Not that long ago, attorneys relied on private investigators to learn facts about opposing parties such as where they work, who they spend their time with, and their activities. Today, however, intimate details about complete strangers can be gleaned from a single internet search. It can take as little as seconds to find information about your addresses, assets, employers, family, friends, and even which sport teams you root for. The information an opposing party, their attorney, or law enforcement official finds out about you can harm your credibility and even damage your case.
Most clients have heard of cases where something about a client’s online presence has been used against them, but most do not think it could happen to them. Of course, the safest way to limit your risk is to not use social media at all. Modern life, however, requires staying in touch with friends, family, and business contacts via a variety of social media services.
The guidelines proposed below are meant to be practical recommendations to effectively manage your online presence.
Social Media Guidelines:
- Assume everything you post, like, tweet, love, share, and chat is public, and subject to scrutiny by complete strangers without any context.
- Manage social media account privacy settings to limit who can view your profile, what information they can see, and who can contact you.
- Never discuss your case, even seemingly insignificant details, with anyone other than your attorney.
- Do not endorse (i.e., “like” or share) content on social media, unless it can be shared with the general public and needs no additional context (See #1, above).
- Do not accept friend requests, connections, or followers that you do not personally know.
Why Follow the Guidelines?
- Carefully consider the content and information you share, and assume no privacy or adequate context will be given your activities. Sharing the wrong photo, or posting an emotionally charged status update, can harm your credibility, damage your case, and provide ammunition to the opposition to challenge your case. If your case goes to trial, the “jury of your peers” may very well be quick to judge about what you share online because they have no context in which to place your content.
- Never post public content. Not only can people learn about you through your social media profiles, but you can be targeted for retaliation and harassment in some instances. On Facebook, for example, ensure that your posts are visible to a limited audience such as “friends” or specific people on your friends list. You can also limit who can send you a friend request, and who can see details about you such as your work and education and family members. There are similar settings for other social media sites, including LinkedIn, Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat.
- Communications with your attorney are kept private and privileged, and cannot be disclosed to others. This privilege, however, only exists to the extent that you (the client) keeps that information secret. Sharing details of your case to others or online, even if you’re only connected to your closest confidants, can jeopardize your case.
- Always assume public disclosure of your online activities, and refrain from interacting with content that could be used against you. The internet is full of entertaining content, some of which without context can be seen as endorsing illegal activities such as drug use, assault, battery, or other crimes. Such endorsements can be used against you, particularly in cases where your character is at issue such as child custody and defending against criminal prosecution.
- Even if you carefully share content with only your closest friends, make sure your connections are people you actually know and trust. Opposing counsel, investigators, and even law enforcement use social media to learn about who you are and what you do. Never accept a request from someone unless you are certain you personally know them, and have verified that the account belongs to them.
Following these simple guidelines can reduce your risk of having your online life used against you in your case.
By Christina E. Cortino, Attorney. Ms. Cortino is a California attorney, and advises clients and litigates on a wide variety of family law, environmental law, and business law matters. She is also a social media consultant for law firms and attorneys nationwide.
Disclaimer: This publication is designed to provide our clients and contacts with information they can use to more effectively manage their resources and information. The contents of these publications are for informational purposes only. Neither the publication nor the lawyer(s) who authored it are rendering legal or other professional advice or opinions on specific facts or matters. The author assumes no liability in connection with the use of this publication.