All that is ethical does not twitter

“Just because I like to have a drink at night.”

– George Clooney, on why he is not on Twitter

Social media can be a minefield for anyone.

Just ask seasoned journalist Laura Tingle, who recently shot out a tweet at just before midnight accusing PM Scott Morrison of ‘ideological bastardy’ in relation to the departure from the ABC of fellow journalist Philippa McDonald.

Everyone is, of course, entitled to their own opinion, and Twitter is just the thing to get that opinion out everywhere.

Problem is that Tingle is meant to be an independent journalist providing unbiased evaluation of politicians of every stripe. Thus, unsurprisingly, her tweet vanished overnight with a concession that it was a mistake.

For lawyers, with a much higher ethical standard to meet, Twitter isn’t just a minefield, it is hopscotch in a minefield.

Consider Julian Burnside’s infamous ‘pedos in Speedos’ tweet, which appeared to be referring to then-Opposition Leader Tony Abbott. Burnside claims the tweet was mistakenly sent and was meant to be a response to a text and nothing to do with Abbott, and the QC immediately apologised.

Burnside does not seem to have been sanctioned by his Bar association at the time (it was back in 2011), possibly because Twitter was not then the behemoth it is now. It is difficult to imagine that a similar tweet by an officer of the court, in our current climate, would not prompt some action – even if it were the result of an innocent mistake.

For lawyers, the question of what to tweet is so fraught with peril that the first question should perhaps be, should I be on Twitter at all? Dangers exist on all social media platforms, but few have the ability to tarnish a reputation or destroy a career so quickly and completely as Twitter.

For officers of the court, the damage goes well beyond personal reputation and career prospects. Admission confers many privileges, but it comes with obligations too – including being the face of the law. If members of the general public engage with our legal system, it is almost entirely via contact with solicitors; how we act greatly influences public perception of the legal system.

That matters because that system is only effective if people buy into it, and agree to abide by our legislation. This is not a country with secret police on every corner, and anarchy is avoided largely via the public consenting to be ruled by the government.

Recent protests about lockdown conditions show what happens when the public withdraw that consent, and the necessary buy-in ceases; the results are not pleasant.

An ill-considered (or indeed, un-considered) tweet by a layperson is usually no more than an embarrassment (although the consequences can be dire) and neither Tingle nor society seem to have taken much damage from her errant epistle.

Commentary from lawyers has much greater impact, and can diminish confidence in the justice system. In addition, the simple act of tweeting a selfie with a client, or even a geographical update, can breach client confidentiality.

In truth, of course, the Twitter horse has bolted, and not being on it is no longer an option for many people. Also, for some it is an invaluable tool for elevating their profile and growing a client base.

In view of that, the following may assist in keeping Twitter use responsible, or at least non-career threatening:

  • Never tweet while intoxicated.
  • Do not tweet personal opinions or commentary from a business account – consider keeping your personal and professional profiles separate.
  • Never tweet about clients or cases.
  • Twitter accounts can be hacked, and to devastating effect; in addition to a strong password, engage the two-factor identification system Twitter offers.
  • Turn off location data, personalised ads and discoverability.
  • Control photo tagging.
  • If your firm has a social media policy, read and be aware of it.
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