Online Ethics – Updated

We’ve spoken here previously about some of the perils of internet use in the law office. Today I am passing on a story from ABAJournal.com entitled, “Ethics Officials Seeing More Cases from Lawyers’ Online Foibles.” It is about lawyers, but is just as applicable to paralegals:

Lawyers who are more circumspect in person are making online mistakes that are landing them in trouble with ethics officials.

James Grogan, chief counsel of the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission, recalls an early case that got the attention of bar counsel in more than one state, the National Law Journal reports. Steven Belcher, a temporary lawyer at a St. Louis law firm who was licensed in three states, was helping defend a wrongful death case when he decided to e-mail a picture of the deceased to a friend, the story says. The body of the overweight man was pictured lying naked on an emergency room table. Belcher added his own commentary.

The result was a 60-day suspension, the story says. “It got our eyebrows up,” Grogan told the publication. “We thought, ‘Wow, are we going to see more of these?’ Well, I think it’s clear we are starting to see more.”

The story notes an increase in interest in the issue. Bar associations and bar counsel hold seminars on online ethical mistakes, and the ABA Commission on Ethics 20/20 will consider whether existing ethics rules adequately address online transgressions.

“It’s not as if lawyers never misbehaved before,” the story says. “But now they’re making the same old mistakes—soliciting for sex, slamming judges, talking trash about clients —online, leaving a digital trail for bar counsel to follow.”

Susan Gainen’s Lawyerist.com post, “6 Rules for Protecting Confidential Information” (brought to my attention by Lynne Devenney at Practical Paralegalism) is well worth the read in this regard. Her first two rules are:

1. Your conversations. Never talk about clients or client business outside of the office. The guy at the table next to you knows EXACTLY who you are talking about because his client is on the other side of the deal.

2. Your tweets or blog posts. Tweeting or blogging about your work are very smart business development tools, but they are also fraught with peril. Robert Ambrogi lists 16 good reasons to Tweet, but notes: “Before you post to Twitter, consider the consequences. A casual tool such as this makes it easy to unwittingly create an attorney-client relationship or overstep an ethical rule. Even with only 140 characters, you can easily get yourself in hot water.”

The point is that “online” is “outside the office” even if you are sitting in the office when you blog, tweet, email, or otherwise reveal information. Unless your system is secure, even internal communications may be exposed to the “outside.”

Update:

Just an additional thought from Steve Lohr’s story in the New York Times on the Library of Congress archiving Twitter messages:

Knowing that the Library of Congress will be preserving Twitter messages for posterity could subtly alter the habits of some users, said Paul Saffo, a visiting scholar at Stanford who specializes in technology’s effect on society.

“After all,” Mr. Saffo said, “your indiscretions will be able to be seen by generations and generations of graduate students.”

People thinking before they post on Twitter: now that would be historic indeed.

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