Solos & Small Firms

Why Can’t We Be Friends?

Having clients as Facebook friends is full of risks—and rewards

Posted Jan 1, 2010 9:00 PM CDT
By Leslie A. Gordon

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Francine Ward
Courtesy Francine Ward

For some lawyers, joining Facebook is a no-brainer. not so for solo Michelle Rozovics. “It was a huge, huge decision,” says Rozovics, whose office is in the Chicago suburb of Crystal Lake.

She wanted to use the social networking site to connect strictly with family and longtime friends, but she thought maintaining those boundaries might be difficult.

As Rozovics suspected, she was inundated with friend requests from former colleagues as soon as she joined the site. Rozovics ignored the requests, a strategy she believes was wise because days later she was hired for a new matter in which one of those former colleagues was representing a party in a related case.

“I don’t want anyone work-related to know I’m going to a wedding on Saturday or painting my house,” she explains. “Knowing your habits could be used as leverage against you to the detriment of your clients. Lawyers could tell clients, for example, ‘I know that he’s going hunting and will try to get this case off his desk.’ ”

For lawyers like Rozovics, numerous questions about social networking’s impact on their practice—both positive and negative—linger. “The attorney-client relationship is the client’s to disclose,” she says. “Plus, do your business clients need to know that you also work on PI cases? They could wonder if you’re an appropriate attorney for a multimillion-dollar, cross-border deal.”

CONNECTIONS COME WITH CAVEATS

Other lawyers have jumped into social networking, eager to connect with past, present and potential clients.

Clients of Jennifer Sawday, a small-firm estate-planning lawyer in Long Beach, Calif., have found her on Facebook because the site suggests friends based on prior e-mail exchanges. Though she doesn’t actively “friend” clients, she always accepts requests. “My clients and I have an ongoing relationship. I want them to come back,” explains Sawday, who adds that Facebook may be particularly suited to family-related practices like hers. “The more connection we establish, the better. I’m their attorney for life.”

Legal ethicist John Steele of Palo Alto, Calif., suggests some degree of caution. “There’s a tension between the duty of confidentiality and the Facebook norm of enormously reduced, if not nonexistent, personal boundaries,” he says.

Friending clients could raise issues of solicitation, Steele says. Before accepting a client’s friend request, lawyers should consider advising the person that a public linking might give away information one shouldn’t. Other Facebook-related issues include unwittingly misrepresenting who you are or inappropriately contacting someone represented by counsel. Yet no case law exists offering practical guides to Facebook friending. “Lawyers are going to stub a hundred or more toes before we figure these rules out,” Steele says.

Sawday’s firm encourages its lawyers to use Facebook for marketing. Fif?teen percent of her 230 Face?book friends are clients. Her updates often reflect that purpose: “We won summary judgment. Off to a home visit in Redondo.”

Facebook levels the playing field for solo practitioners, allowing them to develop a marketing plan at a fraction of a big firm’s budget, according to solo IP lawyer Francine Ward in Mill Valley, Calif. She counts 20 clients among her 500 Facebook friends. Still, Ward is careful of “land mines,” including inadvertently establishing an attorney-client relationship or disclosing confidential information. To avoid crossing the line into solicitation by friending clients, Ward waits for them to friend her first.

Attorneys who ignore Facebook friend requests from clients sometimes offer to connect instead on LinkedIn, a purely business networking site. Other attorneys maintain a limited Facebook profile for professional contacts, who cannot view photos, updates, wall messages or group membership.

Still, “anything posted on the Internet is potentially accessible,” cautions Rozovics. “Be careful about who you accept as a friend—the same way you’re careful about who you accept as a client. Your friends list says something about you.”

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