Justices warn attorneys about social media


“Use that good ol’ common sense.”

That’s the advice South Carolina Chief Justice Jean Toal had for a group of young lawyers on using social media.

Who knew a status update could have you called before the American Bar Association’s ethics commission or even disbarred? Hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loans wasted at the click of a mouse.

“[It] can result in disastrous consequences for you,” S.C. Associate Justice Costa Pleicones told the group of about 130 young attorneys on Friday.

Toal and Pleicones spoke to members of the American Bar Association’s Young Lawyers Division at the Francis Marion Hotel in Charleston as part of the organization’s fall conference. They warned the young lawyers about how using those sites could affect their professional lives.

“I don’t understand why there is confusion,” said Chisa Putman, an attorney from Rock Hill.

Putman echoed the sentiments of the justices. If you wouldn’t say or do something in person because of ethical guidelines as an attorney, don’t do or say it online, she said.

The Rock Hill attorney said she is careful about what she posts online and has strict privacy settings on her personal pages on social media sites.

Zafira Hudani, an American University Washington College of Law student, refuses to participate on social media sites altogether and does not have a Facebook page.

“I feel people should communicate in person,” she said.

She was also advised at school not to use the social media sites because the content could end up haunting lawyers along their career.

Pleicones said he’s checked up on young attorneys’ Facebook pages and been appalled by the content he’s seen.

“I wish I could say this was common sense, but apparently it’s not,” he said. “The number of drunken brawls we see posted on these Facebook pages is just staggering.”

While it got a laugh out of the audience of attorneys, the number of them on social media sites speaks volumes.

About 40 percent of lawyers were members of at least one social networking site, according to a 2009 American Bar Association study.

The justices warned the young lawyers they even need to be cautious using social media sites for professional purposes, such as promoting their law firms.

Rules of professional conduct prohibit lawyers from making false or misleading statements, and that extends to social networking. So if their Facebook page states the firm has several attorneys that practice criminal law, and only truly have one, that could get them into trouble.

Even judges’ actions on social media sites are being scrutinized. How would the attorney or person on the other side feel if the attorney presenting to the judge was “friends” with them on Facebook, Toal presented.

“In South Carolina we are struggling with when a judge can ‘friend’ someone else,” Toal said.

Pleicones doesn’t understand why judges would even have a Facebook page. With more than 700 million users worldwide, though, it’s inevitable.

Toal knows they all can’t live in the dark ages, but hopes attorneys and even judges proceed into the digital age with an extreme sense of caution.

Reach Natalie Caula at 937-5594 or Twitter.com/ncaula.