Ethical Issues Surrounding Social Media Marketing for Law Firms

At this point, it’s almost difficult to remember life without social media. Still yet we cringe when we hear or read about some of the crazy things that people or companies say online. It seems that despite experiencing multiple generations of social media platforms – Friendster, Myspace, Xanga, Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+, Instagram, Snapchat and now TikTok – many people are still quite naïve in their social media use. In the legal world, a social media misstep can tank a reputation or cost you a trial. However, there can also be opportunities provided if you know what you are doing.

This guide will explain the legal pitfalls of using social media, how to abide by attorney advertising rules, and how you can actually use social media at your law firm.

At Majux, we focus on law firm SEO, PPC management for attorneys, and web design. But we are also responsible for tracking, segmenting, and reporting on our clients’ social media traffic. That gives us an interesting and non-biased view of how social media really works for law firms. Let us know if you have questions about tracking the results of your social media profiles or if you need digital marketing support. 

Can Law Firms Ethically Use Social Media to Get More Leads?

Yes, your law firm can use social media for lead generation without violating attorney advertising rules. But you need to be careful.

Many attorneys operate under the mistaken notion that because they have used one social media platform, like LinkedIn, they understand how to ethically use them all. Unfortunately this is far from the case. To avoid professional disciplinary action, attorneys should understand the intricacies of each platform and the nexus between functionality and ethical requirements.

Lawyers Should Not Use Personal Profiles for Business Purposes

Jurisdictions have cracked down on multiple fronts when it comes to attorney advertising in social media.  Especially so when a personal profile is used for hybrid personal and business purposes.  Perhaps the safest course of action is to assume that attorney advertising rules apply to the profile regardless of the specific content beginning with the bedrock principle that, “a lawyer shall not make a false or misleading communication about the lawyer or the lawyer’s services.” However if an attorney would like to use status updates for business development purposes, they must fully research the ethical standards in their jurisdiction and should be particularly wary of:

  • Statements that suggest availability for professional employment such as, “Who would like to be able to say they are represented by The Smith Firm?” or “Call me for a free consultation.”
  • Statements that suggest, imply or predict a result like, “Big victory in court today! Who wants to be next!?”
  • Statuses that encourage others to promote your firm or encourage others to refer individuals for your professional services like, “Tell your friends to check my website.”

Of course, ethics rules may differ in your jurisdiction.  Even if it is acceptable in your jurisdiction, before you go through with advertising of this type, be sure that it reflects how you would like others to view your firm.  Furthermore, be sure that it is likely to attract the type of business you are seeking.

Social Media Disclosure Requirements Vary by Jurisdiction

It is generally established that an attorney may utilize social media networks to research the opposing party, witnesses or jurors.  Likewise, in most jurisdictions, it is accepted that an attorney may ethically view the public portions of a profile and, when there is an unrepresented party, may request access to the full profile provided that deceitful means are not employed.  Attorneys however should be especially mindful of the required disclosures as some jurisdictions simply require the lawyer to use his or her full name and an accurate profile.  However, other jurisdictions have additional mandatory disclosures such as:

  • New Hampshire requires the attorney to disclose their involvement in the litigation, the client involved in the litigation, the matter being litigated, and the disclosure of the “lawyer by name as a lawyer”.
  • Pennsylvania holds that, “intent on obtaining information and sharing it with a lawyer for use in a lawsuit to impeach the testimony of the witness” is an impermissible omission of a “highly material fact.”
  • Opinions in Oregon state that if the unrepresented party requests, “additional information to identify [the] lawyer, or if [the] lawyer has some other reason to believe that the person misunderstands her role, [the] lawyer must provide the additional information or withdraw the request.”

These are just a few examples of the additional disclosure an attorney may be required to make. Some are even as careless as to make admissions or boast about their own dishonesty or criminal acts.  Before you take any action on a social media network, personally or through an agent, be sure that you understand the ethical obligations including disclosure requirements.

Lawyers Must Avoid Communicating With Jurors on Social Media

We have already discussed that it is established that, generally, attorneys are ethically permitted to view the publicly available information contained within an online profile.  But what about when the social network automatically notifies the owner of the profile who has accessed or viewed their information?  This situation is more than a hypothetical as LinkedIn actually works this way.  Typically after viewing a profile, the owner of the profile will receive a message listing all or some of the people who have accessed their profile during the previous week.

