Monday, November 23, 2009

Social Groups and the Attorney / Client Relationship

Stephen Fairley and I were speaking about the great increase recently in lawyers and law firms who have established some kind of presence on Facebook. As the number of Facebook users has exploded (now Canada's favorite website) the number of lawyers and law firms with some kind of presence on Facebook has increased as well.

Many solos and small firms handle their own social media marketing campaigns, and lawyers and law firms have developed a variety of approaches on Facebook to include fan pages (aka "business pages"), personal profiles, or sponsorship of groups or causes as a marketing and business development activity. Some lawyers use a mix of these options, some firms utilize one or another.

Facebook is ever-evolving and I was recently asked about my opinion as to whether groups or business pages are "better" in some way when considering the recent Facebook interface updates.

Jan Henson Boswell Belcher
If you have a "group" page, should you convert these to business pages ?

David Barrett
I'm generally against efforts to get folks on social media to migrate anywhere (whether that be within or between social media platforms) because it is a lot of work and it never works, so why swim upstream. Groups seem to be treated differently now in terms of news feed (i.e. pages feed posts to the members but groups do not).

However there may be a particular advantage with forming a group of a particular population - some folks are just more likely to join a group of equals rather than become a "fan" of someone or something. Purely in terms of the technical Facebook functions of each, pages seem to be better if all else is equal.

As a speaker for Bar Associations and lawyer groups I'm often working to identify the legal ethics issues in social media (in our relentless pursuit for CLE credit), and in my view the important issue for lawyers when it comes to setting up a group is AVOID ANY INDICATION THAT GROUP MEMBERSHIP FORMS AN ATTORNEY / CLIENT RELATIONSHIP. As lawyers, we know that this kind of issue trumps other minor technical considerations like whether a group post comes up in the news feed of the group members.

In many examples lawyers could do more to make sure that it is clear that membership in their online social media group does not create an attorney / client relationship. Many lawyers failed to include any disclaimer on this issue in the group or page description. Many law firms use a firm logo or establish a group in the firm name, which may implicitly denote a relationship between the firm and the members of the group.

However in the example in the photo above, we have a group of 80 members all of whom identify themselves as members of "Joseph Rosetti is My Trial Lawyer" which is even more problematic than Facebook groups that merely use the law firm name or logo because it states there is an attorney client relationship.

Membership in this group is not even conditional - I just joined the group myself without any screening or establishment of a written document attorney / client relationship.

Picky picky picky LinkedIn Lawyer David ... so why is this a problem?

I can think of a few potential problems with this kind of group -

1. Likely a legal malpractice insurance carrier's nightmare

2. Possibly a violation of local bar lawyer rules

3. Group membership may need to be considered in client conflict database, thus limiting a lawyer's ability to represent other parties

4. In part it simply doesn't make sense after reading the firm and group descriptions

Is this kind of group cute? Sure. Should lawyers take legal ethics issues more seriously than they do when engaging in online advertising? Yes.

Many firms seem to set up groups in the firm name in order to "get their name out there" which is simple enough to understand. However, even dismissing the ethical issue identified above - who wants to join a group that does nothing but promote your law firm?

Successful online social media groups are somehow a resource for those members of the group by meeting their information or networking or other needs in some way. Smart social marketers figure out how to meet needs of the networking targets identified in the firm marketing plan when considering each practice area's competitive advantage.

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