September 2019 Dear Counsel - Social Media Ethics and Networking Tips

by Teresa A. McQueen

Teresa McQueen recently was the featured speaker at the OCBA’s New Attorney Academy: Practicing With Professionalism. In this column, she responds to questions she heard from newer lawyers about social media ethics and networking best practices.

Q: How do I handle a client “friend” request on social media? Three months ago, I started a new job as a litigation associate at a medium-sized firm. I ran into a problem with a client that I don’t think I handled very well. I’m hoping you can give me some advice on how to handle this type of situation should it come up again. Two days after a really great meeting with a client, I opened my Facebook account and found the client had sent me a friend request. I didn’t feel comfortable accepting, but I didn’t want to offend. So, I did nothing, and now it feels awkward. How else could I have handled the situation?

A: The advent of social media has really shifted the dynamics of personal and professional relationships. Defining yourself personally through the use of visual images and words may not necessarily translate into the professional brand you are trying to cultivate. The decision to add professional “friends” into your personal social media world requires thoughtful consideration.

No matter how you choose to handle the situation, there are a few things to consider upfront. First, you should find out if your firm has a social media policy that addresses the issue. If the firm doesn’t have a formal policy, your next step should be to ask around. Try to determine if there is any type of informal policy or procedure typically followed by members of the firm for handling this type of situation. I think you’ll find that most firms will likely discourage the “friending” of clients—especially those involved in active litigation matters. Nonetheless, you could find yourself in the position of deciding the issue for yourself based on how comfortable you are in the world of social media.

Many of my colleagues have adopted strict rules when it comes to friending clients. Having a rule to adhere to makes responding to friend requests from clients very straightforward. You simply convey how honored you are the request was sent, but that in order to preserve attorney-client confidentiality, you have a personal rule not to friend clients on social media.

Some colleagues suggest to the client they connect via LinkedIn as opposed to Facebook. Others create separate Facebook pages for these exact types of professional interactions—a space where they can invite colleagues to interact in a less formal environment. And by less formal I mean something between LinkedIn and a personal Facebook page (no sharing kitten videos and political memes!).

My advice overall would be to respect your professional relationships and stick to professional social networking sites for building and maintaining relationships with all of your professional or business-related acquaintances.

Q: Is there a way to feel less awkward networking with strangers? I attended a local bar association networking event last week and it was a disaster. I felt so awkward. No one approached me to talk and everyone seemed to know one another. I felt like a high school wallflower! I know networking is important, especially at this stage in my career (I’m a second-year associate), so how do I manage these events with more success?

A: This is a great question and one I think many of us can relate to on some level. As a young lawyer, I was constantly being told how important it is to network. But, no one ever took the time to explain the practicalities of how to begin networking. Over the years I’ve developed a few practical tips I think might help you overcome that initial awkwardness at your next networking event.

One of the more common misgivings about social interaction stems from a fear or apprehension of approaching people you don’t know and initiating conversation. So, let’s address this issue first. The dictionary defines small talk as “polite conversation about unimportant or uncontroversial matters, especially as engaged in on social occasions.” My suggestion: take it for what it is and run with it. We’re not talking about recreating the Great Debate! And trust me, no one is going to ask you to recite the Rule Against Perpetuities at a networking event. Networking is about building and maintaining professional relationships. So, when it comes to initiating or making “polite conversation about unimportant or uncontroversial matters,” start with the obvious.

Make an effort to become more familiar with what’s happening in the world around you (apart from politics!). Read a summary of the latest book to make the New York Times Bestseller List. Find out the name of this week’s top-grossing movie. Learn how your state’s sports teams did last weekend. Nothing in depth is required. The goal is to try to start a conversation or keep one going. Frankly, talking about the weather will only get you so far in polite conversation before people’s attention wanders or you find yourselves beating that proverbial dead horse. On the flipside, don’t forget to be an engaged listener by commenting or asking questions once you’ve gotten the conversation rolling.

Cultivating a curiosity about the world around you will give you an amazing array of topics you can use to start, continue, or redirect a conversation. Try this approach and you’ll never be at a loss for small-talk material. Get good at small talk and you’ll begin to develop a reputation for being comfortable with people and someone who is easy to talk to in a business social setting. Not a bad reputation to have in the legal profession!

Lastly, one of the most potentially stressing aspects for many people when it comes to networking is the self-introduction. Approaching, meeting, and talking to strangers are all common occurrences seemingly designed to strike fear in the heart of any socially trepidatious individual. But keep in mind, most networking events are structured as meet-and-greets, so attendees are expecting to have people introduce themselves. Half the battle is already won! Make your approach with confidence. Look at the person you intend to approach—whether they are alone or in a group—smile and nod, and if necessary, wait for a break in the conversation, then say hello. Extend your hand, say your name slowly and clearly, listening carefully as the person gives you their name in return. Done! You are now ready to amaze and impress with your seemingly endless array of small-talk topics.

Teresa A. McQueen is the founder and principal attorney at SAFFIRE LEGAL, PC where she focuses on employment law, HR consulting, and risk management training. She can be reached at tmcqueen@saffirelegal.com.

“Dear Counsel” is an occasional advice column where seasoned attorneys are asked to respond to questions from newer attorneys. Please email questions to gialisa@gmail.com for possible inclusion in a future column. You may also mail questions anonymously to Orange County Lawyer, c/o G. Gaffaney, P.O. Box 6130, Newport Beach, CA 92658.

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