Client, Facebook friend – or both?
by Sylvia Hsieh
Dolan Media Newswires
BOSTON, MA — As more lawyers create personal Facebook pages, the decision about whether to include clients as “friends” is just a click away.
Many younger, social media-loving lawyers advocate friending as many people as possible to grow your online presence. They see nothing wrong with including clients on a personal Facebook page.
Richard Vetstein, a real estate lawyer in Framingham, Mass., counts up to 30 of his clients as Facebook friends.
“Most of my clients I consider my friends. I don’t see a big issue with it,” said Vetstein.
But pre-GenX attorneys, some of whom may still be wondering when “friend” became a verb, are more cautious about mixing their professional and personal lives.
Traci Capistrant, a family law attorney at Capistrant & Wong in Minneapolis, Minn., declines friend requests from clients on her personal page.
“The reality is I don’t necessarily want them to see all my personal information, nor do I want to see theirs,” she said.
For lawyers like Capistrant, the networking benefits are outweighed by various ethical issues, including security and overly-personal interaction with others, such as opposing counsel.
A Florida ethics opinion recently advised judges to “de-friend” attorneys who appeared before them because it gave the appearance of bias.
Showing clients a glimpse of your personal life can make them more comfortable with you and expand your network to draw in potential new clients.
David Barrett, a practicing litigator in Boston who also coaches lawyers on using social media, encourages lawyers to use Facebook strictly as a networking tool.
Solos and small firms with few marketing dollars have used Facebook to level the playing field against larger competitors.
Vetstein, for example, has generated business from Facebook “friends”: one whose sister had a dispute over a purchase and sale agreement and another who became a client after striking up a conversation about the Boston Celtics.
However, just as you may cement your rapport with clients on Facebook by finding common interests, you may just as easily turn them off.
“On Facebook you are more likely to reveal your personal ideologies because of information-sharing, discussions or joining certain groups. It can ruffle a client’s feathers,” said Barrett.
Even if your clients overlook your political associations, they are less likely to forgive fraternizing with opposing counsel if they can see that you are “friends” with the other side’s attorney.
“If my client can see that I’m chummy with the other side, he or she may think, ‘Can you really be tough when you’re clearly buddies with the other attorney?'” said Capistrant.
One option is to categorize friends into those who can see your personal information and those who can’t.
Capistrant chose to use another method. She built a page for her firm in addition to her personal Facebook page so that she could keep clients separate from her family and friends.
“When a client tries to friend me on my personal page, I decline and then invite them to my firm page,” she said.
However, there are some downsides to creating a Facebook page for your firm.
Because Facebook prohibits duplicate pages for the same person, a lawyer who wants to have a business presence must create a separate entity page, which arguably defeats the purpose of showing your personal side.
You are also not able to connect with new people whom you do not already know, because you cannot invite friends to visit your business page through the Facebook platform; instead you must send an e-mail to invite someone to become a “fan.”
An advantage to having clients as Facebook friends is monitoring how they are using the site.
Barrett once noticed on Facebook that a client he was representing in a custody case was a member of a Bob Marley fan club that had a marijuana leaf as its logo.
“I’m like, ‘You [have to] take those off your Facebook page.’ It could have been used as evidence at least by giving the appearance of drug use. So clients can benefit [from friending their lawyers,] too,” said Barrett.
…But not too friendly
Even Facebook enthusiasts who friend their clients say they would never, ever communicate with clients through Facebook.
When Vetstein gets a message on Facebook from a client, he tells him or her to contact him through e-mail or by phone.
“I just don’t trust the security,” said Vetstein.
Weak security is just one risk. In addition, Facebook communications are not your property and arguably no longer privileged.
“You don’t own the platform. Facebook owns the content that’s on there. Do you want Facebook to own your attorney-client communications?” asked Gina Rubel, a former trial attorney and owner of Furia Rubel Communications, which advises lawyers on public relations.
Lawyers should also be careful about the content they post to their Facebook page.
For example, publishing a big win in a case violates some state ethics rules, because clients who see the posting can be misled into thinking that a win implies future performance, Rubel noted.
Another thing that could mislead a client straight to the ethics board is if he sees his lawyer spending more time on Facebook than on his case.
“You can see when other friends are on Facebook, so if you have clients who feel you’re not attending to their matters quickly enough … it would hurt your argument that you don’t have time for their legal case,” said Barrett.
Although there is an option to appear “offline,” many lawyers are not paying attention to their settings, said Barrett, who should know, as his 3,500 Facebook friends include about 3,200 lawyers.
Lawyers may also not be aware that certain games on Facebook, like the popular Mafia Wars and Farmville, make automatic postings on your wall and in your news feed.
For a lawyer trying to maintain a professional image, it can look ridiculous to ask friends to join your Mafia group or to announce that you’ve completed some advanced level on Farmville, said Barrett.