Social media marketing provides us with many opportunities to connect with friends and colleagues who may one-day become new clients. But communicating with friends in a manner that violates the ethics rule prohibiting improper solicitations on Facebook could result in a serious bar complaint. In this post, I will explain how the solicitation rule applies to social media marketing and provide examples of how violations could be triggered.
What are prohibited solicitations on Facebook?
ABA Rule of Professional Conduct, 7.3 “restricts solicitations by a lawyer or a law firm to provide legal services for pecuniary gain” unless the person being contacted is a lawyer, family member, close personal friend, someone with whom the lawyer has prior professional relationship with such as a current or former client, or if the person has specifically requested information from the lawyer.
This rule was initially aimed at prohibiting the practice of “ambulance chasing” or handing business cards to patients and their families in the ICU. In today’s digital age, this now rule prohibits improper solicitations on Facebook. Let’s explore various ways this can happen:
Scenario 1: Responding to a Friend’s Facebook Post
Let’s say that you practice personal injury law and a friend posts a photograph on Facebook of their recent car accident. Can you send them a direct message saying that you can help get them money for their injuries and compensation for the accident?
No, unless they are another lawyer, family member, current or former client, or another exception carved out the applicable state bar ethics rule. This would be a classic case of a solicitation on Facebook to provide legal services for pecuniary gain. The fact that you are a Facebook friend does not necessarily make you a “close personal friend” or someone with whom you have a “professional relationship.”
Scenario 2: Commenting on a Friend’s Facebook Post
Let’s say that you represent clients in family law related matters and a friend you have not spoken to since high school posts a status update that she’s fed up with her marriage and moving back with her family. Can you comment on her post saying that you are sorry for what she is going through and that you are there for her if she needs any help?
It depends. According to the ABA, “the rules prohibiting solicitations force legal professionals to evaluate – before sending any public or private social media communication to any other user – whom the intended recipient is and why the lawyer or law firm is communicating with that particular person.” Applying this reasoning to our scenario, an ethics attorney could reasonably argue that the reaching out to someone you have not spoken in many years to offer your help was done for the purpose of having that person contact you for help with their upcoming divorce proceedings.
Scenario 3: Adding a Facebook Friend
Let’s say you represent human resource professionals and Facebook suggests that you should be friends with a human resource director of a large local company with who you have several mutual friends. You do not personally know this person. Can you send them a friend request?
No. The ABA is of the opinion that a “lawyer sending a Facebook ‘friend request’ to someone with whom the lawyer has no prior relationship with could potentially be a violation of the ethics rule.” You could also unintentionally violate this rule by importing your email contacts into Facebook and adding every one of your contacts as a friend. Since everyone on your email contact list probably doesn’t fall under the noted exceptions, you could potentially violate the rules for each improper friend request that you send.
These scenarios are not intended to cover every instance where the solicitation rule can be triggered on social media, but hopefully provide you with some insight on how to avoid these ethical pitfalls in the future. Contact me today to learn more about how to attract new clients with social media marketing in a manner that complies with the legal advertising ethics rules.