Board of Governors on www.OKbar.org

President's Message

Professionalism Urged in Social Media Posts

By Linda S. Thomas

Remember the “Reach Out and Touch Someone” slogan originally coined for Ma Bell in the 1970s? (For those wondering, “Who is Ma Bell?” we now call her AT&T). Watch the short commercial at tinyurl.com/ydhykq2g. With the widespread use of social media, i.e. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, reaching out and touching someone in today’s world takes on a whole new meaning. If you use social media strictly for personal communications with friends and family or if you’re among the thousands using it to create or broaden your online presence, it’s more important than ever to be conscientious of maintaining professionalism in a universe where once something is posted, it never goes away. 

We’d all like to think lawyers, the highly educated professionals that we are, would never post unprofessional or em-barrassing material online, especially if it demeans a fellow lawyer, client, judge or the legal profession in general. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case. During those occasional (hopefully) momentary lapses of good judgment, even the most ethical lawyer may fail to realize the negative impact of an online post until it’s too late. Then there are those who regularly use social media to comment on today’s political and social climate or “air their dirty laundry” about their professional or private lives. 

In an instant, personal and professional reputations can be forever tarnished, especially if that “post photo” button is too much to resist. Complicating matters further is the “online disinhibition effect” – the loosening of social inhibitions causing one to behave far differently online than in face-to-face interactions. When talking in person or on the telephone, visual or verbal clues communicate almost as much as the spoken words, but the actual meaning of the written word can be lost or misinterpreted by the online reader, especially if the reader is not among the originally intended audience. 

The Lawyer’s Creed to which we all pledge begins, “I revere the Law, the System and the Profession, and I pledge that in my private and professional life, and in my dealings with members of the Bar, I will uphold the dignity and respect of each in my behavior toward others.” The rest of the creed includes “integrity and fair play,” “my word is my bond,” “fundamental decency and courtesy,” “civility” and “high standard of conduct.” 
As you “reach out and touch someone” on so-cial media, remember you may be reaching out and touching everyone. Before you post, ask yourself, “Is it respectful to others and the profession? Is it honest? Is it fair? Is it decent and courteous? Is it civil? Does it represent a high standard of conduct?” 

WORDS OF WISDOM

Here are just a few thoughts about using social media: You represent the profession – always. Social media is a powerful and useful tool but is equally powerful and damaging with just one ill-conceived post, share or “like.” Guard your reputation. Enough said. Post what you’re passionate about, but always maintain a professional, respectful tone. Watch your language. Demeaning, derogatory or profane language tends to diminish credibility. Monitor your privacy. If you intend your posts to be private, learn about privacy settings, set them accordingly and un-tag yourself from others’ posts if the tag is inappropriate for you. 

Chief U.S. Circuit Judge Carl E. Stewart, of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, was the keynote speaker at the State Bar of Texas bar leaders luncheon I attended in June. He cautioned lawyers that even (or maybe especially) when it comes to social media, we are ultimately responsible for maintaining high professional standards – our reputation and our license depends upon it. I pass on his closing remarks to you, “There is no app for civility. There is no app for excellence. There is no app for integrity. There is no app for courtesy, and there is no app for professionalism.”

Originally published in the Oklahoma Bar Journal OBJ 88 pg 932 (May 20, 2017)

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