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On Balance

Shiny New Social Media Syndrome for Lawyers

By Megan Zavieh

“Shiny object syndrome” happens when you see something new and just have to have it. It is what causes people to “need” the latest gadgets, or the most popular toys at Christmas, or a new car when their current car is just fine.

For lawyers, sometimes “shiny object syndrome” becomes “shiny new social media platform syndrome.” Getting onboard a new platform can be exciting — and it might be exactly what you need for your practice. But before you jump in, you must make sure you know what you are getting into.

Here’s a brief guide as you explore new ways to connect with the world.

Shiny Object Syndrome: What Is New?

A platform being “new” to you does not necessarily mean it is brand-new from a startup. More often, it is new to the user. TikTok, for example, was initially considered a middle schooler’s playground. But recently, more adults (including lawyers) have publicly stated they are on board. Pinterest has been around a long time, but if you are only now learning that lawyers use it for business purposes, you might think of it as new. And if you just finished a webinar series and noticed all the panelists had Twitter handles on their slides, you might have decided to pop onto that platform for the first time.

No Reckless Abandon on Social Media Platforms

When you decide to get involved in a new social media platform, it is important to learn how it is used. Always keep your state ethics rules in mind when experimenting with new features. This is critical from the moment you set up a new account.

How Will the Public See You?

Most platforms do not allow much roaming or exploring without signing up for an account. If you are signing up for purely personal use, with no reference to being a lawyer (this includes not using an email address that conveys anything law-related), then you will generally be safe to create an account and start poking around the platform.

However, if you are going to identify yourself as a lawyer from the get-go or plan to begin posting at all, make sure you are clear on how your personal information will show up on the platform.

Will other users be able to find you and view your posts?  Will they be able to identify you as a lawyer?

If you have a profile with a short bit of text describing you, take care to adhere to your state’s advertising rules. Remember, once you put yourself out on a platform and identify yourself as a lawyer, you are immediately subject to scrutiny as to whether you are advertising. For the most part, it is not an “ad” unless you are seeking employment or making yourself available for future jobs.  (See, for example, California’s Formal Opinion 2012-186.)  Nevertheless, you do not want to run afoul of rules prohibiting the use of terms like “specialist” or “expert.” (See your state’s version of Model Rule 7.4. The ABA deleted that Model Rule, but most states still have their own version.)

Avoiding ethics problems in your description does not mean it has to be boring, though. After all, a boring profile description will do little to further your social media presence. Instead, be honest, clever and creative, but never misleading.

  • You can cram a lot of great info into a short profile description, like Justie Nicol of Nicol Gersch Law in Denver. Her @justie4justice Twitter profile reads:  “Crim Def atty, mom of 2 #OfficeDogs+1 #OfficeCat+1 #OfficeHorse, & a toddler. Hashtags don’t = legal advice. #LegalTech moves CO mountains.”
  • Jordan Couch’s @JordanLCouch description is descriptive and to the point: “Attorney & Cultural Ambassador for @palacelawoffice. Legal Inventor.”
  • Erin Gerstenzang’s @EHGLawFirm profile puts professional with personal. “Helping good people navigate the criminal courts of Georgia. DUI Defense • Mentor to Women in Law • Legal Ethics & Tech Obsessed • Awkward Crossfitter.”

All of this is great. Just don’t say: “Joe Bloom.  Greatest criminal defense lawyer in town. Acquittal guaranteed.”

Shiny Object Syndrome: How Do You Interact?

On a new platform, interactions might be different from other platforms you have been using. Learn how to comment on people’s posts, whether those comments are public (always assume they are), how to “like” or otherwise indicate agreement with a post, and how to share other people’s posts.

Find out the extent to which your interaction with someone else’s post will be seen by others. For example, on Facebook, have you ever seen posts in your feed that simply state that one of your friends liked that post? You may have no other connection to the poster or content, but since that friend liked it, you now see it (with their name attached). Consider this when commenting or choosing what posts to like.

In complying with the ethics guidance related to social media, it is important to know how posts from you will be perceived, and that includes how you interact with other people’s posts.

Social Media Security Concerns

Security concerns seem paramount when lawyers debate social media platforms.

As a relatively new app, TikTok’s security was discussed heavily in the media not long ago. And, of course, privacy concerns are always an issue on Facebook as well as other platforms.

As a lawyer, you must approach social media with no expectation whatsoever that anything you view, post or interact with will be anything but fully public. That might sound frightening, but it sets parameters around what you can and should ethically do with your social media account. Here are a few best practices:

  • Do not share any information about your clients, unless you have their express written consent. You should not do that anyway, regardless of security concerns.
  • If you are going to interact with clients on social media, do not engage in a way that makes it clear — to anyone — that this person is a client or give any information about the representation. I would limit direct social media engagement with clients to the initial contact.
  • Treat the entire platform as if it is public, even if you think your security settings are locked down. You may manage to keep your interactions from being seen by the public at large, but the security of any social media platform is never going to be in the user’s hands.

Get Creative and Venture Out

I don’t want to discourage you from using new platforms. Especially during these times of limited in-person interactions, online communities are becoming ever more crucial to our well-being, personally and professionally. As I said, a new platform might be just what you need.

Just be sure to enter new sites cautiously, with the ethics rules in mind.

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Megan Zavieh Megan Zavieh

Megan Zavieh is the creator and author of “The Playbook: The California Bar Discipline System Practice Guide.” At Zavieh Law, she focuses her practice exclusively on attorney ethics, providing representation to attorneys facing disciplinary action and guidance on questions of legal ethics. Megan is admitted to practice in California, Georgia, New York and New Jersey, as well as in multiple federal courts and the U.S. Supreme Court. Her latest book, “The Modern Lawyer: Ethics and Technology in an Evolving World,” (ABA 2021 ) covers how to run a modern practice while staying in line with current ethics rules. She podcasts on Lawyers Gone Ethical, blogs on ethics at California State Bar Defense and tweets @ZaviehLaw.

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