I’ve been monitoring some of the Twitter posts that attorneys across the country are doing, and it got me to thinking about where the ethical line is (or should be) drawn.  Now, my good friend Toby Brown told me that a good rule of thumb for judging ethical rules when it comes to the “virtual world” is to think of the question this way:

  • “If it’s ethical with paper, then it’s ethical.”
Simple enough concept on the surface, but once you start getting into the weeds of what some are posting, it sure makes for some interesting “issue spotting.”
Take this Twitter post from an attorney in New Hampshire:

I’m wondering if this type of advertising is:
1.  Legal in New Hampshire? (higher standard)
2.  Ethical in New Hampshire? (lower standard)
3.  Does posting things like this on Twitter expose him to restrictions in other states (since Twitter is obviously not limited to reaching New Hampshire)?
Or, how about a more direct approach to using Twitter to advertise your legal services:
This one seems to be testing the boundaries a little more than Mr. Steven’s previous posting that tells you about his updating his Squidoo page.  The LawyerTweet posting isn’t simply redirecting you to an updated web page, it is actually encouraging you to get some free answers to your legal questions from a licensed attorney.  Going back to Toby’s comment earlier, if this is ethical in a newspaper or legal publication, it is probably ethical here as well.  
I’m still a little hung up on the fact that Twitter is micro-blogging, or in these cases, micro-advertising, in an instant world-wide market.  In print, you usually have a select audience, but with a resource like Twitter, your audience is not as well defined.  If someone from Oklahoma tweets the attorney licensed in California, based on his or her Squidoo or Twitter posting, could this open up the attorney to issues before the Oklahoma Bar??  
It is broad questions like these that make me miss my academic days where I could stand in front of a group of law students and ask questions like these without having to give an answer.  
  • Greg –

    You hit on some of the great unanswered questions about lawyers social media.

    Is it attorney advertising?
    What jurisdiction controls?
    If I can do it in my state of admission, can I do it on the internet?

    Twitter seems self-limiting. It is hard to pose a legal question and answer the question in 140 characters.

    It seems to also destroy attorney-client privilege since the information is in a public forum.

    The Bar is just catching up on email and web 1.0. It will be years before they can catch up to web 2.0.

  • Good Comments from Doug. Here’s my additional 2 cents.

    1) If the lawyer’s intent is gaining clients, then yes, Twittering is probably advertising.

    2) Jurisdiction? What’s that?

    3) Greg’s second example of “answering questions” is a scary one. In less than 140 characters this lawyer can A – establish an attorney-client relationship, B – waive privilege, and C – become a respondent (the term used by ethics counsel for lawyers in trouble).

    4) In 2005 Utah adopted the Ethics 2000 model rule updates proposed by the ABA. These weren’t even Web 1.0 rules. Catching up hardly seems possible when the ball keeps moving faster and faster and …