Law firms should embrace, not fear, social media engagement

Social Media Q&A: Christopher Hutchings, media litigation partner at Hamlins, discusses with Lexis Nexis the increasing importance of social media in business and offers advice on how law firms should engage online.

How much are law firms using Twitter for engaging with a wider audience?

Lawyers are, by training, more cautious than most. We are also acutely aware of legal issues that can arise from misuse of Facebook and Twitter. Law firms, taken as a whole, have been slower on the uptake of these new forms of media than most working in commerce however, the potential to use social media to grow business is beginning to be appreciated by law firms. City firms, with large marketing teams, are already using Twitter effectively. Smaller firms have been slower to do so because of the need to train solicitors and to gain an understanding that these powerful forms of communication can be used safely.

How successful has this been and what can it achieve?

Firms that have used social media for some time report significant successes in terms of winning new clients as well as establishing dialogues with journalists. LinkedIn is a form of social media with which lawyers feel more instinctively comfortable, it is a great way to keep in touch with clients and contacts.

What are the possible risks for law firms using Twitter?

Social media enables individuals and businesses to circumvent traditional media and to convey an instant message to a huge audience. This represents a huge opportunity but also significant risks. Marketing initiatives which go wrong such as that which recently affected JPMorgan deters cautious and usually more senior lawyers from encouraging use.

If something doesn’t go to plan, what strategies can firms use to rectify it?

The best strategy is prevention not cure, through training and policy. Together, these will generally mean that problems arising from posting by lawyers will be avoided. If an offending post originates internally, these must be deleted quickly and apologised for, to show that the firm is serious about its reputation. However, this doesn’t apply to offensive posts made, for example, by an angry client or pressure group. It is vital that social media is monitored, that there is an appropriate chain of command and that offending posts are responded to quickly.

Are there any regulatory or other potential legal issues firms need to be aware of?

Posting of statements on any platform, such as Twitter, and even re-tweeting, amounts to publication. The biggest risk for law firms is breaching client confidentiality. Likewise, if a post is defamatory, the poster will face the risk of a libel complaint. If a statement wrongly suggests association with another individual or company, this risks a complaint for passing off. So, providing the poster can be identified which would almost always be the case in terms of posting by law firm. UK laws and solicitors’ regulations apply in the same way as if the content is published in a newspaper or in advertising material for example.

What are the implications for firms and their clients?

Law firms will continue to use social media more cautiously than most businesses but the opportunities for business development vastly outweigh the risks, providing it is used responsibly. Clients should likewise be encouraged to continue to use social media whilst at the same time offered guidance and advice as to its safer use.

Are there any trends developing in this area of law?

There have been a number of high-profile cases this year and I am in no doubt that the courts and the authorities have been keen that these send ‘public health warnings’ about the consequences of misusing social media. Several individuals have received sentences for posting comments which pose a serious risk of prejudicing criminal proceedings. The most high profile case this year was the libel action brought by Lord McAlpine against Sally Bercow, costing her over £100,000, with also a huge number of settlements accepted by the former cabinet minister from ordinary members of public, some of whom simply retweeted defamatory posts.

The Director of Public Prosecutions issued guidelines in June to define circumstances in which prosecutions should be brought in respect of various forms of posts. Existing laws are adaptable and are constantly developing to place boundaries on the use of social media.

Social media platforms are themselves imposing constraints and means to rectify offensive posts – for example, Twitter introduced the ‘Report a Tweet’ button earlier this autumn following the storm caused by offensive remarks being tweeted against women promoting the use of the image of Jane Austin on the £10 note.

What are your predictions for future developments?

Facebook is only ten years old and Twitter is younger still, yet their growth and increase in value has been a phenomenon. New platforms will undoubtedly be developed and content is continuing to relentlessly shift online. This goes for advertising revenues as well as commerce generally. This will continue for the foreseeable future. Successful law firms will appreciate this movement and will increasingly engage with social media to communicate with the outside world.

If you would like discuss any of the issues raised in this article please contact Christopher Hutchings.