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The Ethics of Social Media
by Ellen Lockwood, ACP, RP

Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, FourSquare, Linkedin, blogs, websites, egroups – the list of social media and opportunities to get involved online appear to be almost endless. Most of us use social media for personal as well as professional reasons. However, like most areas of life, there are ethical issues to consider.

Professional Social Media Use

Social media is an effective way to not only network, but gain valuable knowledge related to your daily work. Many people even develop very friendly relationships with those with whom they interact on these sites. Unfortunately there is a risk of revealing confidential or privileged information, either on the sites or to someone whom you have gotten to know through a site. Just as you shouldn’t reveal confidential or privileged information to family, friends, or coworkers, you should not reveal that type of information to anyone else. It can be easy to get caught up in a discussion and without intending to do so, let details slip. You cannot even be certain that everyone with whom you interact on the Internet is who he appears to be. Despite how clever you think you are at camouflaging identif ying details of work matters, others may easily determine to which case you are referring and glean information that should not be disclosed.

Personal Social Media Use

Of course, the same rules apply to the use of social media in your personal life as in your professional life. There is no excuse for letting confidential information slip into your postings.

Deleting Accounts

If you think you may have revealed too much information (whether confidential or personal) on a social media site, you may consider deleting your profile and postings. However, profiles may not be immediately deleted. For example, it takes two weeks for Facebook to actually close your account and you may inadvertently reactivate it if you try to log into Facebook or use particular websites that are linked to Facebook during that time. Even after your online presence has been removed, others may have previously copied or forwarded your postings, allowing them to live on in cyberspace.

Use of Social Media for Investigative Purposes

Most in the legal field are including social media sites in their investigations. Postings and profile information may now even be requested during discovery. It can be very enlightening to discover someone who claims to be suffering from a back injury has posted videos of herself rock climbing and barrel racing. If you are researching an opposing party’s online presence, be sure to understand how this information needs to be gathered to be admissible. While posing as someone else to gain access to a party’s private online profile may be relatively easy to do, such methods may not result in admissible information.

Many paralegals are now being asked to do online searches of potential jurors during voir dire. While this can provide important information, there is also some case law that says it violates the jurors’ right of privacy. There is also some question as to whether it is appropriate to use information from online searches as a basis to strike a potential juror for cause when, without that information, the potential juror would have been chosen for the jury. Be sure you know the judge’s policy regarding this practice as some judges prohibit it.

Social Media Policies

More and more firms and companies are instituting social media policies. Many of those policies restrict or prohibit access to social networking sites on work computers. These policies often prohibit mention of any firm or company related information or photos by employees on social media sites. Take the time to familiarize yourself with your employer’s policy and any updates to that policy.

Your online presence is often the only image others have of you. In many ways, it has replaced your resumé and CV and has the added benefit (or detriment) of connecting what others have said about you. Social media has changed and in many ways, enriched our lives. Just keep in mind that everyone, including current and potential future employers, as well as opposing parties, can see everything you post.

Ellen Lockwood, ACP, RP, is the Chair of the Professional Ethics Committee of the Paralegal Division and a past President of the Division. She is a frequent speaker on paralegal ethics and intellectual property and the lead author of the Division’s Paralegal Ethics Handbook published by West Legalworks. You may follow her on Twitter @paralegalethics and her blog at http://paralegal-ethics.blogspot.com. She may be contacted at ethics@txpd.org.

 

 

Texas Paralegal Journal © Copyright 2010 by the Paralegal Division, State Bar of Texas.

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