Attorney Blogs and Social Media Posts

Post by: Michael Kernan, Adjunct Professor, University of California Hastings

Attorney communications and solicitations in California are governed by the California’s Business and Professions Code and the California Rules of Professional Conduct (CRPC) of the State Bar.

KEY TERMS:

An “advertisement” is:

Under the Business & Prof. Code, an “Advertisement” is defined as:

“…any communication, disseminated by television or radio, by any print medium, including, but not limited to, newspapers and billboards, or by means of a mailing directed generally to members of the public and not to a specific person, that solicits employment of legal services provided by a member, and is directed to the general public and is paid for by, or on the behalf of, an attorney.[1]

A “communication” relevant to social media is:

“…any message or offer made by or on behalf of a member concerning the availability for professional employment of a member or a law firm directed to any former, present, or prospective client, including but not limited to the following:

(3) Any advertisement (regardless of medium) of such member or law firm directed to the general public or any substantial portion thereof; or

(4) Any unsolicited correspondence from a member or law firm directed to any person or entity.”[2]

A “solicitation” is:

“…any communication:

(1) Concerning the availability for professional employment of a member or a law firm in which a significant motive is pecuniary gain; and

(2) Which is:

(a) delivered in person or by telephone, or

(b) directed by any means to a person known to the sender to be represented by counsel in a matter which is a subject of the communication.”[3]

[1]Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code § 6157.

[2] CA ST RPC Rule 1-400.

[3] Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code § 6158.3 (West).

PROFESSIONAL COMMUNICATIONS IN THE NEW MILLENIUM

Websites And Social Media Pages

Electronic communications disseminated by “television, radio, or computer networks” are subject to special regulations.[1] Social networks or computer networks are not specifically defined.  As explained by a leading treatise California Practice Guide: Professional Responsibility:

“Regulation of electronic media advertising by lawyers extends to advertising on television and radio as well as computer networks. It includes use of the Internet (e.g., active and passive Web sites, online referral services, “chat room” communications and e-mail), text messaging and other forms of electronic communication.[2]

Citing the United States Supreme Court case of Central Hudson Gas & Elec. Corp. v. Public Service Comm’n of New York[3] that treatise suggests that, while the state has not clearly regulated websites and pages on social media, it would be improper to regulate an attorney’s blogs or social media website that is “informational”.[4]

It explains:

“A Web site deemed predominately ‘informational’ (as opposed to commercial) would warrant greater protection under the First Amendment.”[5]

Thus, your Website or Social Media page should be primarily informational to avoid potential ethics issues.

[1] Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code. § 6157 (c) & (d).

[2]  Vapnek, Tuft, Peck and Wiener, California Practice Guide: Professional Responsibility § 2:533 (2009 ed).

[3] (1980) 447 US 557, 564–565, 100 S.Ct. 2343, 2350–2351.

[4] Id. at 2:534 and 2:534.5.

[5] Id. at 2:534 and 2:534.5.

ARE BLOGS OR SOCIAL MEDIA PAGES CONSIDERED ADVERTISEMENTS?

The California Practice Guide: Professional Responsibility states:

“Legal ‘blogs’: The extent to which legal “blogs” (or “blawgs”) are subject to lawyer advertising rules in California has not been addressed. Material posted on a lawyer’s blog could be considered a “communication” (¶ 2:76 ff.) or an “advertisement” (¶ 2:39 ff.) depending upon the context of the message (see2:6.6 ff. re “hybrid” speech)[1].

Social networking sites: Social networking sites are web-based communities of people with shared interests. Examples include MySpace, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Classmates Online, Windows Live Spaces, AOL Hometown, Club Penguin, LinkedIn, Legal OnRamp and LawLink.  These sites may include chats, instant messaging, video, e-mail, discussion groups, blogs and other communication forms. To the extent a lawyer makes contact with a prospective client on such a site, the advertising and solicitation rules would almost certainly apply.

PRACTICE POINTERS: If you choose to hang your shingle in cyberspace, you are engaging in electronic media advertising and must comply with the requirements of both the State Bar Act and the Rules of Professional Conduct. Creating a Web site on the Internet gives you the capability of providing text concerning legal services and related photos, graphics, video and audio. All of these are governed by the State Bar Act and the CRPC.”[2]

NOTE: The key to all of these issues is to make informational and to have the appropriate notice/disclaimer, so as not to create an advertisement on your website, blog or social media page.  The page will be more effective if you think of yourself as a journalist reporting on your particular area of law.

 [1] Id. at 2:538.

[2] Id. at  2:538-2:540.

