Follow me for a moment on a trip through my convoluted brain
Every now and again I get a post idea while I talk to (or about) a person. Today’s credit goes to attorney Mark Dischell.
I haven’t seen Mark for what must be 11 years; yet we still remember each other. I know this because he bumped into my partner, Ellen, and they had a conversation about me. When Ellen asked me how I knew Mark, I explained that we worked together on a seminar called “Drafting Marital Settlement Agreements.”
You might wonder, why I remember Mark after so many years. After all, I worked with who knows how many attorneys on who knows how many seminars. I certainly don’t remember everyone. But I do remember Mark. Why? Well, Mark gave me my first ever ride in a Porsche when he drove me to the train station after the seminar. This a girl does not forget.
Anyway, this conversation about Mark, who is a family lawyer, led me to say to Ellen, “you know, I should write a post about how family lawyers should use social media.” She said, “good idea.” Thus today’s topic.
See, I got there eventually.
How family lawyers use social media
Proper use of social media matters in every area of the law, but one area where your clients are extremely likely to get themselves in trouble is family law. The inherent emotional nature of the cases combined with the fact that people are willing to share incredibly intimate information via social media is an explosive combination. Family lawyers need to be aware of how their clients, witnesses, and the opposing party use social media. They also need be prepared to deal with any information they might find. In addition, in these competitive days, family lawyers should know how to use social media to bring in potential clients.
As with other areas of practice, there are several basic ways in which family lawyers can and should use social media. In order of importance they are:
Talk to your client
By protection I mean that a good family lawyer is going to speak very frankly with his or her client right at the outset of a case and make it clear to that client that s/he should stop using social media. Since the client will very likely refuse to stop, it will then be the attorney’s job to convince the client to at least not write anything harmful to the case.
What is harmful to the case? Well, there is the obvious, i.e. stating something that is the opposite of what s/he has said in any court records. For example, in a custody case a parent who has a drinking problem claiming she no longer drinks all the while posting pictures of herself in a bar, or checking in to bars online. But there are also the items that will infuriate the soon to be ex-spouse, friends, family members or even cause other legal problems; thoughtless comments about a new girlfriend or boyfriend, talking about the new big screen tv while claiming poverty, etc. An incorrect post on social media can quickly ramp up the hostility in even the most peaceful of cases.
A recent example of legal trouble through social media involves a man who was ordered to apologize on Facebook for postings he made that the Judge felt violated a restraining order. As a side note, it will be interesting to see what happens with the apology and the inevitable legal challenges.
Train your client on privacy
In addition to advising your client about propriety on social media, it is also wise to remind your client about privacy settings. You may not instruct your client to delete postings from social media sites, in fact, you should cover yourself by making it clear that the client may not delete such posts, but you should instruct your client on how to lock down his or her account so only certain people can see it.
Many people believe their accounts are properly secured, “I thought only X could see it” are famous words that accompany all sorts of online nightmares. In addition, in family law cases, it is very common for mutual friends, children, and other family members to still have access to very private accounts. As a result, it might be a good idea to educate your client on the concept of lists as well. Lists allow people to post items that only certain people can (or cannot) see.
Don’t forget to address stress
I just received a text that is, despite everything I have seen online over the years (and I have seen too much) beyond all belief. It involves a divorce, nudity, and someone who should have known better. And yet, there it is, sitting on my phone (sent to me by a third party.) I can only assume the person who originally sent the text took leave of all senses to send something like this.
Divorce, support, custody, visitation, these are all incredibly stressful for even the most level-headed person. Suggest to your clients that if they need to get rid of the stress, it would be best that they do so in person with close friends or family members. Not in voice mail messages, texts, email, or social media. Personally, I recommend racquetball. I find slamming the ball against the wall to be a great stress reliever; much better than providing written evidence of one’s angst.
It is, to my mind, an ethical obligation for attorneys who practice in areas that might be impacted by social media to do research online. So I believe that all family law attorneys should check out their clients and all related parties and witnesses online. Most people have some sort of online presence these days. When you meet with your client, while you are working through the process, ask him or her if the people you are talking about have social media accounts and also, ask for all email addresses. Most social media accounts are connected through an email address and it will make your life easier if you know the addresses ahead of time.
As far as the actual searches, definitely use Google, but don’t forget about social search tools such as http://www.socialmention.com. Don’t forget about Twitter and MySpace when you are searching. MySpace is something of an EmptySpace right now, but it doesn’t hurt to check. Also, don’t forget to look for blogs.
As far as discovery and use of social media in court, the law is evolving. Family court judges are generally willing to admit reliable evidence. If discovery becomes an issue, generally courts are willing to allow access to accounts when contradictory information is viewable. For details on Pennsylvania law see my posts on the subject.
Family law is very personal and your potential clients want to feel comfortable with you. Putting yourself online so people can get a sense of who you are is crucial. You don’t need to be overly personal, but you do need to share something beyond, got a great verdict today, or read this article. If you are really into gardening, you can talk about that. Or you can be like me and talk about your dog. Just talk about something you enjoy that helps people connect to you.
The important thing here is that you provide your own voice, and let people see you as a human being. The main places you will want to do this are on Twitter and Facebook.
LinkedIn is crucial for networking as well, but on a more professional level. Make sure you have a complete LinkedIn profile and connect to as many people as you can. You never know who will be looking for legal help and a lot of high net-worth people are on LinkedIn. Be sure to introduce yourself when you ask to connect.
You need to be findable, and to be findable you need to go where the clients are. It is as simple as that. Hundreds of millions of people use social media. Your potential clients are probably using social media. They are also likely to engage in research, not only on Google, but on social media when they are seeking attorneys.
Have a (good) page on Facebook for your firm, a presence on LinkedIn, handle on Twitter, page on Google+, and a Google Places profile. Most importantly, have a good blog and/or vlog. Nothing is better for SEO, but also, there is no better way for you to show your expertise to people looking for it. Then, connect everything to a solid website and make sure you link everything o everything else.
If you do these things the chances that people will find you amongst the numerous family lawyers out there substantially increase. Having the correct social media tools will enable a potential client to get a sense of you as an attorney and human being (see networking) as well as let the person see your level of knowledge. This knowledge, in turn, will make it more likely the potential client will pick up the phone or send you an email.
Don’t Forget the Ethics
Whether engaging in research, networking, or outright marketing, it is important to remember the ethical rules apply as much online as they do offline. So please be sure to obey those rules. For example, when conducting research, don’t engage in false friending. I speak a lot on social media, so I have numerous powerpoints on the subject. Many of them address ethical issues. You can find them in my Scribd account.
Social media is an immensely powerful tool. Today’s successful family law attorneys know (or will quickly learn) how to use social media both in terms of client representation and as a way of bringing in potential new clients.