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The dangers of online networking

Attorneys are being urged to go online to find clients more than ever before.

But Michael P. Downey, a partner at Hinshaw & Culbertson in St. Louis who focuses his practice on ethics (and is an author of the blog The Ethical Quandary), urges caution when participating in online social networking sites.

“Particularly in the current economic climate, lawyers are being pressured to develop business in new and creative ways,” Downey says. “But there are a whole series of potential problems.”

Here are some tips:

• Be careful not to create an attorney-client relationship

Sites such as LinkedIn allow users to post and answer questions, which can be a good marketing opportunity for a lawyer looking to showcase his or her knowledge and expertise, Downey notes.

“But be very cognizant of inadvertently creating an attorney-client relationship by answering a question online,” he cautions.

Another concern: answering an online question might constitute the practice of law in a jurisdiction where you aren’t licensed, because the questioner could be in another state.

• Watch the advertising rules

Attorney advertising is a very heavily regulated field, and some states have rules about lawyers’ online activities.

But lawyers may not realize that a personal website that contains information about their practice or their firm may constitute advertising under certain state ethical rules.

Typically, a state will require that an advertisement “have certain content and specific disclaimers,” Downey explains. So a lawyer could be in violation of the rules if he references a winning case on his MySpace page without including the required language. To avoid problems, keep your professional and social online activities as separate as possible, Downey says.

• Safeguard attorney-client confidences

Attorneys need to make sure that when they post on a blog or on Twitter that they aren’t revealing any attorney-client confidences.

A simple Tweet about what you are working on could inadvertently reveal your case strategy – “I’m drafting a motion to dismiss based on a failure to exhaust administrative remedies,” for example – and a blog post could disclose identifying details about clients. Downey suggests having a partner or associate double-check your posts, to ensure no confidential information is being disclosed.

• Limit your network

Both Facebook and LinkedIn allow users to peruse fellow members’ networks and connections. But letting someone into your network means he or she can mine your data, Downey says. To prevent information about clients or contacts from falling into the wrong hands, be careful who you accept into your network.

There is no such thing as a risk-free practice, Downey says. “Once you start to market [online] and take on clients, you incur risks. But the important thing is to make intelligent decisions about the risks that you do take.”

– Correy E. Stephenson

Questions or comments can be directed to the writer at: correy.stephenson@lawyersusaonline.com