A personal guide to social media use for barristers

One of my strongest memories as a primary school kid is of punched cards littering our dining room table. With a software engineer dad, my 3 brothers and I grew up competing for computer time, writing programs and building websites (how we ended up with 3 law grads and a medico is another story).

So for those who know me well, my active online media presence is no great surprise. Indeed, it is five years since I took to Twitter and well over a decade since I built the earliest websites for the NSW Women Lawyers Association and Australian Women Lawyers (using the now thankfully abandoned Microsoft Frontpage).

Why be online?

Perhaps the best reason to be online is: that's where everyone else is!

However, I acknowledge that there is persisting reticence amongst many barristers to building an online presence. This partly reflects a lingering apprehension of restrictions (now lifted) on media comment and lawyer advertising. For others it is a fear (or perhaps disdain) of modern technology. Or perhaps it is just some combination of laziness and disinterest.

Obviously, it takes time and effort to use social media effectively, so it is sensible to adopt a platform that best targets the audience you want to reach. I set out some of my thoughts and suggestions below. 

Blogs

Being sole-traders, many barristers eschew a personal website because of the perceived high cost involved.

But even a simple barrister’s blog can be effectively used as a platform for discussing general legal news and how it may affect clients or potential clients.

A barrister can use their blog as a vehicle to discuss new legislation in a journalistic way (thereby revealing their own special knowledge and skill beyond oral advocacy).

In a competitive market, specialist advocates who can demonstrate subject matter expertise provide better value for clients.

Of course, time is money so you don't want to be blogging very frequently. A blog can be used to drive visitors to a main website, either maintained by a barrister's chambers, or for the more adventurous, their own personal site.

I have been using the self-generated blogsites hosted by WordPress and Squarespace to build and maintain my personal and chambers' blogs and websites. For a fairly nominal fee, these platforms guide you through the simplest of set ups, through to adding more complex e-commerce functionality, as well as providing an online space to "host" your site.

(Your time is valuable. An advantage of those blog sites is you can actually pick a theme and layout that operates like a traditional website, with fixed content pages and then add a occasional blog post which drives traffic).

For the more personalised touch, you can also purchase a domain name to point to your blog, either in the .com or com.au levels. (I own not only my own web domain but also a domain for my mediation business www.phillipstreetmediation.com). (Actually, a domain purchaser is just a registrant; renting the license to use the name for a set period, with an option to renew the lease. In the case of a new name, while you cannot buy domain names outright or permanently, what you can do is to register a name, which is like purchasing a lease from the organisation that runs whatever registry the extension is associated with. For example, any name with .au at the end of it is regulated by auDA, the Australian Domain Name Administrator).

For those doubtful as to the utility of blogging, I have received quite a number of new briefs from solicitors who have searched online and found my articles, be they on complex structured financial products or strata tittle governance disputes. In fact, a particularly popular blog (which generates a lot of phone calls) is the problem of lost trust deeds.

LinkedIn

If you aren't ready to set up your own site, LinkedIn provides a good option for being in control of your online information presence. After a shaky start, this has rapidly become the preferred professional-oriented social network.

LinkedIn is ideal for barristers, despite its job-search paradigm.

As a good platform to connect with solicitors and clients (and their various movements between firms), barristers chambers, and their staff members, should also be registering accounts so they can be found on the web in a professional capacity.

Don't forget to generate the shorter version of your LinkedIn profile hyperlink, and then include it on your online postings, or curriculum vitae.

There are two traps on LinkedIn.

The first is that a barrister is responsible for the accuracy of legal "endorsements" posted on their social media profile by third parties, and should correct “misleading or incorrect information” that has been added by clients or others. There is good sense in the New York State Bar Association's guideline that exhorts:

"A lawyer may not passively allow misleading endorsements as to her skills and expertise to remain on a profile that she controls, as that is tantamount to accepting the endorsement”.

The second trap is not adequately managing the notification function for your updates. If you are doing lots of amendments to your profile (e.g., adding education, previous experience, awards), or you are a prolific "liker" of other people's posts and updates, then you should turn OFF your notifications, either completely or at least when the posting frenzy strikes.

Otherwise your updates will fill up your connections' feed and give the impression that you are neither busy, nor discerning.

Facebook

In Australia almost all barristers have adopted the position that Facebook is for ‘real life’ personal friends and family only, and not their professional profile.

I take that position as well. Occasionally I will cross-post a professional blog to my Facebook friends for their comment, but I prefer to keep Facebook as a more private place (remembering, of course, that there is no privacy on the internet).

The jury is still out on whether Australian barristers’ chambers and barristers will decide to appear in their professional guises more frequently on Facebook. It is worth noting that an increasing number of legal institutions are establishing Facebook pages – the latest being the Supreme Court of New South Wales.