If a prospective or sitting juror receives a notification message, does this constitute an impermissible ex parte communication?  In at least some jurisdictions, the answer is yes.  While New York has stopped short of definitively naming such a communication as an ethical violation it posits that:

“…research using services that may, even unbeknownst to the attorney, generate a message or allow a person to determine that their webpage has been visited may pose an ethical risk even if the attorney did not intend or know that such a “communication” would be generated by the website…It is the duty of the attorney to understand the functionality and privacy settings of any service she wishes to utilize for research, and to be aware of any changes in the platforms’ settings or policies to ensure that no communication is received by a juror or venire member.”

On the West Coast, the San Diego County Bar issued an ethics opinion similar to New York’s that goes one step further by stating, “…that because an attorney must make a decision to ‘friend’ a party, even if the ‘friend’ request [is] nominally generated by Facebook and not the attorney, [the request] is at least an indirect communication” and is therefore prohibited by the rule against ex parte communications with represented parties.”

The takeaway for social media usage is that attorneys, or their agents, must have a thorough and complete understanding of the functionality of the platform on which they wish to perform research before they begin. An incomplete understanding of the automated features can lead to ex parte communications, disciplinary action, or perhaps even a mistrial.

How Social Media Can Actually Help Law Firms Get Clients

First: Problems With Social Media Marketing For Law Firms

Before we get too deep here, please realize that if you are a personal injury firm, your main source of high-ticket leads will never come through social media. Many blogs you’ll read will mention things like “exposure” and “visibility” on social media, but never anything about leads or signed cases.

We also know from experience that lawyers who do get cases from places like Instagram typically sign very low-value cases, and they call us so they can compete for higher-value clients through other channels.

This does not necessarily apply to practices like family law, bankruptcy, real estate, and other volume-based consumer-based practices.

Lawyers Should Use Social Media as a Conversion Element

Whether or not a potential client finds you through social media, your social platforms can help you convince someone to hire you. For instance, if someone finds your law firm in the Google Map Pack, they may search for your firm’s name on Facebook or Instagram afterwards. Use your profiles to share pictures, expert knowledge that can help anyone reading your page, reviews, and more. The content should reinforce your authenticity.

This can be particularly important for attorneys serving the Spanish-speaking (or another secondary language in the US) market. We have clients that upload numerous videos of themselves speaking Spanish and English on their social media platforms, and they enjoy a great close rate from Spanish-speaking leads.

Can a Lawyer Use Instagram or Facebook (Meta) for Lead Generation?

Yes, attorneys are ethically in the clear if they wish to use Meta properties for advertising purposes.

Two of our personal injury lawyer SEO clients get a few leads here and there from both Instagram and Facebook (particularly from Spanish-speaking folks) by following these steps:

  1. Choosing a blog post that we have written for them based on keyword research
  2. Organizing the content into a concise script
  3. Shooting the video on a smartphone
  4. Sending the video off to a cheap editor
  5. Posting that video on Instagram and Facebook with subtitles and calls-to-action

This can work because Facebook and Instagram will recommend short videos, reels, stories, and other content based on a user’s history on the platform. So if someone was researching other law firms on Instagram, for instance, they may see your informational content as they scroll.

What About LinkedIn and Twitter for Attorneys?

There is a huge amount of demand for SMB acquisition attorneys, tax attorneys, and other niched information on Twitter and LinkedIn. In fact, could probably use Twitter as your main source of leads if you shared useful business-related information everyday on these platforms and built a sizeable following of small business owners by:

  1. Posting on-topic information every day
  2. Interacting with bigger accounts and your audience
  3. Keeping up with DMs and such

But if you are a plaintiffs personal injury firm or criminal defense firm, this probably won’t generate any revenue for you.

In Summary: Understand Your Audience and Create Content for Them

If your desired clientele is active on LinkedIn and Twitter, curate content that will build a following on those platforms. If you know your target market is Facebook-heavy, get reviews, photos, and helpful information on Facebook. And again, remember that social media is almost never a good source of bottom-of-funnel organic traffic – that’s what search engines are for. And above all, don’t cost yourself a trial by violating ethical guidelines on social media.

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