March 02, 2017 Top Story

Attorneys’ Online Comments Can Lead to Positional Conflicts

D.C. ethics committee urges caution when expressing views on social media

By Amy Mattson

A District of Columbia ethics opinion suggests social media commentary could generate positional conflicts and advises lawyers to proceed with care when making statements online. The opinion may be the first to formally recognize social media's potential to raise such conflicts. The opinion also highlights that even though technology moves faster than regulators, it does not fundamentally alter lawyers' existing ethical obligations, say ABA Section of Litigation leaders.

Rule of Professional Conduct 1.7 Applies to Social Media

In Opinion 370, the D.C. Bar Ethics Committee advises lawyers using social media to exercise caution "when stating positions on issues, as those positions could be adverse to an interest of a client." The committee suggests remarks made on social media could "inadvertently" create a conflict under D.C. Rule of Professional Conduct 1.7(b)(4), which states a lawyer may not represent a client in a matter if "the lawyer's professional judgment on behalf of the client will be or reasonably may be adversely affected by . . . the lawyer's own financial, property, or personal interests." Moreover, web based interactions with anonymous or unknown users could "unintentionally cause the development of relationships with persons or parties who may have interests that are adverse to those of existing clients."

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