Beware Of Blogging: Virginia State Bar’s Message To Attorneys Via Surprising Misconduct Charge

Considering a blog site for your law firm? Perhaps you should check with your State Bar first.

In one of the first cases of its kind, the Virginia State Bar has brought a misconduct charge against a criminal defense attorney in the state for blogging about cases on which he has worked.

The State Bar alleges that Richmond criminal defense attorney Horace Hunter is using his firm’s blog site for advertising, read the full charge here. Hunter counter-argues that his articles consist of news and commentary, read his blog here.

Does Virginia’s charge violate Hunter’s rights to free speech? Or, are lawyers using firm blogs to get around the ethical and legal requirements of advertising?

In light of the economic recession, lawyers are looking to improve their practice and attract new clients through a variety of social media. Articles advising firms to open Twitter accounts, Facebook pages, and blog sites are abound.

And, for good reason.

In 2011, four out of five American businesses with 100 or more employees use social media marketing, according to research conducted by eMarketer. That’s a significant increase from 2008 when a mere 42 percent of companies marketed via social media, reports the same source.

So, businesses are using social media, like Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Blogger, both to seek customers and to also find appropriate legal representation. Law firms, for their turn, are competing with one another to sign as many corporate clients as possible.  

Standing out in a technology-driven crowd can be difficult for law firms. Impossible for those behind the digital times.

But, at least one State Bar is sending a message to its attorneys that ethical and legal rules about advertising your firm still apply in the blogosphere, reports The Washington Post.

Except discussing cases—even your own—has been a longstanding tradition for lawyers nationwide. Usually it’s done in speeches, post-courtroom press talks, or newspaper interviews.

Are blog posts any different?

“If the Virginia Bar believes that blogs that discuss news and commentary should have stringent disclaimers that precede the content because they are deemed to be advertisements, then the Virginia Bar may have to require that every blog post, blog comments on other blogs and other user-generated content by an attorney to contain a strict disclaimer,” Brad Shear, a Bethesda attorney specializing in social media law, said to The Washington Post.

“It becomes a slippery slope.”

 

Whatever your opinion on this matter, it’s important to understand the risks of creating a blog for your firm.

If you decided to do so, protect your firm via the following four steps:

  1. Create a disclaimer on the “About” page or at the end of each post; 
  2. Get written consent from your clients to discuss their cases on the blog;
  3. Implement an internal Social Media Policy for your firm; and 
  4. Remember Nicole Black, attorney and author of Social Media for Lawyers: The Next Frontier, a good rule of thumb is “if you can’t do it off-line, you can’t do it online.”

-WB

 

For more information, attend C4CM’s course, “Social Media Policy Dos and Don’ts: Employees, Networking Sites and the Law.”

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