Monday, February 4, 2013

Ethics Complaint & Illinois Legal Blog

The cautious attorney is often reluctant to devote full time, energy, and resources into a blog out of concerns about the still-confusing rules regarding attorney advertising, legal disclaimers, and more.  After all, we are drilled in law school about the tight professional responsibility requirements of the profession and the need to be cautious about public pronouncements and anything that can be construed as advertising.

There is still much more uncertainty that there is clarity about how ethics rules and advertising principles apply to law firm blogs.  Each state is different, but certain cases involving attorneys facing various sanctions (usually light) for online conduct have spread and been latched onto by the most jittery of attorneys (usually the transactional types :)  While it is important to understand the basis for those professional sanctions, it is a mistake to hear generally about some attorney getting in trouble with their law firm blog and assuming the worst.  Make no mistake: legal blogs are an incredibly useful resource and it's unfathomable that this exchange of content online will be stopped by any professional review organization.

Last month we mentioned one of the more high-profile cases involving a legal blog.  That matter related to the use of the term "Worker's Compensation" by a Texas attorney.  The matter was still pending, but the bottom line was that the lawyer was told to remove the blog because of it's use of combinations of words like "Texas" and Worker's Compensation. The state department which forced the matter argued that it alone could use the phrase, and that the attorney's online presence confused community members about the attorney's lack of connection to the government.  Many observers note that this case is won't (and should not) result in any official action against the attorney.

The Latest Example
Now comes another case of a law firm blog getting an attorney in trouble.  In the most recent matter an Illinois estate planning/probate lawyer faces a complaint as a result of aggressive allegations she made in two blog posts about the actions of the county's probate system.

Specifically, the attorney seemed to vent her frustration about the outcome of a specific case in which she was representing a resident with property interests at stake.  The attorney's post made accusations of widespread corruption in the Cook County court system.  She went on to claim that her client was the victim of elder abuse and that the guardian ad litem (among others) were responsible for victimizing the elderly woman.  The allegedly accused the GALs of  violating the law.

The complaint alleges that the blog writer knew that her accusations were false (or should have known).

No Need to Panic
Undoubtedly, some will read about the above situation and immediately assume that it is an example of another way that law firm blogs are risky.  But it doesn't take much though to realize that this really has nothing to do with blogging.  As explained in the public sphere thus far, this is all about libel--not blogging.  The merit of the accusations will be dealt with by those involved, but the fact that the claims were made in a blog is not at all the central issue in the case.

The only possible takeaway lesson for law firm bloggers is not to commit torts online as well as offline.  Defamation can occur online, and it should be avoided.  But other than that, it is critical not to blow up these stories as in any way a sign of doom that faces all law firms that commit significant resources to their blogging.

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