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social media policy

Best Practices for a Law Firm Social Media Policy

This article originally appeared on ILTA’s (International Legal Technology Association) blog.

Every organization in today’s world should have a social media policy, and that includes law firms. Surprisingly, though, not all do. Lawyers and law firms have particular concerns, given bar rules and obligations to the court and clients. Social media activity has a direct bearing on professional liability, client sensitivities, privacy and professional ethics.

As a counterpoint to the professional ethics and liability issues raised by social media, there are personal ownership issues. While a Facebook page or LinkedIn profile can reflect negatively on a firm, they are clearly owned by the individual lawyer, not the firm.

Most importantly, social media is a crucial branding and business development tool for both individual lawyers and law firms. While it looks like a loaded gun to some conservative general counsel or firm management committees, almost no firm can afford to ignore the power of a social media presence and content marketing to meet the expectations of today’s clients and in house counsel.

That’s a lot to cover in one document!

Now that I’ve made the job of this social media policy document sound almost impossibly complex, I offer you a very simple option.

“If you wouldn’t say it in front of your grandmother, don’t say it on social media.”

There. We’re done.

But what lawyer is willing to leave anything at one sentence? Out of respect for the fact that your lawyers aren’t going to let you off that easy, here is a (non-definitive) outline of the types of issues your firm social media policy should address. I have seen client examples that are 9 pages long, and others that are perfectly effective and that are 1 ½ pages long. That difference is a reflection of firm policy and the disposition of your general counsel. Regardless of length, most policies cover the following subjects.

1. Defining Terms 

Policies often begin by acknowledging that some profiles are owned by the firm and some are owned by the individual, but that what you say on personal profiles can impact the firm, your clients and your professional reputation. The policy is usually careful to state that the firm respects the personal ownership of social media profiles, but cautions that there is no longer a line between personal and professional reputations online.

This section should include a list of individuals within the firm whom your professionals and staff can contact with questions or concerns about their social media use. I suggest that you bullet these names, email addresses and phone numbers, or put them in a shaded box so that they are impossible to miss.

2. Core Principles

In this section, which is of primary importance, the firm should first reference a code of professional conduct, if one exists. Then, the firm should describe in some detail what a measured and responsible demeanor online looks like.

Here are some examples:

  • You are accountable for what you write and post.
  • Use common sense and good judgment; your statements could have an impact on our firm’s reputation. Remember that what you post or publish may be public information for a long time – probably forever.
  • Be accurate, honest and genuine. Take responsibility for your mistakes. A conversational, personal tone often works best, similar to how you’d speak. If you make a mistake, or if someone questions a statement or claim you make, it’s your responsibility to investigate it. If appropriate, you should quickly correct any mistakes or provide any necessary clarifications.
  • Respect others in your posts and discussions. Social media networks and online communications shouldn’t be used to attack or insult other lawyers or firms, our clients or client groups, vendors, contractors, suppliers, competitors or others.
  • Be sensible. Don’t make posts or comments that may be considered defamatory, obscene, libelous, threatening, harassing or embarrassing to others.
  • Be transparent. If you’re writing about any aspect of the law, use your real name (not a pseudonym), identify that you work for FIRM NAME and be clear about your role. If you have a vested interest in what you’re discussing, be the first to openly say so.
  • Disagree with another’s opinion? Keep it appropriate and polite. If you find yourself in a situation that threatens to become antagonistic, refrain from becoming overly defensive and do not disengage from the conversation abruptly. Extricate yourself from the dialogue in a polite manner and seek advice from NAME OF CONTACT.

3. Business Social Media Use 

The next section of the policy addresses how an attorney should behave on firm-owned and other professional web properties.

Here are a few examples of professional social media guidelines:

  • Remember that bar rules apply online just as they do elsewhere; be sure to observe them in both personal and professional forums. Avoid behaviors such as “friending” judges on Facebook, requesting recommendations on LinkedIn, giving legal advice when participating in discussion forums or saying anything that could be construed as a material claim or advertising.
  • Don’t discuss what you are doing at work online. Remember that opposing counsel can watch your online activity – everyone can. A simple tweet like, “Sitting down to prepare motion for summary judgment” can be enough to reveal your trial strategy.
  • Always be respectful of the judiciary; if you wouldn’t say it aloud in a courtroom, don’t say it online.
  • Regarding blogs, remember that you’re representing FIRM NAME in your posts and content.
  • On our blogs, don’t delete a comment just because you disagree with the commenter’s point of view. Comments are an important part of the conversation we have on our blogs, and people will disagree with you. However, you can (and should) monitor user-generated content on our blogs and you may delete any comments that are offensive, are obviously spam with links to irrelevant blogs or websites, or are completely unrelated to the topic of the post.

4. Personal Social Media Use

The most delicate part of a social media policy is the firm’s admonitions around personal social media use. While respecting an individual’s rights, the purpose of a social media policy is to get the point across that you still need to watch what you say. It can take skill to explore, in writing, the tension between an individual’s Facebook page and the fact that anything said online can reflect on one’s firm, partners and professional reputation.

Here are two examples of language related to personal social media use:

  • The Internet is not anonymous and never forgets. Everything written on the Web can be traced back to its author one way or another and very easily. Information is backed up often and repeatedly and posts in one forum are usually replicated in others through trackbacks and reposts or references.
  • There is no clear line between your work life and your personal life. Always be honest and respectful in both capacities. With the ease of tracing authors back from their posts and the amount of information online, finding the actual identity of a poster from a few posts and a screen name is not impossible. This creates an avenue for outside parties to link your personal writings to those you’ve done in a professional capacity.

5. Here’s What Happens If You Screw Up

Firms vary in how they handle this section.  From a legal liability perspective, it isn’t surprising that many firms advise that violation of the firm social media policy is grounds for termination, etc. Other policies take a more pragmatic approach. They recommend that if you have made an error, you should immediately alert the appropriate people within the firm, make immediate moves to solve the problem if possible, and publicly acknowledge the error and apologize. Again, the content of this section is dependent on the disposition of your HR director and general counsel.

6. The OTHER Social Media Policy

Some firms have a public social media policy and a private or internal policy. This is a bad idea, unless you are a reporter for AboveTheLaw, in which case, it is social media gold!  If you are on the Legal Marketers Extraordinarie Facebook page then you probably enjoyed the public ribbing a well-known New York firm got two years ago when their Cro-Magnon internal social media policy got leaked. “Continue inscribing on stone tablets and refrain from using the internet! No good can come of it.”

I welcome your opinions and thoughts on what I have left out. That nine-page social media policy that I referenced earlier contains a lot of very specific and detailed advice, some of which seems a little antique three years after it was written.  There was a LOT of advice and commentary about blog comments, for instance, when today, that does not seem like a hugely important area of concern. In general, if you stick to core principles and common sense recommendations, your policy will be more enduring, enforceable and valuable for those who need to heed it!