Don’t Be Facebook Friends with Clients — the Ethical Perspective

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.



  1. Avatar Kelly Madden says:

    Wow – where to start…A lawyer who posts about a “bad day in court” shouldn’t be on social media to begin with. (or on the interwebs at all, for that mater.) Social media is an opportunity to connect and engage with your clients and prospective clients, and allow them to see the human side of you. Transparency, guided by the caveats of good taste, decorum and professionalism, is a great way to let people know you are real, and not just another pompous, holier-than-thou attorney puffing his chest. I find so many things I disagree with in your post – I think I’ll just stop here.

    • Avatar ptd says:

      No, it doesn’t. People who use social media (facebook in particular) to show their human side more often than not end up having irritating feeds begging for likes and spamming their friends with work advertisements. Moreover, by bringing clients into the mix, the profile ends up showing people being fake in hopes that they come off as having, as you so nicely put it, good taste, decorum and professionalism. As always, exceptions may apply. However, there are far more doing it “wrong” than doing it “right.”

    • “Social media is an opportunity to connect and engage with your clients and prospective clients, and allow them to see the human side of you.”

      No, social media is a place to post cat pictures and share stuff with your friends.

      Your clients are not your friends. They are your clients.

  2. Avatar Mark says:

    I have never wanted to be on Facebook. The whole thing seems weird to me. Instead, I use being a Lawyer as my excuse. “I am not on Facebook because of professional reasons”. That usually stops the line of questioning.

  3. Avatar Kelly Madden says:

    There is, of course, Facebook personal, and Facebook business pages. The difference is clear, save for those who choose to use the cliched “cat pictures” reference to sum up all social media involvement. Stick to your views, and watch all those big dollar, fulfilling cases flop on your desk. You obviously do not have time for all the fun memes and Kardashian-esque GIFs that are just a click away.

    • Avatar static says:

      You are so right, Kelly. Friend your clients on Facebook and sit back while “big dollar, fulfilling cases flop on your desk.” It’s like magic!!!

  4. Excellent and well written article but I respectfully disagree 100%. In today’s digital and transparent world, it’s important to be real and build trust with others. I expanded upon some of these thoughts in a blog post shared by the Riverside Lawyer Magazine at page 14. This is simply a 180 degree take on the position shared in your post but one that should be evaluated ( ).

    Respectfully, a contrary position…

    1. Facebook friends will think you have too much fun- Or, they will relate to who you are and share common interest. Relationships grow with sharing and transparency.
    2. Facebook friends will think you make too much money- Sure, we all need to be smart about what is posted. Having said that, refer to #1 above. Clients actually enjoy and even brag about hiring a successful lawyer.

    3. Clients’ know the context…- Why isn’t that a good thing. I want clients to know they get the “real deal” and the “full package”. Open book that I’m proud of.

    I think lawyers should use all the platforms they’re comfortable with. Think of them as welcome mats to build relationships and expand your sphere of influence :-)

    Again, I understand where you’re coming from and would even suggest that your recommendations about conduct and sharing apply BOTH on and offline. The issue isn’t using these platforms, it’s how you use them and that’s where most lawyers get things wrong.

  5. Avatar Kelly Madden says:

    My point exactly, Mitch – very well put.

  6. Avatar Keith Lee says:

    Or, people could trust two things in social media: Jack and shit. And Jack left town.

  7. Avatar Vivian Rodriguez says:

    I agree with those that say Facebook is mostly for friends and not clients–I say mostly for friends because I don’t find any real value from having “online relationships” with friends unless they live in another state/country. If I wanted my clients to know more about me, I would meet them at my home.

    And I am lucky that I share my last name with gazillions of Hispanics, all whom seem to be crowding FB.

    For those who can make it work, more power to them. I stick to the blog (which breaks all of Sam’s guideliness for a good blog and most probably sucks, but which quite a few of my new clients have referenced at time of retaining, the websites, and the phone. Every blue moon I may post something to twitter, but not often.

    All my prospective clients need to know is whether I am a lawyer, what area I practice in, how I can help them with.

  8. Avatar Treathyl FOX says:

    Hadn’t really given the ethics issue any thought. But I suppose if you’re a lawyer, you might want to tread carefully. Hmmm .. ?? That’s kind of redundant. If you’re an astute lawyer, you already tread carefully whether or not you might be stepping in social media quicksand.

Leave a Reply