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CBA offers tips on legal Tweeting

|Written By Robert Todd

Lawyers eager to dip their toes into the world of new media in hopes of marketing their business can look to new guidelines from the Canadian Bar Association to avoid getting burned.

{mosinfo by=(default) divider=(default) date=(default) class=(default)}Paul Paton, vice chairman of the CBA committee that created the guidelines, says the association has received an influx of questions from lawyers looking for help implementing new marketing strategies without flouting professional regulations. Web sites, blogs, social networking sites, and Twitter accounts have all prompted inquiries, he says.

“We know that there are people accessing or looking for lawyers through the Internet because of what they’re doing in the United States or the U.K.,” says Paton, a professor at California’s University of the Pacific McGeorge School of Law.

“Lawyers themselves are finding different ways of actually functioning.”

He adds that many lawyers view the Internet as a forum to market their services more economically during tough financial times.

Paton says the CBA pondered a revamp of its code of professional conduct based on the queries but decided it would be best to convey that the traditional rules haven’t changed, but their application to new technology has.

That prompted the 2008 release of the CBA’s guidelines for practising ethically with new information technologies and the recent marketing guidelines.

The guidelines, prepared by the CBA’s ethics and professional responsibility committee, are found in a concise 11-page document.

They begin by encouraging lawyers to overcome fears about the potential pitfalls of having an online presence by focusing on the benefits. The document goes on to offer simple advice on things such as acceptable web site addresses and blog titles, how lawyers should identify themselves online, the proper use of legal advice as a marketing strategy, avoiding of conflicts, and how to deal with unsolicited confidential information.

For example, lawyers are urged not to use a “web site address, blog name, e-mail signature tag line or other identifier that makes a claim about competence, results or fees or would otherwise be a transgression of the rules.”

It’s also vital, according to the guidelines, for lawyers to announce the jurisdiction in which they are licensed to practise when communicating in cyberspace. They are encouraged to give legal advice only to clients who have retained them and have staffers screen communications to ensure they don’t threaten established or future retainers.

Hicks Morley Hamilton Stewart Storie LLP associate Dan Michaluk has keenly embraced new technologies in marketing his practice and applauds the CBA guidelines. He maintains his own blog, contributes to the legal blog Slaw, and posts updates on Twitter.

He also helped shape his firm’s policies for lawyers actively using such technologies as a former member of its knowledge management group.

Michaluk has parlayed his activity online into an expanding contact list that has helped him get advice from colleagues and land work. But he urges lawyers to ease into the online marketing world to avoid headaches.

“You develop a sense over time of the very subtle boundaries that delineate what is acceptable and what is not,” he says, adding that the CBA guidelines hit on the main points. “But until you get out and you publish and you think through the process of critically analyzing what you publish before you do, it will take a while to develop an innate sense for them.”

For Michaluk, the toughest calls are business conflicts. He notes that some legal issues are extremely sensitive to clients, and it’s important to respect that. Even reporting factually on an issue that has affected a client can be enough to offend, he says.

“You have to be hyper-vigilant about those. Those scare me more than anything. The ethical conflicts are much easier to see than some of the subtle business conflicts.”

Michaluk credits the drafters of the CBA guidelines for encouraging Canadian lawyers to use new marketing tools. He hopes that gives them some assurance to catch up with the more aggressive tactics of their U.S. counterparts.

“Especially some of the larger firms are quite conservative about marketing because what it does is it takes control away from the firm,” he says.

Michael Rabinovici, a lawyer and vice president of strategic initiatives with AR Communications Inc., says lawyers can generally avoid problems in online communications by focusing on providing value to potential clients. Overly aggressive

web-marketing tactics can backfire, he says.

“If your social media efforts are focused on education, as opposed to trying to sell people on becoming clients, then you’re going to encounter a lot less barriers,” he says.

“In terms of leveraging the web and social media marketing for the legal profession or for lawyers,

doing business and doing the right thing are mutually inclusive.”

Diana Miles, director of professional development and competence at the Law Society of Upper Canada, notes that rule 3 of the rules of professional conduct was relaxed last year. The changes generally reflect an effort by the LSUC to ensure advertising and marketing claims aren’t false or misleading and are in line with professional duties.

“We acknowledge that lawyers are going to advertise and market in new media [and] in different types of media and that a certain amount of flexibility has to be allowed there for them to be able to conduct themselves in a professional capacity,” says Miles.

The guidelines are available on the CBA’s web site, at www.cba.org/CBA/activities/code/.

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