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IBA: Social Media and Ethics

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By James J. Bell and Patrick A. Ziepolt, Bingham McHale LLP

Once upon a time, a Florida judge had a practice of asking criminal defendants whether they were ready for trial a week after their arraignment. A Florida lawyer believed that the judge was attempting to force defendants to waive their right to a speedy trial. When complaints to the judicial watchdog agencies yielded no results, the Florida lawyer appealed to a higher authority: the blogosphere.

On a blog, the Florida lawyer posted that the judge was trying “to make defendants waive their right to a speedy trial.” See Steven Seidenberg, Seduced: For Lawyers, the Appeal of Social Media Is Obvious. It’s Also Dangerous, A.B.A. J., Feb. 2011. So far, no unethical statement had been made. While one could argue that this was not the best way to challenge a judge, this statement attacked the judge’s decision and did not attack the judge’s integrity in violation of Florida’s equivalent to Rule 8.2(a) of the Indiana Rules of Professional Conduct. However, when the lawyer posted that the judge was “an evil, unfair witch,” “seemingly mentally ill” and “clearly unfit for her position and knows not what it means to be a neutral arbiter,” he easily leapt over the 8.2(a) line and was sanctioned by the State of Florida. Id.

This Florida case should remind Indiana lawyers to be cognizant of the Rules of Professional Conduct when participating in any form of social media. If you are a lawyer who “tweets” like the owner of a certain local, professional football team or who feels the need to electronically express yourself, the following “Social Media Checklist” may be helpful to you:

1. Don’t reveal client confidences in social media. See Ind. Professional Conduct Rule 1.6. This seems obvious, but it is not uncommon for lawyers to post very specific details of their cases on listserves or “vent” about their clients in improper ways on Facebook.

2. Train/“supervise” staff and subordinate lawyers to follow the Rules of Professional Conduct while participating in social media. See Prof. Cond. R. 5.3. Rule 5.3 requires that attorneys with managerial authority make “reasonable efforts” to ensure that a subordinate’s conduct is “compatible” with the Rules of Professional Conduct. If confidences are revealed by a subordinate and a grievance is filed, your defense should include documentation that memorializes your training of the subordinate in the area of client confidences.

3. Don’t violate the advertising rules in social media. See Prof. Cond. R. 7.1-7.5. Remember that the Rules of Professional Conduct define “advertising” as “any manner of public communication . . . intended to promote… the use of professional services.” Bragging about yourself on a site like LinkedIn would come under this definition of “advertising.”

4. Don’t contact anyone represented by an attorney about the subject matter of the representation via social media. See Prof. Cond. R. 4.2. This rule likely prohibits a lawyer (or the lawyer’s assistant) from “friending” a represented party.

5. Don’t create a conflict of interest by establishing an attorney-client relationship with a prospective client who is adverse to a current client while on social media. See Prof. Cond. R. 1.7 and 1.18. Be wary of opining or advising about someone’s legal rights while online. Just because you don’t get paid for your advice doesn’t mean that you can’t be held responsible for it.

6. Don’t engage in ex parte communications with a judge about a pending case via social media. See Prof. Cond. R. 3.5. On that subject, think twice about becoming Facebook friends with a judge who is really a professional acquaintance. If you do have a judge “friend,” do not discuss pending cases over Facebook—and certainly don’t discuss pending cases during a trial (it’s happened).

7. Don’t make false statements to third parties on social media. See Prof. Cond. R. 4.1. See # 4, above. Some ethics opinions have held that lawyers who “friend” third-parties under false pretenses in order to read friends-only data are risking discipline.

8. Do not engage in conduct, in a “professional capacity,” that demonstrates bias or prejudice while via social media. See Prof. Cond. R. 8.4(g).

And finally, as we learned from the Florida lawyer,

9. Don’t slam the integrity of a judge on social media. See Prof. Cond. R. 8.2(a).

In order to avoid disciplinary pitfalls that stem from social media, attorneys need to remember that it is difficult to step out of their role as attorneys when they go to express themselves on the Internet. This is especially true if the attorney intends to talk about any aspect of his or her law practice. Social media is not private and it is easily forwarded, printed and preserved. Unfortunately, inappropriate “off the cuff” comments can quickly turn into a permanent, long-term nightmare for an attorney. Remembering the Rules of Professional Conduct while engaging in social media will help avoid such nightmares.•

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  1. How nice, on the day of my car accident on the way to work at the Indiana Supreme Court. Unlike the others, I did not steal any money or do ANYTHING unethical whatsoever. I am suing the Indiana Supreme Court and appealed the failure of the district court in SDIN to protect me. I am suing the federal judge because she failed to protect me and her abandonment of jurisdiction leaves her open to lawsuits because she stripped herself of immunity. I am a candidate for Indiana Supreme Court justice, and they imposed just enough sanction so that I am made ineligible. I am asking the 7th Circuit to remove all of them and appoint me as the new Chief Justice of Indiana. That's what they get for dishonoring my sacrifice and and violating the ADA in about 50 different ways.

  2. Can anyone please help this mother and child? We can all discuss the mother's rights, child's rights when this court only considered the father's rights. It is actually scarey to think a man like this even being a father period with custody of this child. I don't believe any of his other children would have anything good to say about him being their father! How many people are afraid to say anything or try to help because they are afraid of Carl. He's a bully and that his how he gets his way. Please someone help this mother and child. There has to be someone that has the heart and the means to help this family.

  3. I enrolled America's 1st tax-free Health Savings Account (HSA) so you can trust me. I bet 1/3 of my clients were lawyers because they love tax-free deposits, growth and withdrawals or total tax freedom. Most of the time (always) these clients are uninformed about insurance law. Employer-based health insurance is simple if you read the policy. It says, Employers (lawyers) and employees who are working 30-hours-per-week are ELIGIBLE for insurance. Then I show the lawyer the TERMINATION clause which states: When you are no longer ELIGIBLE! Then I ask a closing question (sales term) to the lawyer which is, "If you have a stroke or cancer and become too sick to work can you keep your health insurance?" If the lawyer had dependent children they needed a "Dependent Conversion Privilege" in case their child got sick or hurt which the lawyers never had. Lawyers are pretty easy sales. Save premium, eliminate taxes and build wealth!

  4. Ok, so cheap laughs made about the Christian Right. hardiharhar ... All kidding aside, it is Mohammad's followers who you should be seeking divine protection from. Allahu Akbar But progressives are in denial about that, even as Europe crumbles.

  5. Father's rights? What about a mothers rights? A child's rights? Taking a child from the custody of the mother for political reasons! A miscarriage of justice! What about the welfare of the child? Has anyone considered parent alienation, the father can't erase the mother from the child's life. This child loves the mother and the home in Wisconsin, friends, school and family. It is apparent the father hates his ex-wife more than he loves his child! I hope there will be a Guardian Ad Litem, who will spend time with and get to know the child, BEFORE being brainwashed by the father. This is not just a child! A little person with rights and real needs, a stable home and a parent that cares enough to let this child at least finish the school year, where she is happy and comfortable! Where is the justice?

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