Social media is undoubtedly one of the biggest phenomena of the past decade, affording us unprecedented access to the lives and opinions of others. Whether you love using social media, or actively avoid it, it is here to stay.
One of the downsides, as many see it, is that social media is not compatible with personal privacy. Comments, posts, photos, videos, likes, memes, and emoticons provide a permanent record of your thoughts and opinions. And for career professionals, this can be a minefield, posing severe risks to your reputation.
What is the SRA’s view on social media?
Back in 2017, having observed a considerable increase in complaints regarding the use of inappropriate communications (while the SRA are referring to any form of communication, we will focus within this article on social media), the SRA issued a ‘warning notice’ advising the profession of the need to ensure high standards of communication at all times. Since then, the SRA has continued to take a hard line on offensive language used by its members, including on social media; stating, “We treat seriously communications that are offensive, derogatory or inappropriate whether in nature, tone or content”.
However, the SRA go further, making the point that such communications will not be deemed acceptable whether made in a work or personal context, as it is their duty to uphold and protect the reputation of the legal profession. Their view is that action may be taken based on the nature of the communication, not whether individuals have been affected by the communication.
It is therefore recommended that legal professionals always uphold high standards, even in private situations where you may not be identified as being a solicitor.
How will the SRA make an assessment that communication is offensive?
The SRA considers, amongst other things, the following to be offensive or inappropriate communication:
- Communication not in accordance with the SRA handbook’s requirements on 1) proper administration of the law, 2) integrity, 3) trustworthy behaviour, 4) equality of opportunity and respect for diversity.
- Communication deemed to be derogatory, harassing, discriminatory, victimising, hurtful, puerile, plainly inappropriate, or perceived to be threatening, causing the recipient alarm and distress. Such acts, aside from leading to sanctions, may also constitute a criminal offence under the Malicious Communications Act 1988, section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 or the Protection from Harassment Act 1997.
- That which may be offensive on the grounds of the ‘protected characteristics’ as defined by the Equality Act 2010 – age, race, disability, religion or belief, pregnancy or maternity, sex or sexual orientation, gender reassignment and marriage or civil partnership.
- If you are seen to endorse, share, or relay the offensive communications of another person.
The SRA will consider each case individually and determine any mitigating or aggravating features. As such they will look at whether the behaviour was part of a wider pattern of offensive communication, if the action was spontaneous or more deliberate, if an apology was provided, and if there was any disclosure of personal confidential information.
Blurring the lines
Given the rise in new modes of communication, including social media messaging services (e.g. Facebook Messenger), and platforms such as WhatsApp and Snapchat, some solicitors may find themselves, either deliberately, or by request, conversing with clients using these methods. However, this poses significant implications. By communicating using social media, there is an expectation of a quick response. Hence you may reply without the depth of consideration given to a letter or even an email. This could lead to errors and misunderstandings between solicitor and client. The SRA also states that if any informal language is used, it should be professional in terms of tone and content. And if any comments made by your client are themselves offensive to others in communications to you using any of the criteria listed above, you should not participate or endorse the comments. Further, if the client’s comments are potentially in breach of the law, you must draw their attention to this fact.
Any social media content which could bring a professional, their employer or the legal profession into disrepute – no matter how unintentional or mild – should be avoided. Perhaps the question to ask is, ‘if I was a client, fellow employee, or peer, how would I feel about this content?’ And if there is any doubt –err on the side of caution, and don’t post, tweet, retweet, upload, or click ‘like’. Your future successful self will thank you for it.
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