California Releases Final Advisory Opinion on Lawyer Blogs

Recently, the California Standing Committee on Professional Responsibility and Conduct finalized its opinion that analyzes whether attorney-authored blogs should be governed by the advertising regulations. The Committee concluded that blogs should be governed as attorney advertising if the blog directly or indirectly expresses the attorney’s availability for professional employment. Thus, a blog that is a part of an attorney’s professional website or a firm’s professional website is governed by the advertising guidelines.

However, the opinion distinguishes “stand-alone” blogs, which it defines as “a blog that exists independently of any website an attorney maintains or uses for professional marketing purposes.” An attorney may maintain a stand-alone blog that discusses legal topics “within or outside the authoring attorney’s area of practice.” The blog will not be subject to the advertising rules unless the blog “directly or implicitly expresses the attorney’s availability for professional employment.”

Interestingly, a stand-alone blog that discusses non-legal topics (e.g. travel and cooking) is not subject to the advertising rules, even if the blog provides a link to the lawyer’s professional website. “However, extensive and/or detailed professional identification information announcing the attorney’s availability for professional employment will itself be a communication subject to the rules and statutes.”

To access the final opinion, click here.

Attorneys v. Clients: Clients Ordered to Pay $350K for Online Defamation

As the old adage goes, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and 5 minutes to ruin it.”  Disgruntled clients are increasingly posting defamatory reviews on widely available public online attorney review websites. Some attorneys have begun fighting to protect their online reputations by filing defamation suits against their former clients.

On January 6, Florida’s Fourth District Court of Appeal held that the First Amendment does not protect demonstratively false allegations that a former client wrote about her attorney and posted online. The court determined that the comments posted on Avvo and other attorney review websites were factually inaccurate statements rather than statements of opinion. The comments included claims that the attorney misrepresented her fees and falsified a contract to support the increase in fees.  The court ordered the client and her husband to pay $350,000.00 in punitive damages for defamation

The court’s decision has been hailed as a potential turning point in the online battle among some attorneys and their clients that is damaging to attorneys’ reputations. However, it is important to note that a similar ‘client vs. lawyer’ defamation case in another state may not result in a similar award; Florida statutes allow targets of per se defamation to recover punitive damages even when the plaintiff cannot demonstrate a quantifiable loss. By contrast, there are higher evidentiary burdens in other jurisdictions that require punitive damages to be based on the amount of actual damages. Without a calculable loss, this burden would create a barrier to achieving a similar result.

To read the trial court’s opinion, click here.

New Social Media Opinions: West Virginia and Colorado

Recently, two more states, West Virginia and Colorado, joined the legal ethics conversation regarding social media, issuing opinions that are generally consistent with most other states’ social media opinions.

In September 2015, the Lawyer Disciplinary Board of West Virginia issued new social media and social networking guidelines titled “Social Media and Attorneys.” Specifically, the Board addressed the following topics: attorney competency, taking down posts, avoiding contact with represented persons, contacting unrepresented persons, monitoring third-party reviews and endorsements, protecting confidentiality, honesty in endorsing other lawyers, researching jurors, friending judges, and avoiding inadvertent lawyer-client relationships. The Board concluded in part that attorneys may not make statements on social media that the attorney knows or reasonably knows will be disseminated publicly and will have “a substantial likelihood of materially prejudicing an adjudicative proceeding,” subject to certain exceptions listed in the rule on trial publicity. Additionally, the Board opined that attorneys may accept client reviews but must monitor the reviews for accuracy. Regarding advising clients on their social media presence, the Board concluded that attorneys may advice their clients to change the privacy settings of their social media pages, but attorneys may not instruct their clients to “destroy, alter, or conceal any relevant content on their social media pages.” Instead, attorneys must take the appropriate steps to preserve the information in the event that it is discoverable or relevant to the clients’ cases.

Also in September 2015, the Colorado Bar Association Ethics Committee issued its opinion titled “Use of Social Media for Investigative Purposes.” The Committee concluded that investigation of public profiles and posts is always permitted. Limits apply, however, when permission is requested to view restricted or private content. The opinion addresses ethical issues that arise when lawyers, either directly or indirectly, use social media to obtain information regarding witnesses, jurors, opposing parties, opposing counsel, and judges.

Both West Virginia and Colorado came to the following conclusions, among others: Regarding attorneys reviewing jurors’ Internet presence, attorneys may review public sections of a juror’s social networking presence, but may not attempt to access private sections of a juror’s social media page or use the assistance of a third party to do so. Moreover, attorneys may not seek to communicate ex parte with a judge through social media concerning a matter or issue pending before the judge. The Colorado opinion further states that attorneys may not request permission to view restricted portions of a judge’s social media profile while the judge is presiding over a case in which the lawyer is involved as counsel or as a party.

In a nutshell, both opinions conclude that lawyers must comply with the ethics rules when using social media just as when using other forms of communication.

To read the full West Virginia opinion, click here. To read the full Colorado opinion, click here.

Is Your LinkedIn Profile Attorney Advertising?

Does an attorney’s LinkedIn profile necessarily constitute attorney advertising?

In analyzing whether a LinkedIn profile is advertising, The Association of the Bar of the City of New York Committee on Professional Ethics Formal Opinion 2015-7 (“Opinion”) applied the New York Rules of Professional Conduct’s definition of an advertisement, which is “any public or private communication made by or on behalf of a lawyer or law firm about that lawyer or law firm’s services, the primary purpose of which is for the retention of the lawyer or law firm.”

