An article in today’s New York Times talks about what can happen when lawyers open up online. The article begins with the story of Sean Conway. Attorney Conway took to his blog to state exactly how angry he was with a Fort Lauderdale judge. He said she was an “Evil, Unfair Witch.” But because Conway is a lawyer, his online ranting resulted his being reprimanded and fined by the Florida bar.
Of course, lawyers aren’t the only ones whose livelihood is affected by their online postings. There’s this, and this, and this. Having one’s online activity be the basis of dismissal has increased so much that a new phrase – “Facebook fired” – has entered our lexicon.
But being a lawyer means something more. Lawyers have long been held to a higher standard of conduct than other members of society. As the New York Times article points out, your “freedom to gripe is limited by codes of conduct.” Thus, criticizing the court or revealing client details online – even if the lawyer thinks she’s veiled the true subject – can cause trouble for a lawyer because she runs the risk of violating rules of professional responsibility.
Similarly, when a lawyer’s online activity belies what he’s told his superiors or the court, trouble can follow. According to the New York Times article, a lawyer asked a judge for trial delay because there was a death in his family. The judge granted the delay, but noticed on the lawyer’s Facebook page that while there was indeed a death in the family, there were also a number of posts by the lawyer about partying and motorbiking. When the lawyer asked for a second delay, the judge denied his request and notified his firm. Repercussions for such conduct may be not only the loss of one’s job, as it might be for others in society, but also fines and discipline by the state’s board of bar examiners or other office of lawyer regulation. In fact, some lawyer licensing organizations are considering or adopting policies whereby they examine applicants’ social networking sites as part of the licensing process.
This topic, which can be broadly categorized as the professionalism of the younger generation of lawyers, is a topic that is often talked about in the legal academy, particularly among those of us who teach legal skills. Our students are of a generation that has grown up with email and the Internet, with reality television shows, and a penchant for revealing to the public their personal lives and thoughts.
However, most practicing lawyers grew up in generations that emphasized a certain formality of one’s conduct, and law has always been a more conservative profession than most. The influx of a younger, more open generation into the profession means that there will inevitably be a difference in how each defines what it means to be a professional. A younger lawyer would likely see nothing unprofessional with posting a rant about the partners at his firm, especially if he doesn’t expressly name them (e.g., “Suffered through a two-hour meeting today with the boring partner and the a-hole partner.”), whereas an older lawyer, who may think the exact same thing, would find such a public disclosure wholly unprofessional.
There are, I believe, positive aspects of social networking. When life is so hectic, it’s nice to quickly catch up with family and friends all over the country by checking status updates on Facebook. But not everything that goes on with my family and friends is something that I want to know – or think I should know. There comes a point when what’s posted is too much information (TMI). And most of the time, TMI often translates into “unprofessional,” especially if you’re a lawyer or lawyer-to-be.