“If your lips would keep from slips ……
“If your lips would keep from slips
Five things observe with care:
Of whom you tweet, to whom you tweet,
And how, and when, and where.”
— adapted from W E Norris, Thirlby Hall
The past few weeks have seen proof, if indeed proof were needed, that tweeting can be a dangerous pastime if not undertaken with care. Not only has barrister David Harris been disciplined by the Bar Standards Board for, amongst other things, bringing the profession into disrepute, but also trainee chartered-accountant Paul Chambers has been found guilty of a Communications Act 2003 offence and is appealing to the High Court.
As the number of lawyers with a Twitter account increases by the day, the opportunities for them to fall foul of the law or their own professional rules grows ever greater – especially when Tweeting has become so much the accepted thing to do that it becomes part of everyday conversation in the same way as , for example, text messages and telephone calls.
However, what is sometimes forgotten is that tweeting differs significantly from texts and conversations in that, rather than being sent to one person it is publicised, theoretically, to the whole world. Even if you have a restricted list of followers there is nothing to prevent them from retweeting to a far wider audience.
As lawyers, we occupy a somewhat unique position of needing to be far more careful than the man on the Clapham Omnibus as to what we say, to whom we say it. Before we indiscriminately launch our 140 characters of harmless (or otherwise) banter into the ether we need to bear in mind that somebody, somewhere, is listening. That somebody could draw inferences far removed from the original tweet and as a consequence the Twitterer could easily find himself or herself facing accusations of unprofessional conduct or facing charges of causing a menace under the Communications Act 2003.
Indeed, Twittering is not alone in needing to have care taken with its use. The same basic principles apply whether it is Facebook, Bebo, LinkedIn, Defero Law or any other social networking system.
Essentially, the key to staying on the right side of the law and regulations is to think before you tweet.
- Don’t publish something which is confidential and you have learned as a result of your work;
- Don’t get drawn into discussions about things where you possess confidential information in case you inadvertently let something slip or others believe from the context that you have done so;
- Don’t publish something which would allow someone else to infer that you were acting in a particular matter;
- Don’t express opinions about people that your firm is acting, or has acted, for or against;
- Don’t link with clients if doing so would allow others to infer that you acted for them unless they agree to this;
- Don’t post anonymously that which you would not post with your name attributed – you may get linked with the comment anyway;
- Don’t post (or retweet or link to) anything that could be deemed to be likely to bring the profession into disrepute including posts with bad language, offensive language, offensive images or content, defamatory statements, comments about judges or other professionals, discriminatory comments, comments likely to incite racial hatred and so forth – in fact anything which could upset anyone.
The Law Society have published some excellent, if lengthy, guidance on the topic and I would encourage every lawyer – solicitor or not – to read it carefully and take on board the warnings. The guidance will be found in the Practice Notes Section of the Practice Support menu item.
Social networking is here to stay – for a while anyway until the next thing comes along – and lawyers should not be afraid of it. The effective use of social networking can strengthen one’s legal business considerably and for that reason no one should be afraid to use it. Use it with caution and circumspection and your tweet won’t become an albatross.