On 24th August the SRA issued a warning to the profession about offensive communications. The warning notice, for most solicitors, does not contain anything surprising. Solicitors need to be careful in what they say in emails or social media. That the SRA felt the need to issue the warning notice at all highlights how the growth of digital media has changed what it means to be a solicitor.
A few days ago I was speaking to someone who was coming to the end of her training contract. We discussed the 14 day twilight period when she would have completed her training but had not yet been admitted to the roll. She would no longer be a trainee solicitor and during that time she would need to describe herself in emails and on social media in terms that did not hold herself out as a solicitor. I mentioned that there was a 2 month gap when I was in a similar position and was asked how I coped for that long. The answer was that at the time there were only three ways of communicating: on the telephone; in person; or by letter. I would also add that letters were then sent in the name of the firm or a partner. So really the problem did not arise.
This narrow scope for communication meant that being a solicitor was something you did as a job. Once you left the office it was quite difficult to do anything that damaged public confidence in the profession. Primarily this would revolve around committing a criminal offence, or perhaps an ill judged letter where you relied upon being a solicitor.
Now everything is much more blurred. We don’t really leave work anymore as it remains in our pocket or bag to be monitored whenever we are awake. Solicitors reply to emails, post on Twitter, Facebook and other social media at any time of the day or night . Being a solicitor is no longer a job it is a role in society that is in play every time we say or write something. If we do not say we are a solicitor that makes no difference. Anyone can Google us. As the SRA warning notice states: “Even if you do not identify yourself as a solicitor, anonymity is not guaranteed; material which you post under a pseudonym may still be traced back to you or you may be identified as a solicitor if you include a photograph of yourself.” It would be naïve for any solicitor to think that they are only a solicitor when they want to be.
As a profession I am not sure we have fully caught up with these changes. The SRA Warning may help but solicitors and law firms do need to think about whether they are giving their qualified staff the ethical support to make sure they understand the increased obligations they now face.