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The social side of practice

18 June 12

Interview with Paul Motion, convener of the Society's Technology Committee, on the drivers behind new guidelines on the use of social media by solicitors

by Craig Watson

Solicitors are using social media more than ever before. Sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter have many benefits, but they can present risks and challenges too. The Society’s Marina Sinclair-Chin and Technology Committee convener Paul Motion have drawn up guidelines on the use of social media by the legal profession. Craig Watson asked Paul Motion why the guidance was produced and what it contains.

Why does the Society see the need for such guidelines at present?

Like it or not, social media has matured from a pastime into a mainstream communications tool, and any law firm wishing to get its message across must face the reality that social media is now part of the marketing armoury. A relatively informal communications medium is not perhaps the natural or intuitive territory of all solicitors, and many are still feeling their way or are yet to take a first step. The time was right for guidelines.

Have professional bodies in other jurisdictions done this?

The Law Society of England & Wales has also produced guidelines.

Who are they mostly directed at?

Our guidelines are written more for employers and practice managers.

Some people may think this is the Society unnecessarily telling them what to do. How would you respond to that suggestion?

They are only guidelines. I would rather we had a proactive Law Society, and hope people will find these guidelines helpful. There are loads of other guidelines and policies online that are not tailored to the Scottish legal profession. We hope the guidelines will be viewed in the same positive light as the Society’s guidance on cloud procurement issued last December. It is meant to instil confidence that the Society is applying its mind to such matters. It also shows younger practitioners, the main users of social media, that the Society is taking an interest in an issue they can identify with.

Is the Society aware of cases where members have encountered difficulties, faced legal action or been subject to complaints through the use of social media?

I am not aware of specific cases involving Society members. However, the inherent informality and instantaneous response times plainly present risks.

Is there a problem with people moving firms when they have a social media following?

Yes. There is a nascent jurisprudence emerging in the USA as to who owns Twitter followers, LinkedIn contacts and Facebook friends. It is suggested that the issue can be addressed in employment contracts and related policies. But what is proportionate? And will clauses heavily weighted in an employer’s favour deter applicants? Also, at what stage in the interview process do you tell a candidate that, if they leave, the employer keeps their followers and contacts? It is very early days.

Are there any plans to produce more detailed policies or contract terms, or will you let firms work things out for themselves now that you’ve flagged up the issues?

I think we will probably leave things to bed down and review in say a year to see whether any issues have emerged.

Are there significant issues in having clients as friends or followers?

Friending clients can be an issue. While many would be reluctant to refuse a friend request from a client, if you then communicate with a client via social media, others will see the content, so great care is needed. Careful thought and use of private messages (PMs) may be the order of the day. Likewise, if you retweet a comment or a link, it might be thought you implicitly agree with the original view. If your client sees the retweet and is not of the same mind, or worse, strongly disagrees with the retweeted opinion, you may have damaged your relationship with the client.

Does the Society offer any support to solicitors with social media queries or issues?

The Technology Committee is happy to accept direct queries.

Do you use social media? If so, how?

Yes, I use Facebook for friends, family and interests, Twitter primarily for business contacts and legal news, and LinkedIn for all business contacts and groups relevant to legal IT.

What new issues do you think will arise in the next 5-10 years?

Social media is the fastest growing source of litigation evidence. I think evidence recovery procedures will be refined. Also, dispute resolution will emerge through social media – ironic when you think Scotland helped pioneer online dispute resolution with Intersettle in 2001. It was a great idea and the pilot worked well, but the profession and insurance market weren’t ready.

Craig Watson is a freelance writer with a special interest in legal matters.The guidelines will be available from 18 June on www.lawscot.org.uk/socialmediaguidance

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