Clients and in-house counsel often conduct substantial research on lawyers when deciding if they want to use particular counsel to handle a given matter. Often, clients and in-house counsel speak to people who know the prospective counsel to determine if they do good work and are knowledgeable about a given area of the law. In other instances, clients may consult online directories to evaluate reviews of attorney and legal experience their counsel may have. From my own experience, clients and in-house counsel may even peruse the personal social media accounts of lawyers when conducting background research. Attorneys should take steps to protect their personal social media accounts if they do not wish clients and in-house counsel to see such content.
One time earlier in my career — even before I started writing for Above the Law! — I used to travel frequently for work, taking depositions up and down the East Coast since the people involved were usually sick and could not travel themselves. Sometimes, I would travel to exotic locations for work, and one time, I took a deposition in a tropical location for two weeks.
The trip started off as a real treat, but eventually it was actually kind of an annoyance to take a deposition in this touristy place for such a long time. I had to put all of my travel expenses on my personal credit card, and having to float the expenses until I got reimbursed was a real challenge back in the days when I still had a shocking amount of student debt. Moreover, the food prices at this tourist trap were insanely high, and I had trouble staying well fed on the pretty modest allotted meal budget. In addition, the repetition of long deposition days with little free time for fun excursions grows old after a while, and a tropical locale can be boring for a tourist after a few weeks.
In any event, while I was at the deposition, I took a picture from the beach and posted it on Facebook. I think the photo showed a piña colada in my hand and an ocean view in the background. The photo did not show my face or anything else. I think the caption was “work with a view” or some similar lame thing. (What can I say, I’m pretty basic!) I was much more into social media when I was younger, and I liked to document the things that I was doing in my life. Heading to this tropical location for a deposition was the first time I had been in an exotic place in years, so it was definitely the type of thing I would post a picture of on social media in those days.
In any event, a few months later, I was at work, sitting in my office, and I got a random call from an in-house lawyer I had never spoken to before, but had emailed with in the past. This in-house lawyer made some pleasantries, and then got to the point of his call. Apparently, he had tasked his secretary with doing some research on the lawyers who were handling files for this company, and my beach picture was included in the report. I accidentally marked the photo “public” instead of “private” so anyone on the internet could see it. In any event, the in-house lawyer said he wouldn’t tell my boss about the photo, but conveyed that some in-house professionals would not appreciate seeing that their counsel was enjoying their time on work trips.
Initially, I was mad at this in-house lawyer for Facebook-stalking me and making a big deal out of a benign photo. Again, the photo just showed my hand holding a piña colada with the ocean in the background, it was not like I was revealing client confidences or anything like that. Moreover, the trip was not what it was made out to be. It should be no surprise to anyone that Facebook does not reflect reality, and completing that work trip for the client was much more of a pain in the butt than the photo might have revealed. In any event, I believed that I should be able to live my life and document it via social medial so long as no client confidences are revealed and within other reasonable boundaries. As a result, I thought the in-house lawyer was busting my chops for no reason. Of course, upon later reflection, I can somewhat understand his point. The company likely needed to spend a pretty penny to fly me to this tropical location, so in-house lawyers might feel a little jelly if they see a photo of my hand holding a drink on the beach while on a work trip.
In any event, it was really surprising to me that in-house lawyers at major companies care enough about their outside counsel that they might peruse personal Facebook accounts to glean more information. Lawyers should be super careful to use the right privacy settings on social media accounts, and if they are friends with in-house contacts, make careful decisions about posting work-related content.
Jordan Rothman is a partner of The Rothman Law Firm, a full-service New York and New Jersey law firm. He is also the founder of Student Debt Diaries, a website discussing how he paid off his student loans. You can reach Jordan through email at firstname.lastname@example.org.