Social media is a great way to stay connected with friends and family members. But as a professional development tool, the purpose of social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter is far less clear. So far, many lawyers and judges have opted to steer clear of the web when it comes to professional contacts, and the American Bar Association has even said that it plans to address the ethics of social media use for lawyers. Last week, the San Francisco Recorder tackled the subject in a profile of a number of Bay Area judges. Perhaps it wont come as a surprise that their opinions differed quite a bit.
So far, the federal judiciary has not weighed in on the question of social media for lawyers and judges. The only whiff of an opinion comes from Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, who said recently that he joined “the tweeting thing” during the protests in Iran, “and I sat there totally fascinated.” Still, Breyer doesn’t think judges should set up their own Facebook pages for professional purposes.
California judges have a bit more clarity in terms of the level to which they should engage in social media. This comes from a 2010 opinion by the California Judges Association that essentially warns judges to take caution online. “In short, notwithstanding the explosion of participation in online social networking sites,” the final paragraph reads, “judges should carefully weigh whether the benefit of their participation is worth all the attendant risks.”
Of course, this gives individual judges space to have a variety of opinions on the subject. San Jose federal Judge Jeremy Fogel, for example, is skeptical. “It’s a poor idea for judges to participate in social media because you don’t know who’s reading what you post,” he said. “And even if you’re just a passive viewer, you’re probably hearing and seeing things that you shouldn’t.” Northern District Magistrate Judge Paul Grewal is much more receptive to social media. “It allows you to personalize yourself and reveal facets of your life and personality to a broader range of people, including professional colleagues,” he said. “Judges, I think, are at an unfortunate disadvantage because we are somewhat constrained in taking advantage of reasons to be on a social network.”
This is a tricky subject for California lawyers and judges. But I tend to side with Grewal in defense of social media use. If a lawyer or judge is inclined to act unethically, he or she will probably find a way to do so in person or online. I have doubts that social media or other online tools will make unethical conduct more likely. Last year, we spoke to Diane Karpman, an attorney with a special interest in social media and legal ethics. “Any way that makes it easier to communicate with clients and potential clients is just terrific,” she said. “The idea of lawyers being separate from the population is a disservice for the profession.”
Still, opinions on this subject vary across the board. Read the Recorder’s full story and video for more input from California judges using (or not using) social media.
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