Law firm social media – a warning from the regulatory authorities

Law firm social mediaLaw firm social media is coming of age as a major part of the legal marketing mix. However, in recent weeks, the regulators have stepped in with a few stark messages.

The first of these landed from the Solicitors Regulation Authority for England and Wales. On August 24th, the regulator issued both a press release and an official warning notice about the abuse of social media. The message is clear: inappropriate or offensive posts will be treated as misconduct.

You can see the full transcript of the warning notice here.

The warning comes following a number of well publicised cases of abuse. The SRA listed these as:

  • Facebook comments made by a solicitor leading to a £25,000 fine from the SDT, after he admitted they were “offensive” and “wholly inappropriate”
  • Late-night Tweets by a solicitor leading to a rebuke because of the offence they caused
  • Three solicitors at a firm fined a total of £14,000 and being liable for more than £7,000 of costs after exchanging offensive emails about a colleague
  • A solicitor fined £15,000 for emailing a client using language the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) said was “despicable”

The Law Society of Scotland also provides clear-cut advice and guidance for solicitors on law firm social media use. You can see their guidance notes here.

The worst kind of bullies?

Many of us have experienced bullying or intimidation at some point in our lives. Or at least, we know someone who has. Playground bullying or bullying at work are both examples – but they are “in your face”; up close and very personal.

Malicious use of social media is quite another thing. Those who indulge in it often believe that they will not be accountable. They do so because the target is virtual and not immediately present. Any retribution or punishment is unlikely. We all know that bullies are cowards. Perhaps this form of activity is extreme cowardice.

Any idea of getting away scot-free is long gone. The online world is far too connected for that.

A thin dividing line?

Law firm social mediaIn the modern age, most of us have access to one social media outlet or another. I recently discovered that there are over 90,000 UK solicitors on Linkedin. With that level of access, there is plenty of scope for ill-thought out or careless comment. We are only human.

The real problem is that we tend to compartmentalise social media use. On the one hand, we regard it as a personal communication portal – nothing to do with work. On the other, it is rapidly becoming a key marketing communications channel for legal practices. The difference between the two might seem obvious. The problem is, there is no difference.

I write blog posts like this one all the time. To maximise their coverage, I publish the posts on Twitter, Linkedin, Facebook and Google+. I try to research what I write about thoroughly and balance both sides of any argument. However, at the end of the day, what I write is my opinion.

My work circle, my company’s clients and my social circle will see that opinion. Once published, it’s out there in the ether.

The dividing line between private and public is not thin. It’s non-existent.

How to stay on the right side of the law.

It simply is not a case of one form of behaviour for law firm social media activity and another for personal activity. The Chief Executive of the SRA emphasises this point succinctly:

“But this is also about communication within an office or to clients. Solicitors cannot justify their conduct by saying that the communication was private, or they did not intend to cause offence, or that recipients were not offended. There is a risk that if you send an email which has the potential to cause offence and that email subsequently comes to light, we might take action.”

Paul Philip, SRA Chief Executive

In a nutshell, the usual laws covering this type of behaviour apply. The SRA also gives clear guidelines on how to keep yourself on the right side of the law. Examples of the type of behaviour they have investigated and referred to the SDT include:

  • Making offensive or pejorative comments about another person’s race, sexual orientation or religion.
  • Referring to women in derogatory terms and making sexually explicit comments.
  • Making comments which harass or victimise the recipient.
  • Using language intended to shock or threaten.
  • Making offensive or abusive comments to another firm about that firm or its client, or to individuals who are unrepresented.

Law firm social media litmus test.

Whether I am blogging or posting to social media either professionally or personally, I apply a litmus test. You may find these key points helpful:

  • If you wouldn’t say it to somebody’s face, don’t write it to them.
  • Get someone who knows the subject to proof read it and moderate it.
  • Get someone else who doesn’t know the subject to proof read it and moderate it.
  • Before pressing the button ask yourself if what you are publishing is likely to cause offence – even inadvertently.
  • If in any doubt, don’t do it.

Don’t forget, it’s not just your personal reputation at stake. Your business reputation is too.

You can find out more about the use of law firm social media by clicking the links below.

Mike O’Donnell, September 2017.

Mike is an experienced marketing professional who has spent much of his career working in and advising the legal profession. For further biographical details click this link.

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