When the ABA surveyed law firms and individual lawyers for its 2016 Legal Technology Survey Report, the results showed 76 percent of firms have an online social presence (up significantly from 55 percent in 2012). Specifically, 57 percent of law firms reported a presence on LinkedIn, 35 percent on Facebook, and 21 percent on Twitter. Twenty-six percent of law firms host a legal blog. At the same time, the report showed 73 percent of lawyers have a personal, individual presence on LinkedIn, while 27 percent and 23 percent have a personal presence on Facebook and Twitter, respectively, being used for professional purposes.
Today, lawyer use of these social media outlets (and others, such as Instagram) is almost certainly even higher. Most lawyers now use at least one of the many current platforms in some manner, and although networking and client development still appear to be among the most common professional uses in the legal industry, social media has also become crucial to case investigation and is an important part of how lawyers stay current with legal, political, and economic changes that are relevant to their practices. In short, the legal industry’s initial resistance to social media, if it ever existed, has faded.
How lawyers feel about this new “connected” world can vary. Perhaps you are a person who has embraced social media as a vital, enjoyable part of your modern personal and professional life. Perhaps instead, you view social media as a persistently annoying and stupidity-enabling headache-monster. For most of us, social media probably sits somewhere between these two conceptualizations, but regardless of how we might feel about it, the reality is that social media has become a valuable communication tool that lawyers are increasingly using – or being expected to use to keep up with the competition – for business purposes.
Online, just like in person, de-escalation techniques can go a long way in
deflating situations before they pop.
Unfortunately, the reality (also) is that social media, and more specifically the information that people tend to share on such platforms, can also be used against us. Personal information, ideas, random thoughts, likes and dislikes – the same types of information that have the potential to humanize lawyers in a manner that helps their businesses – can, if shared carelessly, lead to some decidedly negative outcomes instead. Such negative outcomes may merely involve some mild personal embarrassment, but there is also potential for more serious effects on you, your firm, or your clients.
Most distressingly, some information posted to social media – such as an individual’s real-time physical location (or absence from a location) – and some exchanges that take place on social media – like an escalating, combative conversation – could potentially contribute to actual physical harm.
Legitimate physical threats to lawyers, judges, and others involved in the justice system are not new, of course. Our legal system, after all, is adversarial by its very nature, and emotions often run high during both criminal and civil proceedings, as well as transactional negotiations, especially when property, family, or freedom is at stake. Thankfully, these emotions typically do not boil over into violence – but it does happen. And since the use of social media should lead to more and happier clients, and not physical harm to you or others, let’s take a moment to go over some security tips that are specific to social media.
Don’t Tell Other People Where You Are
Avoid posts that make it easy to track or anticipate your current or future physical locations.This is one of the most important and effective tips you can follow to stay safe while using social media but also one of the hardest to follow. It is very tempting to post about a fundraiser, sporting event, conference, or other networking activity that makes you look good to potential and current clients while you are right in the midst of the fun. Such posts can be a positive marketing tool, and in fact might not be a bad idea for some lawyers’ situations.
Tison Rhine is the advisor to the State Bar of Wisconsin Law Office Management Assistance Program (Practice411™). Reach him at (800) 444-9404, ext. 6012, or by email.
However, because such posts can unintentionally let people know your exact whereabouts at a specific time, and those whereabouts may be less secure than your home or office, extra care must be taken. For some lawyers, especially those whose work is particularly adversarial, it would be a better practice to wait until the next day. A simple “Special thanks to the so and so group! I had so much fun at the annual so and so event last night,” can work just fine.
Lawyers at risk also should take care to avoid posts that might indicate regular hangout locations. Posting “It’s Fryyydaaayyy! Fish fry at the club again!” might not sit well with a parent who just found out they won’t be seeing their kids most Fridays anymore, or the sibling of someone who will be spending the next 10 years of Fridays incarcerated, and even if the post is months old, such a person now has a good idea where you might be this next Friday.
Finally, although it doesn’t involve social media, it’s worth mentioning that absolutely everyone should avoid automatic email “out of office” replies that say anything remotely resembling, “I’m on a sailboat in the Atlantic for the rest of the month without a cell phone. I won’t be around to check my mail or email, or to check on my house, office, dog, or anything.”
Humanize Yourself With the “Right” Personal Information
You may not want to publicly advertise where you are at all times, or where you will be, but you do want people to see you as a “real” person who does “real” things, goes “real” places, and has a “real” personality and interests. This may be advantageous for networking and marketing, but it also humanizes you to people who already are, or those who could become, threats to your safety. Perhaps a legal matter you were involved with did not go the way they were hoping, and perhaps they really want to take out their frustration on someone, but it is much more difficult for most people to harass or harm someone to whom they can relate as a person. So, whether you or someone in your firm loves dogs, gardening, or trashy romance novels, it doesn’t hurt to add a little bit of humanity to your posts or profile.
Online, just like in person, de-escalation techniques can go a long way in deflating situations before they pop. There are many unknowns in practice, and you may need to adapt your approach based on an agitated person’s responses, but in general, you want to stay calm, project a willingness to hear the person out, and attempt to provide alternative opportunities for communication to resolve the issue.
It’s a good idea to edit the privacy options on your personal account(s) so
that the information you post is viewable only by those whom you wish to
Do not tell people they are “wrong,” become defensive, or otherwise get into an online flame war. This can be difficult, especially if you believe your reputation is being challenged, but if you are the party seeking a solution in a respectful manner, it will be obvious to any observers who is in the wrong.
Create a Firmwide Social Media Policy
Your firm’s or business’s policy should not only lay out the social media practices to avoid and those to embrace but also your target audience and general purpose for using social media in the first place. If you don’t already have a social media policy, a simple online search will bring up plenty of examples. Running a search for “bad social media policies” should shed some helpful (or at least humorous) light on what not to do in creating the policy itself.
Then, rather than copying and pasting another company’s or law firm’s policy, take just a little extra time to make sure the chosen wording strikes a tone that will resonate with the culture of your own practice, and, of course, make sure your policy addresses any unique security concerns of your practice. Finally, like any other policy, it is the act of putting the contents into practice that counts. If you find that some guidelines are constantly being ignored, ask yourself, “Why?” Does the policy need a change? Or does someone need a kindly kick in the pants (metaphorically speaking)?
Don’t Forget Personal Accounts
Unlike your professional social media accounts, which are likely kept open to the public for marketing purposes, it’s a good idea to edit the privacy options on your personal account(s) so that the information you post is viewable only by those whom you wish to have access. This will allow you to post contemporaneous event posts in a safe(r) manner, but you should double-check who has access from time to time to make sure. (Depending on the service, options might include close friends, friends, acquaintances, friends of friends, family, followers, anyone, and so on.)
Consider On-site Security Training
No matter how many precautions you may take on social media, or in your other communications and interactions with clients or the public, it’s a good idea to prepare for the worst. Active-shooter, self-defense, and other types of security training from an experienced law enforcement or security professional can help provide the knowledge and confidence to either avoid or de-escalate situations with dangerous individuals, or in the event that is not possible, to defend yourself, coworkers, and customers and clients against them.
This column is merely an introduction. For more information on physical security issues facing attorneys, or to set up a presentation on the topic at your local or specialty bar, please contact: Mary Spranger, WisLAP Manager at the State Bar of Wisconsin, (800) 543-1615; Tison Rhine, LOMAP Manager at the State Bar of Wisconsin, (608) 250-6012; or your local law enforcement agency.
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