Social Media’s Double-Edged Sword

On Monday, I’ll be talking to a gathering of law firm general counsel about some of the risk management challenges posed by new media and new technology. The session is part of the 9th Annual General Counsel Forum sponsored by Hildebrandt Baker Robbins and Hinshaw & Culbertson LLP, and my co-presenter will be Michael Downey, a litigation partner at Hinshaw whose practice focuses on advising law firms and accounting firms on ethics and risk management issues. Mike and I have an educational (and entertaining) session planned that is intended to enlighten and equip attendees to deal with the challenges we’ll be discussing.  Nonetheless, I won’t be surprised if a few folks find themselves a little anxious (but hopefully not downright terrified) about the scope of what we’re facing as a profession whose ethical responsibilities require us to handle new media and technology with care.

In preparing for the General Counsel Forum, I found my own anxiety levels rising as I contemplated the many ways lawyers can inadvertently run afoul of our ethical obligations.  I know that it is very tempting to say “just say no” to social media, but that really isn’t terribly practical. Social media has already had an enormous impact on how we live and interact with each other outside the office.  Do you really think you can stop this from entering your office?

Caught in this quandry, I was reminded this weekend that social media is a double-edged sword.  While it can give rise to material risk, it also can provide extraordinary benefits. One particular benefit is that it allows one-to-many communication in a manner that can be managed and non-intrusive.  Some dear friends of ours are discovering this the hard way. Their child has just been diagnosed with cancer and they are using CaringBridge to keep their friends and family informed through this critical time.

For those of you not familiar with CaringBridge, it is a nonprofit that provides free websites to help family and friends stay in touch during a health crisis. Here is how they describe their services:

A CaringBridge website is personal, private and available 24/7. It helps ease the burden of keeping family and friends informed. The websites are easy to create and use. Authors add health updates and photos to share their story while visitors leave messages of love and support in the guestbook.

    • Each day, over half-a-million people connect through CaringBridge.
    • More than 1 billion visits have been made to personal CaringBridge websites.
    • The CaringBridge community includes authors, visitors and/or donors in all 50 states and more than 225 countries/territories around the world.

The beauty of this tool is that is allows our friends to post their news at their convenience, and then share it in a controlled manner with the people they choose.  Without a tool like this, they would be at the mercy of well-intentioned people who might otherwise ask for updates at a time and place not of our friends’ choosing. Anyone who has been through a serious health challenge will know that sometimes you are willing to talk about it and at other times you simply want to get on with life.  A tool like this can help you with the latter.  Above all, this social media tool will allow our friends to stay focused on what’s important — their children and the medical challenges their family faces.

I’ve referred to CaringBridge as a tool throughout this post, just as I would describe Facebook, Twitter, Ning, Foursquare and Flickr as tools.  Like a double-edged sword, each has an enormous potential for good and for harm.  The key lies with the person wielding the tool.

At the end of the day, that’s the message I need to leave with the law firm general counsel I’ll be meeting on Monday.

[Photo Credit: ideacreamanuelapps]

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