By Joe Kellard, Long Island Business News
When discussing one of the most popular programs attorneys attend for continuing legal education, Mary Ann Aiello, dean of the Nassau Academy of Law, painted an image of a seasoned lawyer in court shuffling through hundreds of legal papers, while his younger counterpart pulls up the same documents with a quick search on his laptop or iPad.
Of the 160 programs the academy provides for attorneys to acquire the New York State-mandated credits they must earn every two years, courses on technology and social media have become the rage. While the academy, an arm of the Nassau County Bar Association, has noticed a need for more skill-based and practice management programs, Aiello said, increasingly more lawyers are asking for and attending tech and social media programs related to all areas of their profession, from criminal cases to electronic discovery to online office policies.
“A lot of attorneys feel that they don’t have the updated electronic skills that many young people have,” said Aiello, an attorney who organizes programs for the academy.
Even recent law school graduates are taking these programs, if only to keep up with the latest developments and their applications to law, Aiello said.
Patrick McCormick, a partner at Campolo, Middleton & McCormick in Ronkonkoma and an officer and CLE lecturer at the Suffolk Academy of Law – the educational branch of the Suffolk County Bar Association – also finds that a diverse cross-section of lawyers are taking many technology and social media programs. These technologies impact every facet of law, he said, from lawyers selecting juries to juries on break using Google to investigate the case.
“It used to be if we had a law suit, I would ask the other side to give me all the paperwork you have on it, and he’d ask the same of me and we’d move on,” said McCormick, who has practiced law for 28 years. “Now you have privacy issues: what to do with a person’s cell phone and text messages and the posts they put on Twitter and Instagram, and that area of law is developing almost every day. So there’s a need for it and lawyers are asking for it.”
Before they retain a client, more lawyers are asking what on their social network pages may come back to undercut or destroy their case. Aiello recalled a case when she was retained to represent a woman whose under-aged niece claimed she pushed her down a flight of stairs. Within a day of her fall, the girl took to social media and made accusations.
“The girl who made the accusation posted on her Facebook account: ‘I’ll show my aunt, that (expletive.) I told the police she pushed me down the stairs even though she was nowhere near me when I fell,’” Aiello recalled. “So attorneys have to be aware of and advise their clients of this, because, we’re really living in a fish bowl now.”
The state deems it essential that attorneys earn CLE credits to continue to practice law, to gain the necessary knowledge and skills to competently represent their clients and to comply with the New York State rules of professional conduct. While state rules do not mandate that attorneys have any level of technological knowledge, the New York State Bar Association declared in its recently revised guidelines that knowledge of how social media works should be a core skill for a state attorney.
“A lawyer cannot be competent absent a working knowledge of the benefits and risks associated with the use of social media,” the instructional guideline states.
Newly admitted attorneys are generally required to take at least 16 credits in each of the first two years of practice, after which they are mandated to take a minimum of 24 credits every two-year cycle. At least four credits must pertain to law and professionalism.
Omid Zareh, a chair of the Nassau County Bar Association’s ethics committee, recently presented a CLE program entitled “Avoiding Ethical Problems in the Internet Age,” which he said was well attended and sparked a lively, spirited discussion on acting ethically online.
“There’s been a tremendous amount of interest for these types of things,” said Zareh, who suggested the ubiquitous uses of smart phones are primarily driving this trend.
Among the issues raised at CLE programs that Zareh has hosted pertain to the appropriate professional use of Facebook and Twitter and representing oneself as a specialist, when there are specific guidelines about this.
“If you’re saying you’re a specialist without actually having gotten a specialty from a recognized entity, then you’re really just saying: I think I’m a specialist and I’m just going to tell you I am,” he said.
Another hot topic is third-party endorsements on LinkedIn, the professional networking site, and whether attorneys should leave or take down those that don’t pertain to what they do. The state bar’s other new or expanded guidelines posit that attorneys should take responsibility for the accuracy of third-party endorsements posted on their social networking profiles and to correct misleading or inaccurate information.
“A lawyer may not passively allow misleading endorsements as to her skills and expertise to remain on a profile that she controls, as that is tantamount to accepting the endorsement,” the report reads.