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Facebook and the Legal World: Can Law and Culture co-exist?

This weekend I asked for guest blogs.  Having recently seen David Fincher’s excellent new movie about the birth of facebook, The Social Network, Taylor Long’s request to do a guest blog on how Facebook “friends” are creating the appearance of conflict in the family court is timely.

–GSF

Guest blog from Taylor E. Long, associate for Law Offices of Paul E. Tinkler

A few weeks ago, I was sitting in on a family court trial in which the Defendant appeared pro se.  After all the legal mumbo jumbo was completed, the Judge asked if either party had any motions to present before going forward.  Much to my surprise, the Defendant, stood up and responded,  “ I do your honor.”  The judge motioned for him to continue, and he proceeded to ask for a dismissal of the case due to Plaintiff’s counsel being “friends” with the Guardian ad Litem on Facebook.  You could tell that all attorneys and even the judge was surprised at this request.  I do have to give the guy some credit for doing his research, unlike most pro se parties.

Plaintiff’s counsel, after brief hesitation, responded by arguing that the term “friends” on Facebook does not correlate to the dictionary definition of the word friend.  The judge silenced counsel and sat in silence for a few moments.

After the uncomfortable silence, the judge shared his thought process aloud.  Although he touched on the continuous concerns our profession faces daily due to advancing technology, he did agree with counsel that the definition Facebook uses for “friends” is different from a true friendship relationship.  The judge explained to the Defendant that the two attorneys he was referring to most likely do not visit each other at one another’s homes, they do not have lunch together, they do not have each other’s personal cell phone or home phone numbers.  He went on to say that they probably do not even know where one another reside.  The judge therefore denied his request for dismissal, but left us all a little concerned as to when and how this issue could arise again.

As a young attorney, Facebook was created while I was still in college and I joined shortly thereafter to keep in contact with friends and family that lived in different places from myself.  Now, however, this social network has expanded to include, not only college students, but rather anyone regardless of age or profession.  I recently had to draw the line when an eleven year old that I babysit for asked to be my “friend.”

Basically, a friend on Facebook can have access to your personal page, pictures, groups, and status updates.  However, if your privacy protections are not secure, anyone can search your name and view your page.  This is what obviously happened in the aforementioned case.  I would encourage everyone, not just attorneys, to make sure your Facebook profile is very secure so that only the people you choose can view your private information.  I am sure we have all had the pleasure of opposing counsel surprising us with interesting information and photographs of our own clients, placing them in a compromising situation.

My question is where do we draw the line? Our profession is one which encourages social interaction among our peers.  We are constantly mingling with other attorneys and judges at cocktails, happy hours, receptions, etc.  Also, when working in a particular field of law, it is undeniable that we will be dealing with the same attorneys over and over, which develops a relationship, good or bad.  Surely we are not supposed to coexist in this profession ignoring one another just to “dodge the bullet” of a conflict of interest in court room settings.  Thoughts?

  • It would seem to me to be little different than professional athletes who are friends. Athletes of all kinds of sports have friendships with other athletes on opposing teams. They may even be close friends. But when they are on the field, they still try like hell to beat each other.

    I would think that lawyers would be the same way.

  • Taylor:

    Another reason I found your blog timely is that I was removed as a guardian from a case the day you wrote this because I was a friend of one of the attorneys. I had been a guardian in his cases before, with everyone understanding that he and I were friends, but, in this case, opposing counsel could not accept that I might be friends with this attorney yet still believe my higher duty was to the court that had selected me to represent the children’s interests. Without my objection, the judge who selected me, in an abundance of caution, replaced me with a promise to select me on his next case.

  • Les springob

    I enjoy your site very much.
    I am now representing myself Pro se. Recently (September 20, 2010) I received an Order which found my former wife in willful contempt on seven (7) issues. The only issue in my RTSC which I didn’t prevail, was the “facebook” issue. I wanted to provide you with what I understand to be the Courts thinking on the question of “facebook versus email” communication.
    In my “Judgment of Divorce and Order Approving Agreement” there is a clause which states, “Mr and Mrs Springob shall be permitted to communicate with the children through e-mail in an unrestricted manner.” The Fifth Circuit determined that “facebook” wasn’t “email” and the “facebook” account could be cancelled without violating our Order. My argument (with the plethora) of other documented obstruction was her intent and reason to cancel the “facebook” account, along with the salient fact that one must have an email account to access “facebook”. Perhaps a safe guard in the future would be to include both “facebook” and “email” communication in Divorce Orders to protect a party from the obstructionist.
    Best regards.

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