Lawyers handing out legal advice on social media should take note of this bizarre Facebook exchange that landed a lawyer in hot water with the Tennessee Supreme Court.
A Facebook “friend” involved in a tumultuous relationship posted a public inquiry about carrying a gun in her car. In response to her post, the attorney posted comments on the escalating use of force. He then posted that, if the Facebook friend wanted “to kill” her ex-boyfriend, she should “lure” him into her home, “claim” he broke in with intent to do her harm, and “claim” she feared for her life. The attorney emphasized in his post that his advice was given “as a lawyer,” and if she was “remotely serious,” she should “keep mum” and delete the entire comment thread because premeditation could be used against her “at trial.” In the ensuing disciplinary proceedings, a Board of Professional Responsibility hearing panel found that the attorney’s conduct was prejudicial to the administration of justice in violation of Rules of Professional Conduct 8.4(a) and (d). It recommended suspension of his law license for sixty days.In Re: Winston Bradshaw Sitton, BPR#018440
As customary for disciplinary proceedings against lawyers, the Tennessee Supreme Court reviewed the sixty-day suspension recommendation — and rejected the recommendation. Ultimately, the lawyer in question was handed a much lengthier penalty of a four-year suspension.
The court noted that the fact this happened on Facebook made it all the more dangerous.
The attorney’s advice, in and of itself, was clearly prejudicial to the administration of justice and violated the Rules of Professional Conduct. In addition, his choice to post the remarks on a public platform amplified their deleterious effect. The social media posts fostered a public perception that a lawyer’s role is to manufacture false defenses. They projected a public image of corruption of the judicial process. Under these circumstances, the act of posting the comments on social media should be deemed an aggravating factor that justifies an increase in discipline.
Giving your clients advice on how to get away with murder is a bad idea. Posting that advice to a non-client in a Facebook comment thread is a worse idea.