Google +

A relative new-comer to the social media scene, Google + (Plus) provides competition to Facebook. Google + is owned by the search engine behemoth so adding yourself can boost your ranking in web searches.

However, for now it seems that take up will remain poor amongst barristers and their chambers. I would not waste time on it.

Twitter

More and more barristers are taking to Twitter - indeed, some of the most active tweeter-barristers are leaders of the bar Fiona McLeod SC (@FiMcLeodSC) and Jane Needham SC (@JaneNeedhamSC), who frequently tweet in their personal and professional capacities.

A barrister can use Twitter to give quick-fire updates about legal developments and any legal news. However, the 140 character limit may prove a challenge for the more verbose!

Tweeting can be used effectively by adding links to an online blog or other online material, and adding a hashtag (#) to the beginning of a keyword (e.g. #AusLaw) which then operates as a grouping search term across the universe of tweets (when popular, these hashtagged keywords will start to "trend" on Twitter).

140 characters is not the only limitation with Twitter. Getting started poses its own hurdles. Your Twitter handle must be unique and no longer than 11 letters (my Twitter handle is squeezed down to @DHoganDoranSC). Fitting in the statutory disclaimer to the profile box takes some ingenuity. Some think it is better to avoid content that would require it - which is what I do - and by providing a link to my website, I at least link to the prominent disclaimers there).

Other traps include:

  • using an underscore (_) in a Twitter handle (e.g. @New_Chambers) because it doesn't turn up as readily in searches or display well in marketing material;
  • failing to upload a personal photo as your avatar (leaving the ugly Twitter Egg as your default mugshot);
  • forgetting to leave spaces between keyword hashtags (e.g. #auslaw#bigdata - the absence of a gap blocks highlighting functionality);
  • forgetting to put a full-stop (period) at the beginning of a tweet that commences with an "@" ie someone's Twitter handle (otherwise your tweet won't show up in your followers' feeds unless they are following both you and the other handle).

Once you get the hang of it, you can try more advanced Twitter functionality, like:

  • posting photos within your tweets;
  • creating lists of grouped tweeters (e.g. "Barristers on Twitter"); and
  • linking all your online media platforms to enable cross-posting (when I post a blog from my website, it automatically cross-posts, with a title and hyperlink, to my LinkedIn and Twitter pages);
  • blocking randoms and spam followers (although they inflate your Follower numbers and so perhaps pander to your ego, they can sometimes transmit viruses with dodgy links, or carry unwelcome descriptions which are unsavoury or pornographic when they appear in your Followers List).

Be Ever Mindful of Your Legal and Ethical Duties

Before getting too excited, it is important to bear in mind that to use social media is simply to use a modern platform of communication, albeit with possibly infinite and certainly cross-jurisdictional reach.

The professional conduct and legal rules on communication and publication will still apply to whatever you do. You need to be familiar with them, and their changing nature.

When communicating online, it is important to bear in the mind that there can be significant risks, including:

  • Social media comment which causes a substantial risk of serious prejudice of current or pending proceedings may lead to proceedings for contempt of court; and
  • Personal liability for claims in defamation or malicious falsehood against a barrister, or even against the client (if the barrister is speaking on the client's behalf). Barristers' professional indemnity insurance does not usually cover liability for such claims.

Ethical duties will also apply to a barristers’ online conduct and communication, just as they do to professional practice generally:

  • Client's best interests: the obligation to promote fearlessly and by all proper and lawful means the client's best interests and to do so without regard to his or her own interests;
  • Independence: the obligation to not permit the barrister’s absolute independence, integrity and freedom from external pressures to be compromised;
  • Trust and confidence: the obligation to not behave in a way which is likely to diminish the trust and confidence which the public places in a barrister or the profession;
  • Confidentiality: the obligation to preserve the confidentiality of a barrister’s client's affairs and not undermine this unless permitted to do so by law or with the express consent of the client.

Sanctioning of barristers for misuse of online social media sites is not without precedence. In 2012, the UK’s Bar Standards Board fined a barrister of Lincoln’s Inn £2,500 for 19 tweets he sent via his anonymous @Geeklawyer account; some included swearing, suggestions of trying to bribe judges and confessions of neglect over his work. This was found to be conduct “likely to diminish public confidence in the legal profession or the administration of justice or otherwise bring the legal profession into disrepute”. (The barrister was also disbarred from practice, but this was for other charges and not his Twitter messages.)

Conclusion

If you need some help getting started, or have a curly question or curiosity to discuss, please feel free to drop me a line at dhogan@barnet.com.au.

Dated: 21 June 2015

Dominique Hogan-Doran is a former national President of Australian Women Lawyers and is the Australian Bar Association’s nominee on the Law Council of Australia’s newly established Future of the Australian Legal Profession Committee. 

She is also the mother of three teenagers, whom she tries not to embarrass online.