The Committee concluded that if the primary purpose of an attorney’s LinkedIn profile is not to attract new clients, it is not advertising. So, how does an attorney define primary purpose? The Opinion explains that if the following criteria are met then a LinkedIn profile is advertising:

  1. It is communication made by or on behalf of the lawyer;
  2. The primary purpose of the LinkedIn content is to attract new clients to retain the lawyer for pecuniary gain;
  3. The LinkedIn content relates to the legal services offered by the lawyer;
  4. The LinkedIn content is intended to be viewed by potential new clients; and
  5. The LinkedIn content does not fall within any recognized exception to the definition of attorney advertising

The Opinion’s elaboration on each of the criteria may be found here.

So what do you do if your LinkedIn profile is considered an advertisement?

The Committee noted that a LinkedIn profile that constitutes advertising must comply with all of New York’s attorney advertising rules, including, but not limited to, the inclusion of the label “Attorney Advertising” legibly placed on the profile along with the name, principal law office address, and telephone number of the attorney. Additionally, the advertisement must not be deceptive or misleading.

The Committee also cautioned attorneys to personally “pre-approve” their advertisements, and reminded them that LinkedIn is considered to be a “computer-accessed communication” and thus must be retained for at least one year in accordance with New York’s attorney advertising rules.

The Opinion is novel in that it is the first ethics advisory opinion to conclude that all attorney LinkedIn webpages (or other social media profiles) are not necessarily advertisements. It will be interesting to see whether other bar associations and state bars follow New York City’s lead.

Judges on Facebook: Exercising First Amendment Rights or Violating the Judicial Canons?

There is no doubt that since the inception of Facebook in 2004, various other social media networks have sprung up allowing people to share and exchange information instantly. As of the second quarter of 2015, Facebook had nearly 1.49 billion monthly active users.[1] Originally a social networking website geared towards college students, Facebook has grown to market its services to people of all ages, backgrounds, and professional occupations. As social media continues to become a part of people’s everyday lives, many have predicted that this is a long-term trend that will be continuously refined so that people turn to interacting and behaving online as they do in their everyday lives. But with this dependency on online social networking comes potential consequences that can affect many groups of people, including the legal profession.

The American Bar Association reported in its most recent Legal Technology Survey that about 62% of law firms maintain social networks. This can include, for example, LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. In fact, 78% of individual lawyers maintain one or more social networks, and spend on average 1.7 hours per week using these sites for professional purposes.[2]

But what about in the courtroom? Is it ethical for a judge to use social media to comment and express his or her opinion on a case unfolding in the judge’s courtroom? Unfortunately for one District Court judge in Texas, Facebook updates about a trial over which she was presiding resulted in a reprimand by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct.

This story began during the criminal jury trial of State v. David M. Wieseckel, which was held in Judge Michelle Slaughter’s court. The defendant, Wieseckel, was charged with unlawful restraint of a child for allegedly keeping a 9-year-old boy in a wooden enclosure.

Judge Slaughter’s social media saga began a few days before the commencement of the trial when she posted on her Facebook page: “We have a big criminal trial starting Monday! Jury selection Monday and opening statements Tues. morning”. However, it wasn’t until after the first day of testimony when Judge Slaughter posted several comments on her Facebook page that ethical issues allegedly emerged.

The following are the Facebook comments that led defense counsel to file a motion to recuse Judge Slaughter from the case:

“Opening statements this morning at 9:20 am in the trial called by the press ‘the boy in the box’ case.”

“After we finished Day 1 of the case called the “Boy in the Box” case, trustees from the jail came in and assembled the actual 6”x 8’ box inside the courtroom!”

“This is the case currently in the 405th!” [This post included a link to a Reuters article entitled “Texas father on trial for putting son in a box as punishment”].

The issue raised about these comments was that the box to which she referred had not yet been admitted into evidence at the trial.

As a result of these comments, defense counsel filed motions to recuse Judge Slaughter from the case and for a mistrial and she was removed from the Wieseckel case. The case was transferred to another court and the judge in that court granted the defendant’s motion for mistrial. Judge Slaughter’s behavior was criticized on social media despite her argument that she made her comments with the intention of promoting transparency and to encourage individuals to come watch the proceedings.

The State Commission on Judicial Conduct (Commission) did not share the Judge’s perspective. After considering the relevant standards of judicial conduct, including Canon 3B(10) of the Texas Code of Judicial Conduct and Canon 4A, the Commission concluded that Judge Slaughter’s comments “went beyond providing an explanation of the procedures of the court” and instead “highlighted evidence that had yet to be introduced at trial”. Further, the Commission stated that “Judge Slaughter cast reasonable doubt upon her own impartiality and violated her own admonition to jurors by turning to social media to publicly discuss cases pending in her court, giving rise to a legitimate concern that she would not be fair or impartial in the case”.

On April 20, 2015, the Commission issued a Public Admonition and Order of Additional Education to Judge Slaughter requiring her to obtain four hours of instruction, with a mentor and in addition to her required judicial education, on the proper and ethical use of social media by judges.

Judge Slaughter appealed the sanction to a special court of review based upon First Amendment claims. On July 20, 2015, Justice Charles Kreger of the 9th Court of Appeals, Justice Gina Benavides of the 13th Court of Appeals, and Justice John Bailey of the 11th Court of Appeals heard arguments and evidence in the trial de novo. The crux of Judge Slaughter’s argument is that this particular proceeding is going to chill the exercise of the right to free speech as the matters that occur within the courtroom are of public concern. The Court of Appeals has not yet issued its decision.-This case is a prime example of the tension between the First Amendment and the judicial canons that may arise when the judiciary engage in social media however well-intentioned.

[1] http://www.statista.com/statistics/264810/number-of-monthly-active-facebook-users-worldwide/

[2] American Bar Association, 2014 Legal Technology Survey Report, available at http://www.americanbar.org/groups/departments_offices/legal_technology_resources/publications.html