It’s a dangerous world out there (on the internet)

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The internet, for all the access to information and social network fun (i.e. Facebook and Twitter, among others) it provides, can be a dangerous place, especially for the unsuspecting attorney.  A colleague of mine who spends much of his career working in political consulting with candidates and elected officials has said, many times, that “once it is out there, there’s no taking it back.”  The assumption is that once something has been put up on the internet, be it video, picture or text, it is entirely possible that it will always be on the internet.  Information can be copied, cached, and printed, and then reposted on a myriad of websites and venues.  In short, once you put information  on the internet, it becomes difficult to control where it will go or how it will be used.

With this thought in mind, I recently came across an article with twelve simple tips for attorneys to help them manage their online presence.  Lawyers, in addition to the pitfalls that the average person faces on the internet, face ethical and legal obligations to clients and the court, lines in the sand that an online presence–in blogs, chat rooms, Web sites, and emails–can be crossed detrimentally if the attorney is not careful.  Originally printed in the ABA publication “Law Practice,” the article, by Web 2.0 column editor Steve Matthews and found online here,  provides some useful tips for keeping keeping clients happy, staying out of trouble, and generally safe in the online world.  While written with the legal practitioner in mind, the tips are useful to the non-legal internet users, as well.  Of those twelve, I’ve noted my favorites here, along with my comments on them.

  1. Write only what is true.  It sounds obvious, but all too often exaggeration, implication, and distortion can get the better of us, especially in the semi-anonymous world of blog comments and chat rooms.  The ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct, adopted in most jurisdictions in whole or in part, requires under Model Rules 4.1, 7.1, and 8.4, that lawyers avoid misrepresentations, and they applies across the internet, regardless of the medium.
  2. Don’t write about clients without consent. “Ethics rules and fiduciary obligations limit what a lawyer may say about a representation without the client’s consent[,]” says Matthews. Besides, who wants their attorney saying stuff about them online, especially when that stuff may have been said in confidence (and is probably protected by client-attorney privilege).
  3. Limit investigations to publicly available information. In this case, the best example I can think of is the recent (justifiable) hubbub in Utah over the release of 1,300 names of allegedly illegal immigrants by two Department of Workforce Services employees.  While the investigation is still ongoing, it is clear that the information to produce “the List” was not made with publically available information, and that privacy laws may have been broken as a result.  Lesson: use public information, especially against a adversaries.
  4. Keep evidentiary information around. If a client puts something dumb online, the best advice is to not put anything else up, but be careful about advising what to take down, as it may violate Model Rule 3.4, especially if litigation is in process.
  5. Avoid answering legal questions. You don’t know the client, or the context, so it’s best to avoid solving their problem without appropriate in-take.
  6. Protect your own online information. A great example of this is Facebook–pay careful attention to what the public can see and adjust your privacy settings to control it as you would like it to be seen.
  7. Keep sites updated and accurate. If you have information on a law on your site, be sure to update it if the law changes.
  8. Beware what others say on your site. It’s your site, and you can be held accountable for what is said on there.  Along those same lines…
  9. Be careful what you say about others.  Remember the Golden Rule? (No, not the one about he who has the gold makes the rules, the other one.)
  10. And, most importantly: Presume everyone will know everything said or done. This brings us back to the start.  Once it’s out there on the internet, it is almost impossible to get back.

The internet is a great tool and a fun place.  But be careful out there.  The people you meet are not necessarily your friends…

(Thanks to ABA and Stem Legal Web Enterprises)

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