If you are a law firm partner, blogger, and tweeter of law-related things, it probably behooves you to pay attention to things like whether a court is allowing pictures on any given day. And you really should think about what you throw on your Twitter feed when you are hanging out on the courtroom. Witness the travails of one Vincent “Trace” Schmeltz III, a partner at Barnes & Thornburg in Chicago.

Schmeltz was in the courthouse in late October for a high-profile financial-crimes trial that he had been tweeting and writing about on his law firm blog. […] Schmeltz acknowledged there was a sign announcing the no-photography rule outside the courtroom, but he walked past it “and, unfortunately, paid no attention to it.” […]

Schmeltz, his lawyers wrote, was “struck by the evidence” on display during the trial. Without thinking about the court’s rules, he thought that “it would be helpful for individuals not in court to see and thereby gain a better understanding of the evidence.” He took photographs using his cellphone and posted nine tweets—with pictures—from inside the courtroom.

That turned out to be a seriously bad idea, and rightly so. Laypersons can and should pay attention to signage about courtroom photography, but lawyers are super-duper obliged to automatically think twice about whether to provide any real-time communication while inside a courtroom.

So now Schmeltz faces sanctions. Fortunately, he has already proposed his own punishment.

First, he would donate $1,000 to the Chicago Bar Association to anonymously fund a seminar related to social media and legal ethics. He wouldn’t publicly claim credit for the donation, but he would authorize the organizers to use his story as a cautionary tale.

Second, Schmeltz would attend a legal education seminar on social media and ethics. Finally, he would volunteer at least 50 hours next year to assist individuals who came to the federal courthouse in Chicago without a lawyer and needed help.

The court should be ruling on the sanctions shortly. In the meantime, the rest of us should keep in mind what we really already know: circumspection is the best course of action vis-a-vis social media usage in the courtroom.

Featured image: “hand of a businessman touching screen of a smartphone” from Shutterstock.

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