With the rise of social media, lawyers have of course gotten into the fray, starting Facebook fan pages for their law firms, professional profiles on LinkedIn and personal social media accounts. Attorneys have to be extra careful to use social media in a way that won’t expose them to ethics complaints.

In addition to analyzing social media for its advertising value, figuring out how things go “viral” on social media, and discussing how to use it well, an emerging area of discussion is the appropriate level of online social media interaction with clients from a business perspective. Even more importantly, though, is the neglected topic of the ethical considerations of being Facebook friends with clients. An attorney disbarred for unethical conduct no longer has a need for business development through social media, so best to avoid the problems Facebook friending can cause.

In short, being Facebook friends with clients and potential clients is a bad idea. Here is why:

  • Facebook friends will think you are having too much fun. Personal use of social media tends to make people look like they are all out having fun, living perfect lives where they eat the finest food, workout every day and rarely have a ruffled feather. If your clients think this is how you are living, any minor irritation they may feel at your delay in returning a phone call, last minute completion of a filing or other product of your busy practice will be seen as a sign that you were out living the high life rather than tending to their needs. That perception can lead a client to find fault with anything you do, have a short fuse with you or even instigate an ethics complaint.
  • Facebook friends will think you are making too much money. Social media also tends to make people look wealthier than they are, which can be bad for your reputation with clients. Maybe you got a steal on a hotel for a weekend away or a gift card for a fancy restaurant as a gift, but when your outings are posted online and clients see them, they will see you spending their money. When your monthly bill arrives, your client will not be so eager to bankroll your fun in the sun. What at first looked like a reasonable hourly rate now looks like extortion.
  • Clients know the context of your work-life remarks. If you are speaking only to non-work friends and share a rough day in court with a bullying opposing counsel, they might give you a pat on the back, buy you a beer and that will be the end of it. If your client hears or reads this remark, they could have different insight into your work than you intended to convey and may feel that you are oversharing about their case. A client may wonder what more might you be sharing about them. Their faith in your attorney-client confidentiality may be shaken. This can cause ethics problems for sure.

Attorneys are people too, and to say that none of us should participate in social media would be a naïve proposition. In addition to fueling our personal lives, social media can help build contacts that eventually lead to business.

So what can attorneys do online to take advantage of social media’s power while still navigating the ethical waters?

  • Use LinkedIn for interaction with clients and colleagues. On LinkedIn you will not be tempted to post the sort of personal snippets common on Facebook. LinkedIn is a great way to stay connected to professional contacts and clients and generate business without the risks listed above.
  • Use privacy settings. Even if you do not connect with clients on Facebook, they may still be able to see all that you post if your settings are not set up to guard against prying eyes. But be warned—privacy settings are not failsafe.
  • Keep your private life private for safety. Social media is full of pitfalls from a privacy perspective. Volumes are being written and countless hours of classes are being taught on staying safe online. Just as your clients do not need to know which school your child attends and that you will be there on a particular date for a performance, neither does anyone else. Use extra caution.

Social media is clearly not a fad going away anytime soon, and it is a powerful force that can be used for good when used right. Steer clear of the dangers and integrate social media into your professional and personal lives without souring attorney-client relationships.

(image: http://www.flickr.com/photos/c32/4864122151/)