These days, the vast majority of people, including lawyers, interact on social media. For many, social media platforms are a part of their daily lives and are a primary way of communicating with family and friends.
That’s why social media sites are a goldmine when it comes to obtaining evidence for pending litigation. So it’s no surprise that lawyers began to mine social media for evidence more than a decade ago, and when that began to occur, the ethics committees from various jurisdictions weighed in on how to ethically obtain evidence on social media.
The first to do so was the Philadelphia Bar Association in Op. 2009-02 which was followed by, among others, the New York State Bar (Op. 843 in 2010), the New York City Bar (formal Op. 2010-2), the San Diego Bar (Opinion 2022-2), the Oregon State Bar (Op. 2013-189), the Pennsylvania Bar (Formal Op. 2014-300), the Massachusetts Bar (Op. 2014-T05), the DC Bar in 2016), and the Maine Bar (Op. 217 in 2017).
A few months ago, the North Carolina Bar joined their ranks and addressed this issue as well. In mid-July the State Bar Council adopted 2018 Formal Ethics Opinion 5. At issue in this opinion was whether and under what circumstances lawyers may ethically “either directly or indirectly, seek access to social network profiles, pages, and posts…belonging to another person.” The conclusions reached in this opinion were in agreement with the those reached by the majority of jurisdictions on most issues, with a few notable exceptions.
At the outset, like all jurisdictions thus far, the Ethics Committee concluded that lawyers or their agents may view information obtained from publicly viewable social media profiles.
Notably, however, the Committee weighed in on an issue that is typically addressed in relation to researching jurors on social media sites as opposed to parties or witnesses: whether a passive notification from a social media site indicating that a lawyer has viewed the individual’s social media profile constitutes a “communication” from the lawyer. The Committee concluded that it did not and was instead a communication from the social media service. The Committee explained that a small number of views and notifications would be permissible but that lawyers “may not engage in repetitive viewing of a person’s social network presence if doing so would violate Rule 4.4(a)” which prohibits lawyers “from using means that have no substantial purpose other than to embarrass, delay, or burden a third person, and from using methods of obtaining evidence that violate the legal rights of such a person.”
Next the Committee concluded that lawyers are forbidden from using deception to access social media information located behind a privacy wall. That being said, lawyers may, using their own true identities, request access to an unrepresented person’s social network presence behind a privacy wall. The Committee explained that “(t)he person contacted has full control over who views the information on her social network site (and the) grant of the lawyer’s request, without additional inquiry, does not indicate a misunderstanding of the lawyer’s role.”
However, the Committee determined that it was ethically impermissible for lawyers or their agents to request access to a represented person’s restricted social media presence. According to the Committee, absent express consent from the represented person’s attorney, “the request interferes with the attorney-client relationship and could lead to the uncounseled disclosure of information relating to the representation.”
The last issue considered by the Committee is of particular interest since, to the best of my knowledge, it has not yet been addressed by any other jurisdictions. Specifically the Committee considered whether a lawyer may request or accept information from a third party who has access to the restricted information found behind the privacy wall of a person’s social media profile. According to the Committee, doing so is perfectly acceptable for both represented and unrepresented persons. The Committee compared this to the similar offline scenario where lawyers may obtain other types of evidence relevant to a client’s matter from witnesses.
According to the Committee: “(W)hen a lawyer is informed that a third party has access to restricted portions of a person’s social network presence and can provide helpful information to the lawyer’s client, the lawyer is not prohibited from requesting such information from the third party or accepting information volunteered by the third party. Similarly, a lawyer may accept information from a client who has access to the opposing party’s or a witness’s restricted social network presence…However, the lawyer may not direct or encourage a third party or a client to use deception or misrepresentation when communicating with a person on a social network site.”
All in all, an interesting opinion that is worth a read, even if you don’t practice in North Carolina. And if you aren’t already mining social media for information relevant to your clients' cases, then what are you waiting for? There is undoubtedly useful information to be found, and the failure to seek it out arguably amounts to malpractice in this day and age. So there’s no better time than the present to get up to speed on the ins and outs of ethically mining social media for evidence - and this opinion is a great place to start.
Nicole Black is a Rochester, New York attorney, author, journalist, and the Legal Technology Evangelist at MyCase law practice management software for small law firms. She is the author of the ABA book Cloud Computing for Lawyers, co-authors the ABA book Social Media for Lawyers: the Next Frontier, and co-authors Criminal Law in New York, a Thomson Reuters treatise. She writes legal technology columns for Above the Law and ABA Journal and speaks regularly at conferences regarding the intersection of law and technology. You can follow her on Twitter at @nikiblack or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.