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Think Before You Link: New NC Ethics Opinion on Social Media Connections

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The Ethics Committee has now adopted an opinion[1] about the propriety of making and accepting invitations to connect and endorsements from judges and others on social media sites.  2014 FEO 8.  You can view the entire opinion by visiting the State Bar’s website and inserting the opinion number on the ethics page.  The opinion distinguishes between two types of “links” and also by who is making them– a judge or a lawyer.  For the first category – connections — the adopted opinion holds that an attorney may ordinarily accept an invitation to connect from a judge.  Opinion #1.  The lawyer generally also may send an invitation to connect with a judge.  Opinion #2.

The opinion warns that if the attorney is currently in proceedings before the judge at the time of the invitation, however, the Rules of Professional Conduct may require the lawyer to decline the invitation until the proceedings have concluded.  The lawyer must determine whether acceptance of the invitation during the pendency of a case will: (a) impair the lawyer’s ability to comply with the Rule 3.5 concerning ex parte communications and (b) amount to conduct that is prejudicial to the administration of justice in violation of Rule 8.4(d), among other Rules.

Ultimately, the opinion directs lawyers to be mindful of their obligation to protect the integrity of the judicial system and to avoid creating an appearance of judicial partiality.  The same criteria apply when deciding whether to send an invitation to a judge to connect. Opinions #1 and 2.  Based upon this opinion, the safest course is to wait to connect with a judge until you are not appearing before that judge, if possible.

The next part of the opinion deals with endorsements and recommendations.  On LinkedIn, you have an option to display your “skills & expertise” on your profile page.  Your connections can then endorse a skill or expertise for you and you get a notification of the endorsement.  If you do nothing, and the endorsement is for a skill you have selected to show, then that endorsement automatically will appear on your profile page.  You may edit the “skills & endorsements” section to “hide” selected endorsements or skills.  People can also post recommendations on your profile page.

Why is all of this important?  The proposed ethics opinion says that it is okay to endorse a judge for skills or expertise (assuming you are not currently appearing before them).  Opinion #3.  Likely, this is permitted because it is really no different than sponsoring a judicial campaign or being listed publicly as a donor.  The lawyer also may accept endorsements and recommendations from persons other than judges as long as they are truthful and not misleading.  Opinion #5.

The opinion, however, holds that an attorney may not accept an endorsement from a judge under any circumstances or at any time because it would create the appearance of judicial partiality in violation of Rule 8.4(e).  Opinion #4.  Further, if a person who endorsed you later becomes a judge, you are required to remove or hide the endorsement from your profile if you know or reasonably should have known the person is or became a judge.  In the final adopted opinion, the State Bar added the reasonableness qualifying language.  Opinion #6.

Although the opinion primarily concerns the use of LinkedIn, it also applies to any social media site that allows public displays of connections, including endorsements or recommendations.  Opinion #7.    After reading the final opinion and before posting this blog, I decided I needed to figure out how to check my LinkedIn profile for people that may have become judges and might have endorsed or recommended me at one time.   Fortunately, no current judges endorsed me on LinkedIn so I didn’t have to learn how to hide or remove any.  Now I am off to figure out how to get onto our firm Facebook, Twitter and Google+ pages to check them as well.  Whose idea was it to set up all these social media sites anyway?

[1] This blog updates an earlier blog on the same topic.