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Nothing But the Ruth by Ruth Carter
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Nothing But the Ruth!

Jerk Behavior: Don’t Write About Your Clients Online

Lawyers are supposed to serve their clients, not use them.

By Ruth Carter

The other day I was scrolling through Facebook when a post caught my eye: A law firm shared, on its Facebook page, that it just submitted a trademark application on behalf of a client — and included a screenshot from the USPTO website with the client’s name on it.

Now, trademark applications are public information, so there’s no ethics issue with confidentiality here. But it was a complete turnoff for me on a couple of levels:

  1. Just because the information is public doesn’t mean you should blab about it. I tell my trademark clients not to talk about their applications until they have their registration certificate in hand. (It takes at least eight months to get a trademark application through the process at the USPTO, and there are reasons to keep a pending application on the “down low.”)
  2. This law firm is using its client for bragging purposes. It’s the business equivalent of someone saying, “I’m great in bed. You should definitely sleep with me.”

This Is Jerk Behavior

Our job is to serve our clients, not to use them to bolster our image. It looks like this law firm is using its client, not serving them. If the client wants to voluntarily sing the firm’s praises when they post about their newly registered trademark, there’s nothing wrong with that. But if I were the client in this situation, I’d be pissed.

This type of behavior will get you on my blackballed list, which means I will never send work to you. (It’s not just bad opposing counsels. The people on this list come from all types of industries.) It’s part of my I-don’t-work-with-jerks and friends-don’t-send-friends-bad-referrals policies.

So not only is this firm potentially pissing off a client, the firm is hurting its reputation in and outside of the legal community.

Life Is Blog Material

Now, on the flip side, there is nothing wrong with creating content inspired by clients. I regularly say, “Life is blog material.” (I have the T-shirt and everything.)

Many lawyers write blog posts and social media posts about issues clients are facing and questions from potential clients. When I do it, I sanitize the story to eliminate identifiable information and make it more general when necessary. Sometimes, I even wait for weeks to post about a situation to avoid having someone think it’s about them.

The only time I write about a specific situation where names are used is when I’m writing about a current event from the news, and it’s never my own client.

There is nothing problematic about writing about real-life legal situations. That’s probably some of the most valuable content we create. What’s not OK is using our clients for our own benefit.

More Lawyers Behaving Badly Online

This isn’t the only lawyer behaving badly on the internet. Just last week, someone posted on the Legal Advice subreddit about how they are annoyed that their lawyer posted unredacted documents about their case on Instagram without their knowledge or consent.

This may be a situation where the lawyer is only posting documents that are publicly available, but it is still poor form. I’m not the only one who thinks so. In addition to encouraging the person to report their lawyer to their state bar, these are some of the comments on the post:

  • “Your Instagram attorney is an idiot who is … jeopardizing your case. If I was opposing counsel … I’d be lurking on your attorney’s Instagram trying to pick up hints about your case.”
  • “It may or may not be a violation of attorney-client privilege, but it certainly seems unethical. Your attorney sounds like an attention whore with too much time on his hands.”
  • “You should fire him immediately and get a new lawyer that isn’t a complete moron.”

You might think that lawyers would know not to post about their cases online, but it’s obvious this rule needs to be repeated for some practitioners. Having clients is a privilege contingent on doing quality work for them and about them, which includes treating them with respect at all times. They are not a commodity to be used.

Anyone who believes or acts differently doesn’t deserve to be entrusted with a client’s case.

Illustration ©iStockPhoto.com

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Ruth B. Carter Ruth Carter

Ruth Carter — lawyer, writer and professional speaker — is Of Counsel with Venjuris, focusing on intellectual property, business, internet, and flash mob law. Named an ABA Journal Legal Rebel, Ruth is the author of the “The Legal Side of Blogging for Lawyers,” as well as “Flash Mob Law: The Legal Side of Planning and Participating in Pillow Fights, No Pants Rides, and Other Shenanigans.” Ruth blogs at UndeniableRuth.com and tweets @rbcarter.

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