A Legal Battle: Online Attitude vs. Rules of the Bar
Sean Conway was steamed at a Fort Lauderdale judge, so he did what millions of angry people do these days: he blogged about her, saying she was an “Evil, Unfair Witch.”
But Mr. Conway is a lawyer. And unlike millions of other online hotheads, he found himself hauled up before the Florida bar, which in April issued a reprimand and a fine for his intemperate blog post.
Mr. Conway is hardly the only lawyer to have taken to online social media like Facebook, Twitter and blogs, but as officers of the court they face special risks. Their freedom to gripe is limited by codes of conduct.
“When you become an officer of the court, you lose the full ability to criticize the court,” said Michael Downey, who teaches legal ethics at the Washington University law school.
And with thousands of blogs and so many lawyers online, legal ethics experts say that collisions between the freewheeling ways of the Internet and the tight boundaries of legal discourse are inevitable — whether they result in damaged careers or simply raise eyebrows.
Stephen Gillers, an expert on legal ethics at New York University Law School, sees many more missteps in the future, as young people who grew up with Facebook and other social media enter a profession governed by centuries of legal tradition.
“Twenty-somethings have a much-reduced sense of personal privacy,” Professor Gillers said. Younger lawyers are, predictably, more comfortable with the media than their older colleagues, according to a recent survey for LexisNexis, the legal database company: 86 percent of lawyers ages 25 to 35 are members of social networks like Facebook, LinkedIn and MySpace, as opposed to 66 percent of those over 46. For those just out of law school, “this stuff is like air to them,” said Michael Mintz, who manages an online community for lawyers, Martindale-Hubbell Connected.
In Mr. Conway’s case, the post that got him in trouble questioned the motives and competence of Judge Cheryl Aleman, and appeared on a rowdy blog created by a criminal defense lawyers’ group in Broward County. The judge regularly gave defense lawyers just one week to prepare for trials, when most judges give a month or more. To Mr. Conway, the move was intended to pressure the lawyers to ask for a delay in the trials, thus waiving their right under Florida law to have a felony trial heard within 175 days, pushing those cases to the back of the line.
“All I had left were my words,” Mr. Conway said, adding that he decided to use the strongest ones he had.
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