The Effect of Globalization: ADVERTISING IN OTHER JURISDICTIONS

On advertising issues, California Practice Guide: Professional Responsibility states:

“Advertising in other jurisdictions: There is no clear answer as to which rules apply when you advertise on the Internet in other jurisdictions. A good guideline is to comply with the most stringent rules in each state where you are licensed to practice or where your firm has an office. See discussion at2:592.10 ff. Simply establishing a Web site that can be accessed by potential clients in another state should not require you to comply with that state’s rules. However, if any member of your firm is licensed in another state, that alone could trigger the need to comply with that state’s rules.”[1]

NOTE: In California, an out-of-state attorney who is not licensed to practice in this state can be subject to Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code § 6126 Unauthorized practice or attempted practice; advertising or holding out; penalties which state:

“(a) Any person advertising or holding himself or herself out as practicing or entitled to practice law or otherwise practicing law who is not an active member of the State Bar, or otherwise authorized pursuant to statute or court rule to practice law in this state at the time of doing so, is guilty of a misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in a county jail by a fine of up to one thousand dollars ($1,000), or by both that fine and imprisonment. Upon a second or subsequent conviction, the person shall be confined in a county jail for not less than 90 days, except in an unusual case where the interests of justice would be served by imposition of a lesser sentence or a fine. If the court imposes only a fine or a sentence of less than 90 days for a second or subsequent conviction under this subdivision, the court shall state the reasons for its sentencing choice on the record.”[2]

CRPC Rule 1-300 Unauthorized Practice of Law also addresses this issue as well. Rule 1-300 (B) states, “member shall not practice law in a jurisdiction where to do so would be in violation of regulations of the profession in that jurisdiction.”[3]

[1] Id. at 2:541.

[2] Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code § 6126 (West).

[3] CA ST RPC Rule 1-300.

WEBSITE GUIDELINES

  1. Make It Informative

NOTE: Advertising by electronic media that depicts the result of a case or cases should disclose: “…the factual and legal circumstances that justify the result portrayed in the message, including the basis for liability and the nature of injury or damage sustained, or the advertisement must state that the result portrayed in the advertisement was dependent on the facts of that case, and that the results will differ if based on different facts.”[1]

Avoid Solicitation:

“(C) A solicitation shall not be made by or on behalf of a member or law firm to a prospective client with whom the member or law firm has no family or prior professional relationship, unless the solicitation is protected from abridgment by the Constitution of the United States or by the Constitution of the State of California. A solicitation to a former or present client in the discharge of a member’s or law firm’s professional duties is not prohibited.”[2]

The solicitation statute provides:

“(D) A communication or a solicitation (as defined herein) shall not:

(2) Contain any matter, or present or arrange any matter in a manner or format which is false, deceptive, or which tends to confuse, deceive, or mislead the public; or…

(4) Fail to indicate clearly, expressly, or by context, that it is a communication or solicitation, as the case may be; or

(5) Be transmitted in any manner which involves intrusion, coercion, duress, compulsion, intimidation, threats, or vexatious or harassing conduct.”[3]

[1] Id.

[2] CA ST RPC Rule 1-400

[3] Id.

2. Cover Your Bases

Clearly Label Any Communication

To avoid running afoul of Rule 1-400, clearly label your non-advertisement communication as a “newsletter.”

As noted in Rule 1-400(e), any an unlabeled communication is presumed to violate Rule 1-400:

“(5) A ‘communication,’ except professional announcements, seeking professional employment for pecuniary gain, which is transmitted by mail or equivalent means which does not bear the word ‘Advertisement,’ ‘Newsletter’ or words of similar import in 12 point print on the first page.”[1]

Add a Disclaimer

The California Practice Guide: Professional Responsibility provides a sample disclaimer to address the issues above.  It states:

DISCLAIMER:

This Web site is a public resource of general information concerning our firm. It is intended, but not promised or guaranteed, to be correct, complete, and up-to-date.  The Web site is not intended to be a source of advertising, solicitation or legal advice.  Links on the Web site are not intended to be referrals or endorsements of the linked entities.  The lawyers identified on the Web site are licensed to practice law in the following states: (IDENTIFY STATES) and nowhere else. The Firm does not intend to represent anyone desiring representations in a state where this Web site fails to comply with all laws and ethical rules of that state. [2]

[1] CA ST RPC Rule 1-400.

[2] Cal. Prac. Guide Prof. Resp. Form 2:A.

3. Avoid Too Much Interactivity

For law sites, avoid the type of interactivity by which you might be considered to be giving legal advice to people outside your jurisdiction, and avoid active pursuit of prospective clients using electronic media that resembles “live, in-person” communication.[1]

The rule is, the more interactive the communication with the prospective client, the more likely that the attorney is involved in solicitation and advertising to the individual.  Solicitation subjects them to the stringent rules and disclosures described above.

Also, it is suggested that attorneys refrain from providing legal advice over the internet unless they intend to establish an attorney-client relationship, which will trigger other regulations and procedures in addition to the ones described above.

[1] CA ST RPC 1-400.

FINAL THOUGHTS ON CONTENT

Make your page informative so that someone wants to read it instead of an ad.  First, it will be more effective.  Second, it will protect you.  The more you make your social media page informational rather than a pure solicitation, the more protection you have.  Finally, do not use terms of art that may be incorrect, or phrases that are misleading.  For example, an attorney who described himself in an online advertisement as a DUI “specialist” was subject to discipline.[1] It is unclear whether there would have been a different result if made on an informational website instead of an actual advertisement.

If you are only licensed in California, look at these rules and include the appropriate disclaimer on your site.  If you are licensed in other states, look to those states to see if they have more stringent rules.

