A friend of mine asked what I thought about lawyers using social media tools for communication and networking. I wrote a long email back, and it became clear there was a blog post brewing, so here it is- my thoughts on the use of social media for professions, specifically law and medicine.
Lawyers And Doctors – Special Considerations
Lawyers have a duty of privacy and privilege. So we can’t just let it all hang out there, so to speak. We have an aspect of confidentiality in our business relationships with clients. So we have to be careful, because many communications, especially when they are written or recorded, may become “discoverable”- that is, subject to a court ordered disclosure for the purposes of a lawsuit. This may make some kinds of social networks more difficult online for lawyers in particular. While a non-recorded skype call or video chat would not be discoverable, since there is no recording, if you send an email, record a conversation or chat, that may indeed become a record or business record subject to discovery rules under certain scenarios.
Doctors, on the other hand, have duties of patient privacy. While it is less likely that all the communication back and forth will lead to a law suit, what would happen if someone relies on your advice over twitter, for example, and ends up having serious medical consequences as a result? Were you engaging in treatment over the internet? Were you practicing medicine in another jurisdiction without a license? What are the privacy issues about talking about someone’s condition online? These are things to at least consider.
Communication & Business Generation
Lawyers tend to communicate with others for two purposes- one is client or potential client communication, and the other is work based- referral, negotiation, etc. I might want to get to know other attorneys online so when, as happened last week, someone I know through a social network needed a lawyer in another State, I had someone I already had a relationship with to refer the case. So work can be generated for attorneys through sites like twitter, but it is secondary to the majority of the content contributed and gleaned from that particular network, on most days.
Other social networks would seem better suited for certain types of contact. MySpace, for example, strikes me as a site you might choose for trying to generate business (somewhat like ambulance chasing) rather than make professional connections; Facebook is not bad, but there’s not too much to really do there that’s sticky and interesting- if there were some forums to discuss issues openly, it might be more useful, but as it stands, it’s basically a placeholder for me.
Linked-in is the professional site, and where I might start to search for referral out to other attorneys, but it’s not where I would go necessarily to develop a client base. Find an expert witness, yes; find new clients and make rain, no.
For medicine, on line generation for business and patients is tricky. Medicine is largely a local service, and delivered in person, so you are casting an international net with these social networks who may not ever be able to benefit from your services. Most of the social networks like Twitter, Facebook, MySpace and the like are better ways to communicate than to solicit services. It is probably a great way to find other doctors and commiserate rather than generate business.
Likewise, Law is like politics- it’s largely a local concern. Communities are best built locally – only the big class action cases should consider using facebook or myspace…… I think there’s lots of room for lawyers to talk to each other anonymously through a site comparable to what medical residents use to share war stories- ScutMonkey.com. This kind of group support network can spawn new ideas, help you look at a problem differently, and blow off steam as well. However, like everywhere else, you have to be really careful, because the whole world can listen in on your conversations, and Google picks up names, so it becomes searchable as well.
There are very successful sites like Web MD that dispense information to patients, so patient education can be done effectively over the net. Find Law is a similar site for law information. Lawyers could consider doing more client communication and education through web based tools like newletters, PDF forms and the like. All of this can help clients and patients feel more valued and a part of the on going practice than they might otherwise through phone calls and meetings .
So- Use ‘em or No?
I think there’s lots of ways for lawyers and doctors to develop trust and relationships through things like twitter, which may become useful down the line, but it also pays to exercise caution using these tools.
But all of that aside, I think lawyers and doctors could be more open with each other. By talking they can learn and build relationships that could build referrals and business, by enhancing their trust relationships. So many people are very naive about the law, contracts and the like, and building trust by just answering small questions on twitter or other social groups could generate tons of business- a client wants to know the person they are paying to handle their sensitive legal matters is trustworthy and they feel like they know them- it’s personal stuff to talk to someone about real estate, finances, estate plans, legal trouble, etc.
Similarly, being married to a doctor, I prefer to feel the same sort of social bond with my doctors that I like to feel with my lawyer(s) and legal friends- I want a more collegial relationship and a less paternal one. We just have to separate out cooperation and competition, which is often hard in the legal profession, especially.
Professionals still need all the benefits provided by social networking, but this mode of communication poses risks as well. If there could be some kind of insulated safe harbor of communication, it might actually allow people to be more open with each other, and there might be more movement in making law and medicine more human and transparent professions.
The days of pure reverence for these professions have passed, and it may be time to consider making the information more available. After all, if you are confident in your abilities to practice your profession, it is unlikely telling someone how to do a hysterectomy will make their ability to do it themselves any easier. Likewise, showing someone a contract won’t make it any easier for them to draft it themselves, consider all the possible pitfalls, and extricate themselves from disaster later on.
We still need expert prectioners in every field, because despite the DIY culture, we all simply don’t have the time, bandwidth, education or experience to do it all ourselves all the time. Let’s just make the determination of quality easier to measure- that seems to be in everyone’s best interest.