Legal Ethics and Social Media

Legal Ethics and Social Media - lawyers looking at laptops

Social media is now an integral part of daily life for most Australians, offering great opportunities to network, connect, share information and promote services to the wider community. Social media platforms are also constantly offering new features, changing the ways people can connect and share information. These rapid changes provide many opportunities but also introduce new risks, particularly for lawyers and law firms.

One of the most challenging risk areas for lawyers is the interaction between their ethical obligations and social media use. One of the first regulators to acknowledge these challenges was the Law Institute of Victoria, which first introduced its social media guidelines in November 2012. Since this time, Law Societies in almost every State and Territory have introduced similar guidelines highlighting the ethical issues lawyers may face with social media use. Most of these are updated regularly to ensure the guidelines keep up with the most recent developments.

For lawyers, keeping yourself informed about social media and its ethical challenges will help you to provide the best possible advice to clients, as well as ensuring you protect your practice and reputation. We take a closer look at the risks and how to mitigate them in this article.

New ethical risks arising from social media use

The main source of ethical issues which arise from the use of social media is the lack of awareness about how most social media activity is publicly available, not restricted to specific groups or audiences. This can be an issue for lawyers sharing information themselves, but lawyers’ clients or colleagues social media activity may also have an impact on lawyers.
An innocent geolocalisation tag on a social media post might expose a solicitor to a potential breach of confidentiality by identifying their client. Unintended solicitor-client relationships may be created if a solicitor answers a specific legal question from a friend - or even from friend-of-a-friend - on a social network. In addition, lawyers publicly criticising colleagues or judicial officers on social networks may bring the profession into disrepute. The ethical limits of using social media to research witnesses and opponents is also a grey area to many lawyers, and may lead to breaches of the no-contact rule.

Managing firms and lawyers’ reputation on social media

Social Media and Legal Ethics - Lawyers looking at laptop

Lawyers and firms should also be aware of the risks to reputation involved in using social media or how it may impact them indirectly. Unfortunately, we have no way to oversee how others use their own social media platforms. It is important to be aware that once something is released on the internet and seen by others it can go viral, and it can be very difficult to erase any damage to the reputation of the parties involved.

Law firms also need to be aware of these issues and take some responsibility regarding how their employees are using social media and provide clear directions on this. The LIV guidelines suggest that firms create a social media policy to include instructions on what is and what isn’t recommended for posting on social media platforms and to also instruct the employees not to post anything on personal channels which may suggest it comes from the firm or represents the firm.

Mitigating the ethical challenges caused by social media

Although there are the ethical risks associated with social media usage, these forms of online networking and communication are now a common feature of our society, making it impossible to opt out. Ignorance is definitely not bliss in this case, which is why lawyers and firms need to educate themselves on the ethical implications of their social media usage both individually and for their firms.

If you are interested in learning more about how lawyers can ethically and effectively manage social media use we would highly recommend looking at either our ‘Social Media and Risk Management in the Workplace’ course or our ‘Introduction to Legal Ethics and Social Media’ course. Both on-demand courses will go towards your CPD compliance.

View Course: Virtue and the Virtual Introduction to legal ethics and social media

This article was originally published in March 2014 and has been completely updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness