Are You [A] Lawyer Online?

David Fraser (@privacylawyer) is not just a lawyer online; he’s a Canadian privacy lawyer—online.  Participating on a panel with David last Friday, it was immediately obvious that he “gets social media” when he flat out told a Canadian Bar Association group of Intellectual Property lawyers that …being a lawyer online does nothing for you. Being anything too broad; and you’re going to get lost.

I couldn’t agree more: It’s getting noisy out there—to think that only three years ago plenty of lawyers had only two things to say about social media: Me? Why? Well, the crowd has arrived.

So, what should you be doing to be present and counted for in social media today?

David had some sage words of advice that echo my own experience in coaching lawyers and share them below, paraphrased from my notes.

  • Listen, listen, and listen. If you listen, you have a better opportunity to distinguish yourself from the crowd.
  • Don’t dilute the message. David is a Canadian privacy lawyer and he only tweets and blogs about privacy. He doesn’t dilute his message. People who follow him are people who want to know about privacy-simple, right? The dividend is significant; it gives him quality followers and qualified leads. [Note from VMO: you may have a fairly broad practice, but you should pick the most interesting and profitable part of it to emphasize for your online practice.]
  • It’s about people. People want to network (converse) with people. Following law firms is not generally helpful. (Well, maybe you should follow your own firm to get the latest news first!). Follow people. Follow the right people; those who want to talk about your subject—which by the way should be very specific….
  • Be a part of the community. Once you’re online, by default you’re part of that community. Living your practice online, you have a responsibility to be a contributing member of that community. While David has gotten to know other competitors pretty well using social media, he warns about getting into battles with your competitors—it never looks good.
  • Be clear about your message. You need to be clear about what you’re putting out there—it becomes part of your online presence. Know what “it’s” about before you get into anything online. Checking into a client’s office on Foursquare is a bad idea; it can breach confidentiality.
  • Watch out for chilling effects. There is a LOT of user-generated content posted to social media sites receiving legal attention these days. It is never wise to enter social media without a comprehensive understanding of the liabilities—both professional and personal.  Facebook alone reported to Newsweek in January 2011 that it receives 10 to 20 requests for user account information per day or approximately 5000 email subpoenas per year. (You can view some of them at, a watchdog, non-profit organization that catalogs lawyers’ cease and desist letters.) Canadian litigants with claims of assets-at-risk or reputations-at-risk are more likely to receive attention from social media services because there is more liability placed on the publisher in Canada. However, in the U.S., the Communications Decency Act squarely places the liability on users for what they post, not the publisher of the social media site. It’s important for everyone (not just lawyers) to know their rights and responsibilities, terms of service and conditions, and live within the boundaries.
  • There is no anonymity. Everywhere you go on the Internet you leave a trail. (Dare I risk saying the obvious?) Whatever you wouldn’t do in public, you shouldn’t do online. Hot issues like John Doe Anonymity (fake profiles), protest, parody and criticism, copyright and DMCA, linking, patent and trademark/trade secret are all being vetted in consideration of new legislation specific to new media channels both in the U.S and Canada. If you are hiding behind an avatar,  a stage name handle and a disposable email address, don’t think they can’t find you if they want to.

Of course, if you’re not living your practice online, you’re less likely to be impacted by any negatives but also less likely to benefit from the positives. If you are living your practice online, you may need to do some housekeeping and tidy up your message. You can start by asking, “What does my professional title on LinkedIn say about me?” Are you Jane Smith, Attorney, Smith, Jones & Brown? Or, are you Jane Smith, Miami-based, Bi-lingual Import/Export Attorney Serving U.S and Latin American Markets?

Listen first; then post. Don’t dilute the message.  It’s about people, not push messages: Be community minded. Know your rights, responsibilities and liabilities; there is no anonymity. What else would you add to this list?



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