I’ve written quite a bit about how the practice of law has changed and is continuing to change because of the growth of the internet, and specifically the growth of social media. In all that writing, I’ve mostly had good things to say: social media allows attorneys to share information with each other and become better lawyers; social media allows potential clients to see  the expertise of attorneys; rating systems like Avvo help attorneys and clients find each other. These are all great things, but there is a flip side to social media use that I have probably not spent enough time on.

Most attorneys who are blogging or using other platforms like Facebook and Twitter are extremely careful about complying with ethics rules. They aren’t sharing client information and they aren’t making any false claims. But it’s important as attorneys to pay attention to not only the content we can control online, but to be aware when something is beyond our control. We trust social media platforms to only put out the information that we tell them to, and we trust them to only share it with those with whom it is meant to be shared. Usually, that’s fine–but not always.

Some attorneys use Gmail for their business and personal email. I personally love Gmail–it’s easy to use, very customizable, and has lots of great features and add-ons. Using it for work and for personal use has never been a problem because it was so easy to file the appropriate messages into the appropriate folders and maintain a separation between public and personal life. But with the advent of Google’s Buzz, all bets are off.

That’s because Buzz was sprung upon the Gmail-using masses without much concern for the privacy of those same masses. When it popped up under my Inbox folder, I was already following twenty people and ten people were following me. Who were these people? All of them were people I had emailed or received email from at one point or another through Gmail. Some of them were really my close friends or family, but some of them were people I didn’t even know personally–people I had received an email from as part of a cycling club list-serv. All of a sudden, those people could see my Buzz updates, my Gchat updates, and updates from four other sites that Buzz automatically linked my account to.

Fortunately, none of my sensitive information was shared with these people, and I understood that whatever I published in the future would be, unless I blocked those contacts. Also fortunate is the fact that most attorneys aren’t updating their social media statuses with sensitive information, either. But what if an attorney had said something he or she didn’t want clients (who might be on the automatic follower list because they email back and forth with the attorney) to see? What if an attorney had said something like “I hate my job, my workload is out of control, I’m not even sure I can handle all these cases properly!” We all have times when we want to complain about a long day at work, attorneys are no exception. That comment may have been meant just for close friends and family who also complain about heavy workloads, and in all likelihood would have been an exaggeration. But how might that affect a relationship with a client that the attorney had spoken with that day? The statement should probably not have been made in the first place, but the fact is, if it was made, it would have been seen by all the wrong people.

It is precisely because of this privacy issue that Google is facing a class action lawsuit that was filed on February 18th. According to Vator News, the lawsuit names Gmail’s 31 million users as plaintiffs.  And according to Ars Technica, Kurt Opshal of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) said, “These problems arose because Google attempted to overcome its market disadvantage in competing with Twitter and Facebook by making a secondary use of your information {without permission].”

The major worry is that Google or other social media companies could use the information we give them as users for other uses without permission–uses that might be less benign that Buzz, and potentially more invasive. For now, it’s best for attorneys who are using social media to simply be careful about what they put out there, whether it be on a work account or a personal account. In the meantime, it will be interesting to follow the Google Buzz lawsuit and the fallout from it, to see what implications it has for the use of social media in the future.

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Andy Gillin

Andy Gillin received his Bachelor’s Degree from the University of California at Berkeley and his law degree from the University of Chicago. He is the managing partner of GJEL Accident Attorneys and has written and lectured in the field of plaintiffs’ personal injury law for numerous organizations. Andy is a highly recognized wrongful death lawyer in California.