The New Guidelines for Lawyers With Lives Online

In the early days of social media, most lawyers wouldn’t have dreamed of posting under their real names, especially about anything remotely related to their work for law firms. Whatever online life was — and law firms weren’t interested in finding out — it was considered both frivolous and risky. Attorneys who took their careers seriously were expected to conceal any online activity, and could be and were censured, formally or informally, when their superiors learned about posts and personas.

But as young Millennial and Gen Z digital natives have launched their legal careers, firms have been forced to reexamine their hardline stance on online activities. These younger attorneys live seamlessly across their IRL and online relationships and activities. And increased pressure on firms to create a more inclusive culture — especially in a hot market for talent — means leaders must be careful about dismissing these important aspects of identity for younger lawyers. Firms can’t say they want their attorneys to bring their “whole selves” to work, but then dictate what that whole self includes.

And the world outside law firms has changed too. Clients, whether they be in-house legal departments of companies or individuals who might seek legal services, also carry on rich lives as consumers of online content, and their own expectations and norms have evolved in the past decade. Finally, whether we embraced it or went kicking and screaming, ALL of us have spent a lot more time online in the past 18 months than we ever dreamed.

All of this adds up to a brave new world of something like acceptance. Firms no longer police attorneys’ online activities — with some important caveats — though many do not have a formal policy in place. But they probably should. A recent Bloomberg Law piece highlighting legal TikTok stars got us thinking about how firm leadership can create new guidelines around online activity:

Assume a positive intent. Firms often react defensively to lawyers’ online lives because they are afraid of what could go wrong, but creating good content and building a following online requires a set of skills that firms should value: marketing savvy, communication and relationship-building skills and a facility with making and editing videos. Any policy you create should acknowledge the value of this work and invite lawyers to bring those new skills into their legal work, as appropriate.

Encourage transparency with management and marketing teams. Think about whether you want to ask lawyers to disclose their online activities or more gently “invite” them to share about what they are working on. In exchange for the firm’s more accepting approach to online extracurriculars, attorneys should be prepared to accept feedback from firm leaders about a post that seems inappropriate and be willing to edit their content accordingly. If lawyers are considering taking on a controversial topic, they should consider securing permission first. Of course, decisions will need to be made on a case-by-case basis.

Remember the obligation to basic legal ethics. While the norms around online life may be changing for law firm attorneys, the duty to adhere to codes of conduct and ethics are the same as ever. Lawyers should never disclose client information or internal firm information online. They must be careful not to violate ABA guidelines around representing their skills or soliciting business. And, beyond a reminder about the written rules, it’s probably not a bad idea to champion the importance of using basic common sense.