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Legal ethics guru says social media may be harmful

By September 6, 2013November 19th, 2013law practice, legal technology, , weblogs, websites

Stephen Gillers is a legal ethics expert, and the other day on his blog he asked “if pervasive use of social media may actually be harmful to some practices?”

News flash: social media is a tool, and not every human being will use it effectively—including Professor Gillers (as we shall see in a bit).

Pointing out the obvious

Tools are used by humans, and humans get distracted, misguided, and obsessed. In short, humans make stupid mistakes using tools.

Conflating the tool with how it is used (or tends to be used, or might be used) is a sign of unremarkable thinking. By the way, thinking is also a tool.

Not every law professor’s question is interesting

Giller’s question is not only uninteresting; it’s meaningless. Of course, we can find examples where pervasive use of social media was harmful to a lawyer’s practice. BTW, does he provide any examples? No.

But, just to keep the discussion rolling, here are examples where “pervasive use of social media” was amazingly helpful.

Exhibit 1: SCOTUSblog

Tom Goldstein and Amy Howe practice before the U.S. Supreme Court, and they run a blog called SCOTUSblog. Their use of social media can definitely be called pervasive. And what good has it done them?

First, SCOTUSblog was the go-to website when the Obamacare decision was handed down by the Supreme Court. The blog then won a Peabody award, first ever for a blog.

I’d say that’s probably helpful.

Exhibit 2: Murthy Law Firm

Sheely Murthy’s law firm specializes in immigration law, and is based in Owings Mills, Maryland. Ms. Murthy is an Indian immigrant who, in 1994, started a website to help other immigrants “feel empowered and respected.”

Being “frustrated by [her] own immigrant experience” caused Ms. Murthy to spend a pervasive amount of time on her website, and on the email newsletter she published.

“Each day, I answered about 100 questions from immigrants,” she explained in a New York Times article. And so what happened as a result of this pervasive time spent hunched over a computer?

According to the Times article Murthy’s firm is, according to one ranking source, “the world’s most visited law firm site.” Her email newsletter has over 40,000 subscribers.

Okay, fine. How does that translate into revenue?

Well, despite the firm’s modest size, it has more than $10 million in annual revenue. It also has about 100 employees.

Hmmm, seems like pervasive use of social media can sometimes be useful.

It’s not the tool, it’s how you use it

Weblogs, Twitter, Facebook etc. —they’re all just tools. Give a ratty saxophone to Charlie Parker and he’ll play amazing jazz. Give a Stradivarius to an amateur violinist, and what? Noise.

So, here’s my uninteresting question: do we really need a hastily composed blog post by a legal ethics expert to remind us that some people don’t know how to use tools they’re given? Is it news that thoughtless folk will create self-inflicted wounds by spewing blather into cyberspace? Obviously not.

Sometimes not using a tool causes harm

One tool that’s not used pervasively enough is “spell check.” For example, Giller’s post has six obvious spelling errors that any rudimentary word processing software (or TypePad, which is the software he uses for his blog) would catch.

Now, that’s kind of interesting.

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