LAW, LAWYERS AND THE SOCIAL MEDIA IN THE 21ST CENTURY: CHALLENGES AND PROSPECTS – S.A OMOTOSO ESQ.
Social media can shape or affect relationships and the nature of communications between lawyers, their clients and the general public. Members of the legal profession similarly ought to consider what impact the use of social media could have on their professional and ethical obligations. Truth is, we cannot put the social media genie back in a bottle. Its use by all sections of the society cannot be ignored let alone forbidden or discouraged. The impact of social media in the legal profession is as important as salt in a soup. While it could spice it up, it could also spoil the soup. Its effect depends on how well it is managed.
It is expedient we drive down memory lane. Considering the fact that law is a sober profession, the legal profession was not always on board. In the beginning, lawyers were suspicious of social media and resisted what many believed was a short lived fad. Overtime, as it became clear that social media came to stay, that attitude changed and an increasing number of attorneys became interested in learning about using the social media for business development and professional networking purposes.
Essentially, the Rules of Professional Conduct 2007 (hereinafter referred to as The Rules) governs the activities, professional and ethical conduct of lawyers in Nigeria. No provision of the aforementioned Rules directly addresses interactions or place restrictions on lawyers as regards social media. Beautiful right? However, The Rules instructs against soliciting and touting which a lawyer can easily fall victim of when carried away by the flexibilities of social media. To be clear, soliciting is the act or conduct by a lawyer which is calculated to lure a person or group of persons to engage him professionally. Rule 39(3) RPC, a lawyer shall not solicit professional employment either directly or indirectly. As it relates to social media, this could be done by online bills and fliers, circulars and self-aggrandizement among others. If a lawyer is found to fall short of this provision, he could welcome a horrendous visit from the Legal Practitioners Disciplinary Committee.
Considering the fact that 2.4 billion persons reportedly use Facebook, and 330 million persons reportedly use Twitter, the scope of publication it affords its users is definitely a gold mine. Hence the quintessential question will be; how do lawyers in the 21st century enjoy its prospects and avoid its challenges? The first step will be to identify a few.
- Career development and networking: Considering the fact that the world is a global village, it is indeed possible to build a good client base globally. Thanks to social media, you could have clients all over the world, prepare documents for them, notarize it if need be and send via courier service. No physical communication needed. Most top firms now have social media presence and clients can connect to law firms or lawyers sending them a direct message. A statistics carried out in the United States reported that 27% of Lawyers have had a client retain their services directly or via referral as a result of the use of social media.
- Accessibility/Convenience: Not every Lawyer can afford an office, not every client can afford a consultation fee, not every client can afford to drive or take a cab to a law firm and even if the variables are positive, it is easier to communicate through social media. Who says an interview must be done in a board room or reception? The Human resource personnel can go on LinkedIn and create a shortlist of persons qualified for the interview after viewing their profiles. Afterwards, an interview can be carried out via a WhatsApp group or through Facebook. It saves time, energy and resources of all parties concerned. A lawyer can prepare incorporation documents for a client without having physical contact with his client. A client can chat with his Lawyer for legal advice. A lawyer can also guide his clients on the position of the Law as regards to work related issues. The Rules instructs against visiting your client in his house but does not instruct against using the social media to advice your client who is in the comfort of his house.
The challenges however, could be as weighty as the prospects. We will consider a few challenges as it affects a Legal Practitioner and the Legal Profession concomitantly;
- Carelessness of a Lawyer on social media can ruin a his career: Few years back, a tweet went viral of a Lawyer who posted a tweet stating that he had never lost a case. Well, he had to face the Legal Practitioner’s Disciplinary Committee (hereinafter known as The LPDC). I do not have the details of how the story ended. However, a visit from the LPDC can only lead to a suspension, expulsion (striking out of name on the roll), and in few cases a simple warning. The LPDC is the body in charge of disciplining Legal Practitioners; hence a breach of The Rules of Professional Conduct could lead to an unwarranted visit from The LPDC.
- Bad Legal advice: Connecting with a Lawyer on social media could be dangerous, especially when there has not been any physical contact between the Lawyer and the client. Anyone could impersonate a Lawyer and give “free legal advice” on social media. However, when things go south the client or victim in this instance will add more popularity to the phrase “Lawyers are liars and fraudsters” not considering the fact that they did not do their background check. This however will paint the profession in a bad light.
- Social media could lead to a downturn in the necessity for Lawyers: Legal advice via social media platforms will continue to reduce the necessity of “seeing a Lawyer.” Social media interaction has brought people to the know that you do not need a lawyer to assist in registering a business name or incorporate a company, or draft a simple agreement.
While Social Media in the 21st century could be a gold mine, it could also be a death trap. Fortunately, as easy as it is to manage the disadvantages, so it is to exploit the advantages. In my opinion, the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. The world has since switched from analogue to digital. The legal profession ‘slowly but surely’ is switching. The biggest market on earth is the Social media space; lawyers should take advantage and catch fishes with their nets but within the ambits of the Law.
• Re:Abuah (1971) LPELR-SC.21/05/1971_1
•Tahlia Gordon, Rita Schackel and Steve Mark, ‘Regulation of Legal Services in the E-World: A need to short circuit hot spot in ethics and novel practices?’ (2012) International Journal of the Legal Profession 55,78
• The American Bar Association’s 2017 Legal Technology Survey
• The Rules of Professional Conduct 2007