Coming to praise rather than to bury – West Virginia edition

Some, including possibly me, will argue that the greatest thing to come out of West Virginia is the My Brother, My Brother, and Me podcast.  But today, I write about another very positive contribution out of West Virginia, a very good, very thorough ethics opinion that overflows with common-sense with respect to social media issues for lawyers.  West Virginia L.E.O. No 2015-02 provides advice to attorneys that is as good as the McElroy brothers’ “advice” on MBMBAM is funny.

Now, this ethics opinion was actually issued a full month ago but news of it only came to me when it was picked up in other places, like the ABA/BNA Lawyers’ Manual on Professional Conduct.  If all you ever read of No. 2015-02 is the 12 numbered answers the West Virginia committee provides to the questions it poses, you’d know almost all you needed to about how practical, smart, and on-point its opinion is:

  1. Attorneys may advise clients about the content of the clients’ social networking websites, including removing or adding information;
  2. Attorneys may connect with a client or former client on a social networking website;
  3. Attorneys may not contact a represented person through a social networking website;
  4. Although attorneys may contact an unrepresented person through a social networking website, they may not use a pretextual basis for viewing information on a social networking site that would otherwise be private/unavailable to the public;
  5. Attorneys may use information on a social networking website in client-related matters;
  6. Attorneys may accept client reviews but must monitor those reviews for accuracy;
  7. Attorneys may generally comment on or respond to reviews or endorsements;
  8. Attorneys may generally endorse other attorneys on a social networking website;
  9. Attorneys may review a juror’s Internet presence;
  10. Attorneys may connect with judges on a social networking website provided the purpose is not to influence the judge in performing his or her official duties;
  11. Attorneys may advertise on a social networking website provided such advertisement complies with the requirements of the Rules of Professional Conduct; and
  12. A prospective attorney-client relationship may be formed on a social networking website.

In a way, those could be the 12 Commandments of Social Media for Lawyers.  [I’m claiming that title – that’s mine; ©; don’t anyone try to do a seminar with that title before I do; I’ve printed this blogpost out and mailed it to myself in a sealed envelope.]

The rest of the opinion (which spans 24 pages) addressing the details and nuances of these 12 answers is infused with the same kind of practical guidance and wisdom the numbered answers would lead you to expect.  It strikes all the correct notes in terms of understanding issues like: the line between advising clients on how to change privacy settings and engaging in what could be spoliation; the fact that public portions of a person’s online presence (whether they are a represented party, an unrepresented party, or a juror) are fair game; and the fact that judges and lawyers can be friends and interact socially in real life and in just the same way could be friends and interact on social media.

Even better, it highlights a few other nuances not often discussed which is the need for lawyers to remember the potential implications for trial publicity, and compliance with RPC 3.6, when they post content to social media platforms, and that there are some ways that interactions through social media platforms (like, for example, comments on Facebook posts and replies to comments) could amount to real-time electronic communication treated more like a phone call than an email under RPC 7.3.

I think the West Virginia committee managed its task so well, in large part, for two reasons.  First, the opinion makes clear that it starts from the premise that social media and social media websites are just another means of communication.  Second, it was written as a byproduct of a mindset that recognized that the very first of the general ground rules the opinion should address is the role that a lawyer’s ethical duty of competence under RPC 1.1 plays with respect to the social media landscape:

[I]n order to comply with [RPC 1.1], attorneys should both have an understanding of how social media and social networking websites function, as well as be equipt [sic] to advise their clients about various issues they may encounter as a result of their use of social media and social networking websites.

Frankly, this weird regional/archaic spelling of “equipped” is one of my only quibbles with the opinion at all.  The other quibble – and really the only one of substance – is that I think the opinion goes too far in terms of imposing a duty on a lawyer to “verify the accuracy of any information posted on [the lawyer’s] social networking websites,” especially given the difficulty in reconciling that with what the opinion says immediately before that (“Although attorneys are not responsible for the content others post on the attorneys’ social networking websites….”)  If the opinion had just left the obligations to “(1) should monitor their social networking websites [and] (3) must remove or correct any inaccurate endorsements,” then it would have equipt me with almost nothing to quibble with at all.

Go read it.  Then print it out and keep it handy.  It’s good.

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