Tuesday, November 06, 2007

The Ethics of Online Networking [From Law.Com]

Colin Coleman, a business attorney in Needham, Mass., uses the networking site LinkedIn to build professional relationships and make introductions. Beverly Hills, Calif.-based Victoria Pynchon, who recently launched a commercial-litigation mediation practice, likes the way Facebookmimics a neighborhood and allows people to get to know her. And Southern California entertainment lawyer Richard Jefferson maintains a MySpace page to ensure his clients consider him cutting-edge.

While their focuses are different, all three attorneys share one trait: They've recognized the value of these social-networking sites to help support and expand their businesses. Social network usage is exploding. Facebook experienced a whopping 270 percent increase in unique visitors from June 2006 to June 2007, according to digital statistics company comScore. Leading site MySpace recently broke the 70 million monthly unique user mark, which translates to nearly one in four Americans. And LinkedIn spokesperson Jane Corrigan notes that of her site's more than 14 million members, a growing segment (at press time, about 212,000 members) are in the legal industry.

Early adopter attorneys are clearly at the forefront of a new networking movement. At the same time, these pioneers are blazing ethics trails into previously uncharted territory.


As with any attorney venture, the use of social networking sites can be subject to state ethics rules and regulations. Just because the interaction is in cyberspace rather than the conference room doesn't make it immune to regulation. For instance, California State Bar ethics opinion 2004-166 found that an attorney's communication with a prospective fee-paying client in a mass-disaster victims Internet chat room violated Rule 1-400 of the state's Rules of Professional Conduct.

Many attorneys would protest that their social networking sites aren't designed to lure clients. But does that mean ethics rules don't apply? Says noted California legal ethics expert Diane Karpman, "On one level, it's free speech; lawyers do have a life. On the other level, there's this philosophy that everything a lawyer does is intended to generate business."

There are three major categories governed by state ethics regulations that are relevant to social networking sites: communications, solicitations and advertisements. Attorneys using such sites need to abide by the rules -- although in many cases, the guidelines may not be clear when it comes to the Internet.


Based on several ethics opinion and the input of experts, there seems to be little doubt that e-mail and Web sites constitute communications. What does this mean for the lawyers using social networking sites? First and foremost, they must ensure that what they say on their pages is true. The American Bar Association's Model Rule of Professional Conduct 7.1 requires that a lawyer avoid false or misleading communication about the lawyer or his services. Social networking pages are notorious for their exaggerations and off-the-cuff commentary, so attorneys in particular should be vigilant that they don't engage in hyperbole or half-truths, even if it's specific to themselves and not their practices.

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