in a Web 2.0 World:
I asked (the CLE speakers) what happens if someone in Minneapolis (a total stranger) tweets "Anyone know a good entertainment lawyer?" and I get notified of this random tweet because I have the above RSS feed. Can I respond if I am an entertainment lawyer? Can I recommend a colleague who is a great entertainment lawyer? The CLE speakers' response was (1) if you can email the person and thus take the conversation out of real-time contact, do so; and (2) if you can't email the person, then tweet them with a link to your website, or the website of your colleague. That puts the ball in their court to make the contact and follow up on the recommendation, and is less invasive than engaging them on Twitter itself.
This is something with which some lawyers and bar associations will agree, and some won't, but the details will be sorted out and set in stone only with time, if ever.
On another front, a lawyer or firm could be publicly embarrassed without even realizing it. Many social networking services have automated settings of which users are completely unaware. As Jenna Green pointed out in her article in the National Law Journal, many firms have found that Facebook has created community pages for their firms based on what employees have jokingly written in their personal profiles. To quote the article: "The majority of the pages -- as many as 500 for some law firms -- are for legitimate positions like associate and partner and paralegal and librarian. But mixed in with them are the others, like a window into the psyche of law firm employees: peon, drone, serf, plankton, worker bee, geek, corporate gangster, Sisyphus, meat cutter, and -- most popular of all -- slave." As Green also says: "Amusement value aside, the newest Facebook pages illustrate the perils that law firms -- not the most avant garde marketers to begin with -- face as they navigate the world of social media."
Branding is as important for a law firm or a lawyer as it is for a Fortune 500 company. Twitter can be used to build a brand very quickly. Today, Twitter is the most efficient and economical means to manage the public reputation of a lawyer or a law firm. Every legal professional needs an appropriate social networking presence for business development and networking. When a lawyer shares information through Twitter that is interesting and informative, the number of his or her followers will grow and so will his or her brand. The flip side is that any mistake or violation will be equally public, and so, erring on the side of being over-cautious is one error that many law firms are probably eager to embrace.
* Ms. Padmavathi is a Legal Research Manager at SDD Global Solutions, an India-based, high-end legal outsourcing company that performs at a level beyond typical legal process outsourcing (LPO) or knowledge process outsourcing (KPO). For example, SDD Global is the only Indian legal outsourcing provider managed by a U.S. law firm. Ms. Padmavathi joined SDD Global in August, 2006, and today she is a key member of SDD Global's research and drafting team. She secured the second rank in law from the University of Mysore, and was a lecturer in law at the University of Mysore and its affiliate colleges for six years, before undergoing four years of intensive training in U.S. legal research and legal writing at SDD Global. She also holds a postgraduate diploma in Intellectual Property Rights from top-ranked National Law School in Bangalore, and an LLM in International Law and Business & Trade Law from the University of Mysore. Additionally, she has completed a course in cyber laws from the Asian School of Cyber Laws, Pune. She has written and published research articles in such areas as trademark law and globalization. In 2009, Ms. Padmavathi traveled to the United States to assist in depositions and a hearing in a high-profile libel case against SDD Global media client Channel Four Television Corporation. The case ended in victory in both the trial court and the appellate court in California. To her knowledge and legal research skills, Ms. Padmavathi also brings a passion for teaching, which has proved invaluable in the training and supervision of legal researchers at SDD Global. Now, with almost four years of intensive training and experience in legal research, legal analysis, drafting and media business affairs, she handles a variety of projects for US and UK clients.