Social media is a highly effective communications tool, but solicitors can fall foul of the regulator and face disciplinary action for posting inappropriate remarks. Christopher McCormick of Moorcrofts LLP looks at how firms can avoid the risks.

A lawyer’s reputation is often heavily influenced by how they engage with the public – including their use of social media – and just one ill-judged remark can have serious reputational, legal and regulatory ramifications.

Even if a lawyer’s use of social media is unconnected with their job, an allegation of misconduct can still follow.

Indeed, the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has confirmed that most of the social media complaints it deals with arise from activity outside of legal practice.

The primary difficulties arise with the blurring of boundaries.

As Fran Unsworth, the director of news at the BBC, told staff in an email: “There is no real distinction between personal and official social media accounts”.

Fran is probably right – if a member of staff publishes something awful, there will undoubtedly be at least some people unable to separate that action from your organisation.

Regardless of that, it is still good practice to require staff and employees to identify personal social media accounts and to think carefully before they use them.

Using company accounts

Many companies, including law firms, have official social media accounts such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn.

There are dozens more, but these four are likely the main platforms an organisation will use to engage with clients, raise their profile and often recruit.

Typically, a number of people within the organisation will have access to official social media accounts, and they should only be used for officially sanctioned postings.

Unless someone with control of the company account goes ‘rogue’, there should not be any issues with an official account so long as those employees are given proper training on the use of those accounts.

Using personal accounts

Problems for organisations are more likely to arise from an employee’s personal social media activity, which can run the risk of bringing a firm into disrepute.

The extent to which regulators should sanction lawyers’ actions in their private lives has been a live issue of late, such as in the case of a senior partner at Hogan Lovells fined for discriminating against his children’s pregnant nanny.

Similarly, a solicitor who repeatedly made “inappropriate and puerile comments” on social media about his clients’ matters was rebuked for his conduct.

Aside from the fines for individuals, these matters are likely to create problems for the firm including:

  • loss of reputation
  • potential legal action
  • unhappy clients
  • loss of productivity
  • potential leaking of confidential information

Other issues could include bullying, harassment and self-inflicted problems such as people accidentally publicly posting pictures or information that should remain private.

Mitigating damage

Obviously, it is going to be very difficult for any organisation to police personal social media accounts but there are some steps an organisation can take to try to reduce the likelihood of an issue arising.

Have a policy

Have a social media policy. This policy should set out exactly what is acceptable and what is not.

There should be a distinction between business and private use of social media, and what employees and staff can and cannot say about the business.

Use of official accounts should also be covered in the social media policy. The policy should make it clear what the sanctions are for a breach of that policy.

Take bullying seriously

Inappropriate behaviour on social media should be treated in the same way as inappropriate behaviour in the office.

Bullying online is as serious as bullying in the office, and should be dealt with in the same way.

Hold firm-wide training

Ensure firm-wide social media training is undertaken so that the differences between personal and private behaviours are understood.

Many people believe that what they do in their own time is none of their employer’s business but solicitors are held to a higher standard of behaviour by the SRA Code of Conduct.

Read the SRA Warning Notice

Make staff aware of the SRA’s Warning Notice on offensive communications.

Online comments posted in a personal capacity which might be deemed offensive or inappropriate “could be classed as misconduct if the poster can be identified as a solicitor”.

Social media can be an important part of an organisation’s strategy, but it can also be highly damaging if not handled properly.

An organisation will not be able to stop staff and employees from using social media (nor should they) but they do need to make sure employees and staff understand how to use it responsibly.