The importance of lawyers’ professionalism and sensitivity on social media
It is a peculiar quirk of the criminal defence industry, that there has always been a sizeable minority of lawyers who have felt the need to sing their every success from the rooftops. Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with highlighting a law firm's high-profile successes. It is good marketing and helps prospective clients to make informed decisions. However, with some criminal law firms the bar is incredibly low: for example, for many years a number of law firms have published stories such as "[firm] secures acquittal in GBH trial" on their homepages. Those connected to more than a handful of criminal lawyers on social media, will have noted that 'acquittal bragging' is not limited to solicitors. It is quite common to see a barrister boasting on LinkedIn or Twitter that, say, they "...are pleased to announce that [they] have just obtained a two-hour acquittal in a seven-handed conspiracy to defraud".
Criminal defence lawyers provide an important role in society: ensuring the state is held to account and that those accused of criminality (whose liberty and reputation is at stake) receive a fair trial. The vast majority of them work tirelessly often for inadequate financial reward. In their careers they will encounter incompetency, sharp practice and possibly even serious misfeasance. The risk they face is falling into a habit of seeing the investigators and prosecutors as the enemy, and nearly every prosecution as somehow being unjust. The correct approach is of course - like any area of litigation - to treat an opponent with respect (even if they do not deserve it), to consider each case on its merits, advise a client accordingly and then do one's best to achieve the best outcome.
It is a sad fact of life that crime does occur and needs to be investigated and prosecuted. Whilst a criminal defence lawyer's duties are to their client, regard must be had to the victims of crimes who, in the above examples, may have suffered life-changing injuries or lost their life savings. The fact that a jury is not satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt that a particular defendant is criminally liable, obviously does nothing to change that.
So whilst the criminal defence lawyers discharge an important function in properly testing prosecution cases and advancing their clients' defences, it is important that they are mindful of what they say publicly about a case and the way in which they do it. It is particularly crucial that they will not be perceived as boasting about "getting a client off". This obviously undermines public trust and confidence in both the profession and the criminal justice system. It is also important that lawyers consider whether reports of acquittals are in good taste. In one example, a couple of years ago a criminal defence lawyer bragged on social media about having "won an acquittal" of a client accused of animal cruelty by covering a bird table in superglue. There was nothing of legal note about the summary trial and the case had received no press coverage.
Putting aside one's personal views, regulators have made it clear that lawyers may face sanctions for inappropriate or insensitive publications on social media. A recent example is the action taken by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) against Harmal Singh Paul which ended in a regulatory settlement agreement. Mr Paul had posted 130 comments on social media over a course of a year when he attended a police station, prison or court, often stating where he was and the criminal charge he was there to advise on. These included “From Attempted Murder at Smethwick” followed by two emoji icons to depict crying with laughter, “DV [Domestic Violence]…Christmas Coming Up…What you Expect”, “Drugs”. When another person commented “What kind? Lol x”, Mr Paul responded “Not From the Pharmacy That’s For Sure pmsl” followed by various emoji icons depicting crying with laughter, and “Sexual Assault” followed by two emoji icons with a sad face and a tear. As practitioners should be aware, the regulator's power to sanction solicitors for conduct that is deemed unbefitting of a solicitor on social media extends beyond statements made about professional matters, even where seemingly they have the moral high ground (see, for instance, the sanction imposed on solicitor Mark Lewis by the Solicitors' Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT)).
Again, there is nothing fundamentally wrong with lawyers publishing their successes and in high profile cases it will often be in a client's - and, indeed, societal - interests to report the fact of an acquittal. However, careful regard should be paid to the manner in which success is reported, in particular where there is an innocent victim. If as a profession we disregard this seemingly common sense principle, then we harm our reputation and give fuel to lawyer-bashers. Criminal lawyers have had it hard enough already over recent decades and this is something they can ill-afford.
Articles are intended as an introduction to the topic and do not constitute legal advice.