Social Media Restrictions: Understandable or Overkill?

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The expanding use of social media — whether it encompasses blogs, LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter or any number of other new iterations — is perhaps the No. 1 trend reshaping law firm marketing.

Many lawyers will attest to the fact that the interactivity on the Internet as epitomized by the give-and-take between bloggers and social networking sites is enriching and valuable for both sides of the virtual relationship.

But social media use also vividly illustrates the dilemmas posed by the law's dual nature as a business and a profession.

There are many concerns about whether social media activity is freely available information or advertising controlled by the bar; after all, social networking messages are available to the entire world, not just existing clients.

In Correy Stephenson's April 29 story, "Your rep may be only as strong as the weakest LinkedIn feature," she pointed out the potential perils of attorneys presenting themselves as "specialists," and that seemingly small variations in terminology could mean the difference between acceptable advertising and an ethical violation.

Yet another example of that slippery ethical slope is an opinion delivered earlier this year by the New York State Bar Association's Committee on Professional Ethics, which held that law firms may not describe their services in a section of LinkedIn devoted to specialties. As a result, only appropriately certified attorneys may list specialties, provided that they comply with disclosure requirements. Law firms may identify only areas of law practice; to list those areas under a heading of "specialties," according to the committee, improperly implies that the firm itself is a specialist.

Regulating for truth and fairness and to restrict hyperbole in social media use is understandable, but the ruling seems to trend toward overkill. After all, the use of the word "specialty" is the choice of LinkedIn, not the law firm. If the firm wants to be visible and accessible to LinkedIn users, it needs to conform to LinkedIn's categories. As far as client concerns and legal ethics go, the quality of legal service — not where it's listed on a website page — should be what is important.

As the ethics opinion notes, there are specialized certifications that state bar associations increasingly offer in certain practice specialties. Specialists and their clients do benefit in some way from the more intensive training, but that's just a matter of degree from the typical CLE requirements. The specialist designation just takes the principle further.

Clients expect all lawyers to be competent if they have state bar approval to hang out their shingle. A law degree or advanced certification in a particular field may be good marketing tools, but from the client's perspective the real differentiator is the value received for the skill package that the lawyer offers. How that skill is presented on a LinkedIn page, if done truthfully and in conformance with ethical requirements, should be the deciding factor.

To say law firms cannot appear on a LinkedIn page advertising legal specialties seems to be another example of bar associations playing Big Brother. The ostensible purpose is client protection, but the practical effect is to restrict client information on, and access to, a law firm that might be able to help with a specific legal need.

The constant refrain of the public being underserved by law firms rings hollow when roadblocks are erected to keep the public from finding out just which law firms can serve them.

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