The ABA Web site has a state by state breakdown with links to most state bar associations and state ethics rules governing lawyer advertising (www.abanet.org/barserv/stlobar.html (bar associations); www.abanet.org/legalservices/clientdevelopment/adrules. html (advertising rules)).

An ABA article titled, “Ethical Considerations for Promoting Your Practice Online,” suggests that until the laws in different jurisdictions are clearly defined and “harmonized” websites and other online advertising tools (which includes social media sites) “should provide:

  • an explanation of where the attorney is licensed to practice law
  • a description of where the attorney maintains law offices and actually practices law;
  • an explanation of any limitation on the courts in which the attorney is willing to appear; and
  • a statement that the attorney does not seek to represent anyone based solely on a visit to the attorney’s website.”[2]

[1] Id. at 2:537.5.

[2] Richard M. Goehler, Ethical Considerations for Promoting Your Practice Online, ABA Litigation News, (2010). (http://apps.americanbar.org/litigation/litigationnews/trial_skills/070710-ethics-promoting-law-practice-online.html)

Who Should You Be Watching on Social Media?

Forbes released its annual top 50 most powerful people on Social Media today. Don’t expect to see any celebrities in their list. The focus of their criteria is that the person has to be creating their own content and that content needs to be about social media. Hayden Shaughnessy’s article “Who Are the Top 50 Social Media Power Influencers, 2013?” also includes a link for you to rate your own “Pull.”

10 Social Media Scuffles from 2012

What would the end of the year and the start of a new one be without the seemingly never-ending lists of the top stories from the previous year. There was a lot of jockeying for position among the major players last year. Jolie O’Dell provides a list of the top ten rivalries in “Social Media Fight Club! Top Tiffs from 2012.” While the focus here is not overtly legal in most cases, the article does help to paint a picture of how the social media landscape is looking going into 2013.

A Victory For Free Speech in the Philippines

As a follow up on our previous story on the Cybercrime Prevention Act, here, the Supreme Court of the Phillipines has suspended the law. Concern was raised over provisions in the law which would have seen the possibility of imprisonment for those expressing peaceful opinions on the internet through social media. Floyd Whaley’s report, “Philippine Court Suspends Contentious Internet Law”, appeared in The New York Times online edition.

Filipinos Online Freedoms At Risk

The Cybercrime Prevention Act may have far reaching negative effects on free speech on social media networks. While the new law is meant to be “a measure against hacking, identity theft, spamming, cybersex and online child pornography”, there are fears that it will be used in libel cases which are a criminal offense in the Philippines. For the full story read, “Media Groups, Filipinos Protest Tough Cyber Law”  by Hrvoje Hranjski.

What Happens to Your Social Media Sites After You Die?

This is a subject that most people don’t want to contemplate, but it’s definitely something you should be thinking about. Who controls your posts on Facebook and Twitter after you die? As of right now, it is the social media site itself. The sites are the ones who set the policy, but a push for new federal regulations may change that. This could be an issue of particular concern when it comes to issues of intellectual property. What about any material that might be copyrighted? It’s not just a matter of personal information that may be stored online; there may also be valuable intellectual property stored there. ScienceDaily’s article “Federal Law Needed to Safeguard ‘Digital Afterlives’, Expert Argues” draws on the article “Facebook’s Afterlife” by Jason Mazzone.

Social Media Analytics Provide Valuable Information

First responders and law enforcement can find valuable and helpful information on social media. Information from social media can be used in conjunction with other sources of information to help gauge a situation before law enforcement or first responders are actually at the site. New tools are also allowing agencies to sift through the mountain of postings to identify social media posts that may indicate a threat to an individual or society at large. As always, the interest from these “agencies” raises questions of free speech and privacy. Dale Peet’s article “Social Media Analytics Can Aid Law Enforcement, First Responders In Civil Unrest, Disasters, Investigations” provides a thorough look at the benefits to such agencies in maintaining an active role in social media.

Maximizing Social Media Through Listening Platforms

Law firms can use social media to gain client insight, to maintain competitive analysis, to gauge their own online presence, and to gain insight into trends and changes in practice and industry. Client and competitive information are the focus of larger firms while smaller firms and sole practitioners tend to focus on information about the practice of law. The wealth of information available makes the use of listening platforms particularly helpful for law firms. Mark Hinkle explains how “Listening Platforms Provide Competitive Intelligence for Law Firms.”

 

What is a Social Media Lawyer?

Ever wonder what makes a social media lawyer different from any other lawyer? “What the Heck Does a Social Media Lawyer Do Anyway?” gives a thorough overview to the major issues that a social media lawyer might be involved in. It’s not surprising that in a fast-paced and ever changing environment like social media, a social media lawyer can expect a great deal of variety to come their way.

Roadmap to Social Media for Older Attorneys

Not everyone is obsessed with social media, and in fact, some attorneys may not be interested in it at all. Older attorneys, in particular, may not embrace this new phenomenon, but it is becoming increasingly important in almost every facet of practice from maintaining client relationships to evidence in court. Andrew Lu provides “An Older Attorney’s Guide to Ethical Social Networking” that is useful for attorneys of any age.