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How to Control Those Blogging, Tweeting Lawyers

Vivia Chen

April 13, 2011

Fotolia_4582794_XS I don't envy lawyers these days. Not only are you expected to bill 2,500 hours a year and fetch new clients, but now you're under pressure to "brand" yourself by whatever means possible. The popular wisdom these days is that you need to make a mark on the Web. Just last week, I wrote a primer for social media virgins--a crash course for lawyers on tweeting, blogging, and such.

But is it wise to set lawyers free into the wilds of social media without some sort of rules? Are there some lawyers you'd rather gag and put into a closet, lest they say something stupid that will live forever in the blogosphere? So the question is this: Is it time for your firm/company to adopt a formal social media policy?

It's a dilemma. On one hand, you don't want to stifle speech; the whole point of social media is to mix it all up, and spread the firm's good name. But the problem is that people say/do dumb things on the Web. (Remember that Akin Gump partner who had to apologize for disparaging Native Americans on his blog, after it came out that the firm had a big American Indian practice? Or that deputy attorney general in Indiana who tweeted that the police should use "live ammunition" in facing pro-labor protesters in Wisconsin, as reported by the ABA Blog?)

Melissa Krasnow, a partner at Dorsey & Whitney, looked at the social media policies of various companies, including Sun, Yahoo, IBM, Edelman, Cisco, and Dell, and found some common recommendations:

• Make it clear when you are speaking for yourself or your employer;

• Use common sense and judgment;

• Know that there is personal liability for content;

• Understand that disclaimers are advisable, but not a shield from liability;

• Realize that disclosed information should be accurate;

• Seek advice from the legal department or management when necessary (e.g., when unsure about posting or for permission to comment on work-related legal matters).

Her other points are pretty obvious--don't disclose confidential or financial information, and always follow the employer's guidelines, policies, and codes.

But a formal policy might be redundant, says a partner at an Am Law 100 firm, who asked not to be identified. "It sounds glamorous and cutting-edge to have a social media policy, but it might not be necessary," says this partner. "You might already be covered under the firm's employment policy, record retention policy, or code of conduct." So maybe all that's needed is a simple social media guideline.

In fact, common sense might be the wiser guide at this point. The blog Gruntled Employees has some advice I rather like:

Before you go starting a Corporate Blog Policy Task Force and taking meetings with lawyers, consider what you're really trying to accomplish. . . .

How can you accomplish this without inundating the blogosphere with Harvardesque legalese? With this two-word corporate blogging policy:

"Be professional."

If your employee-bloggers are posting the secret sauce recipe, badmouthing customers, or distributing NSFW (not safe for work) art, fire them. And if you're concerned that your employees won't understand what you mean by "be professional," then you have a management problem or an employee problem. Or both.

Readers, does your firm or company have a social media policy? Do you pay attention to it?




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Too many law firms are tentatively dipping their toe in the social media ocean yet fundamentally fail to understand how it is different from traditional media. To me it's all about conversation, and that requires an opinion and also a (relatively) real time response. Both have a tension with risk-averse law firm command and control approaches to external communication, and stifle the creative, authentic voices that firms need to succeed in the new world. Many lawyers instinctively "get it" but blog and tweet under their own names, their firms safe behind a "author's opinions are their own". In reality, they are getting only a fraction of the goodwill, credibility and kudos of the authors, who are ultimately being rewarded by the community for their contribution, by generating goodwill and a personal brand that has real value.

If you want to continue the conversation, I'm @intchallenge and blog at http://intelligentchallenge.wordpress.com/

A specific black and white policy for social media use might be a good idea for larger firms or any large business, actually. But as stated in the article, most preexisting policies will likely cover conduct.
Be professional, and be careful. If you're too concerned with using social media incorrectly, then you should probably avoid it until you learn how to do it right.

Forget a meaningless list of do's and don'ts. If firms really want to support this branding effort, it would be more advisable to provide some kind of social media ombudsman -- a person dedicated to (1) educating lawyers on the mechanics of blogging and consequences that might not be readily apparent; (2) answering blogging lawyer policy questions (perhaps in confidence so as to not "chill" creativity); and (3) monitoring published content and alerting the firm when issues come up. Without question the firm will also need a crisis strategy on hand to react to any inadvertent gaffes.

The article states, "Her other points are pretty obvious."

Like the ones that are specified in the article are a result of unique insight?

I agree that common sense is probably the wiser guide, trying to anticipate every possible use and misuse is impossible.

The guideline of the Gruntled Employees blog: "Be professional" is all you really need. Most professionals are already covered by multiple regulations that codify conduct so just follow those online.

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The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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