Who Owns Your Tweets?: The big questions – and the big answers – about social media for lawyers

Debra Pickett is president of Page 2 Communications (www.page2comm.com).  A former newspaper columnist and television commentator, Pickett offers consulting and training services to law firms and lawyers who deal with the media.  She writes here each week on topics related to law and media.  To learn more, reach her at deb@page2comm.com.

Twitter gets a bad rap, partly because it’s hard for a lot of people to believe that doing something called “tweeting” could actually be important in any real way.

But Twitter, in addition to being the best way to keep up with your friends’ gripes about slow-moving lines at Starbucks, happens to be a fantastic way to connect with journalists.  For attorneys who are handling high-profile matters or for anyone who is building a reputation as a subject matter expert, Twitter is a great tool for getting out your information to the folks who’ll be most interested in it.  I recommend it, along with LinkedIn, as a gateway to social media marketing for lawyers building their practices.

That recommendation, though, comes with an important caveat: Tweets are public statements, not just messages to certain recipients (“followers”).

There are two big unanswered questions about Twitter and its value (and risks) for attorneys.

First, legally, the issue of who owns your tweets and who can see them, for how long, is not totally settled.  (SocialMediaToday has an analysis of a relevant case here.) 

Second, ethical standards for attorneys’ use of social media are also still similarly very much in flux.  It is certainly conceivable that a tweet promoting your work could be construed as a solicitation for business and could, therefore violate Rule 7.3’s prohibition of direct contact with prospective clients, even if those prospective clients elected to follow you on Twitter. 

With these (and other) questions still lingering, avoiding social media entirely might seem like the prudent course.  But it’s not 2009 out there anymore, folks.  And even if these big questions don’t exactly have settled answers, they can be dealt with.  The two big questions yield two important guidelines:

1.) It’s prudent to assume that tweets are absolutely public and absolutely permanent, even though they don’t feel that way.

2.) If you’re wondering about how to square tweets with the Rules of Professional Conduct, a decent rule of thumb is to think of each tweet as an email message being sent to all your followers and, potentially, on to the public at large.

With these in mind, there’s no reason at all to avoid taking the social media plunge.  Or, at the very least, dip a toe in the social media water: get a Twitter account going and start following @BitterLawyer, @taxgirl and @kevinokeefe for lively and engaging examples of how this stuff is done.

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One response to “Who Owns Your Tweets?: The big questions – and the big answers – about social media for lawyers

  1. I am trying to observe online rules for myself that everything I write, post or publish is public domain. I am teaching my teen to do the same. I tell her that everything she puts online can be viewed by a judge, a future employer etc. More specifically I have told her that if she does not want it announced on the intercom at school or written in our local paper then don’t put it online.

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