Q: I need legal advice. Can I find an attorney online?
A: Attorneys, like many other professionals, are using social media and websites to develop new relationships with those seeking legal representation. But hiring an attorney online will likely be a multi-step process due to restrictions on lawyers regarding advertising and the obligation to keep client information private.
Q: Why can’t an attorney just tweet or post on Facebook the answers to my legal questions?
A: While social media makes easy for someone to find an attorney, there are many reasons why the attorney is unlikely to answer your question online in real time. Several of these are listed below.
• Confidentiality. Generally, lawyers owe their clients and prospective clients the right to keep information shared about a legal matter private, unless the client gives consent to share it with others. Exchanges posted on a social media site are hardly private; anyone with access to the site can view communications. For this reason, new rules have been proposed to help ensure that lawyers behave professionally in a world filled with social media. The rules require attorneys to not only be mindful of their conversations online, but also to be very familiar with the technology they use to gather information. Even if you and the attorney share information privately through your personal email, a direct Twitter message or a contact form on the lawyer’s own website, the attorney must be familiar with whatever online service you are using to exchange information, as well as the privacy settings of that service.
• Jurisdiction. If someone is communicating online, it’s not always easy to determine where that person is physically located or where the legal matter at issue took place. Lawyers are only allowed to represent clients in jurisdictions where they are licensed to practice. For example, a lawyer licensed to practice only in Ohio cannot give specific legal advice to a person whose legal issue is in Michigan.
• Conflicts of interest. Lawyers must avoid discussing legal matters with anyone who might have interests that conflict with that lawyer’s existing clients. If a lawyer simply responds in real-time to a person online in hopes of signing up a new client, that lawyer may later discover that the new client is involved in a legal matter in opposition to another client who is currently being represented by the lawyer or the lawyer’s firm. Lawyer ethics do not allow such a “conflict of interest,” so the lawyer will not be able to represent the new client.
Q: If lawyers won’t provide answers online, why are they using social media?
A: While certain restrictions and obligations make providing online legal advice difficult, a lawyer can provide general legal information to educate the public. Such educational information is likely to include a statement indicating that the information provided is general and not a substitute for personal legal advice. This statement serves as a warning that the information being provided will not necessarily pertain to an actual legal situation described by someone who is seeking legal advice. In legal matters, each case is different and one size does not fit all, but an attorney’s explanation of the law may help someone know what questions to ask a lawyer during a consultation about his or her particular case.
Q: Can lawyers answer online questions to advertise their services?
A: Lawyers are bound by specific rules on how they can advertise and solicit business. For example, lawyers must clearly alert readers or viewers that the information provided is actually an advertisement. In a social media setting, you may not see a disclaimer on a tweet or post, but lawyers still must abide by the advertising and solicitation rules. In the online media setting, a lawyer may, for example, list the penalties for DWI, and then state that this is general information. The lawyer may then invite you to submit an email, fill out an online form or call for additional information. If you do provide information about your particular legal matter, the lawyer can then take steps to determine if the matter is within that lawyer’s jurisdiction, that there is no conflict of interest between you and other clients, and to ensure that what you share will be confidential.
This “Law You Can Use” column was provided by the Ohio State Bar Association. It was prepared by Columbus attorney Dan Trevas.