Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Emperor's New Clothes

I was amused this week with two stories about the public nature of Twitter; one very public, one private - both instructive about the new world lawyers in the 21st Century live and work in. 

First came the well-publicized internet battle between journalist Teri Buhl and what seemed to be every lawyer, journalism blogger and tech writer on the web. The story is well-documented by Houston attorney Mark Bennett on his excellent Defending People blog, as well on the TechDirt site

The short version is this: an attorney on Twitter, @GideonsTrumpet, noted that Ms. Buhl had posted the phrase "No Tweets are Publishable" on her Twitter profile. Gideon and Bennett pointed out that Ms. Buhl's warning is downright silly; Twitter is after all a public bulletin board, which shares information to all interested persons, both "followers" and anyone looking up Ms. Buhl's Twitter page (she has now locked her account so that her Tweets are not on her public page). 

Ms. Buhl did not react kindly to the constructive criticism lobbed her way by Bennett, the folks at TechDirt and many others. She responded with threats to sue several folks who posted her Twitter photo and through posting harsh comments on blogs and websites of those criticizing her outlandish statements; basically providing a lesson in how not to react to a PR crisis.

In the midst of this very public battle, a young lawyer relayed a story to me about a witness who was confronted with a printout of Tweets that completely destroyed, in tone and in fact, everything the witness had just presented at a legal proceeding. The lawyer had not thought to look up the witness on Twitter, thinking the witness was outside of a demographic that the lawyer believed would have a Twitter account. Opposing counsel did not make that mistake, however, and the lawyer learned an important (and probably very expensive) lesson that I'm sure will not be soon forgotten.

Millions of people are on Twitter these days, even if you're not. And if you're a lawyer and you're not on Twitter, shame on you. First of all, there's tons of information flying around on Twitter that you most likely can incorporate into your practice, one way or the other. For lawyers in private practice, Twitter can work as an effective tool in branding and advertising your services. 

Beyond that, it is absolutely critical that you understand the way your clients, witnesses, opposing attorneys, and others communicate and behave through social media. There are millions of conversations going on in the "Twitterverse," and as one unfortunate lawyer found out, important evidence in the cases you handle. Turning a blind "ear" to these conversations is not only dumb, it borders on malpractice in this day and age.

Folks like Ms. Buhl and the unfortunate witness can pretend all they want that what they post on Twitter is cloaked from public view; the rest of the world knows the naked truth. 

And you need to know that too.

(If you're already on Twitter (or take my advice and sign up today) please feel free to follow me: @coyotelaw65. I promise to followback.)

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