Lawyers cannot hide on Twitter
Recent headlines in the The Mail Online and The Telegraph suggested that a (now ex) Barrister (who tweets as @Geeklawyer) had been struck off for inappropriate tweeting. Delve a little deeper and he was in fact fined £2,500 by the Bar Standards Board (BSB) for his tweeting and, put simply, disbarred for his conduct in a case where he represented in court a company that he had a personal interest in without disclosing that interest. For a detailed account of all 6 charges involved see the BSB’s Disciplinary Finding Details.
What struck me is that I have never associated @Geeklawyer with a real life Barrister. I have followed him on Twitter for the best part of three years and always considered him a parody of a Barrister: Perhaps a much more extreme UK version of the US Attorney @rprickman. I assumed @Geeklawyer was a fictional character in the mind of whoever tweeted his tweets even if they perhaps did practice at the Bar as a day job. His tweets are not, at times, to everyone’s liking. Scott Greenfield once described him as the Lenny Bruce of the Blawgosphere. However, if you tweet with him he is nothing but polite and congenial. I do not tweet with @Geeklawyer often but on the occasions that I do it is always a pleasant experience. I recall tweets with @Geeklawyer and @infobunny (remember her?) about different types of Gin – I introduced them to Blackwoods. Yesterday, I tweeted with @Geeklawyer about his predicament and we ended up tweeting about Time Machines, the Law of the Time Lords and how this blog was rendering at his end (apparently light blue font on a blue background rather than black on white – I was assured this was his problem not mine). All very pleasant. For an entertaining @CharonQC podcast from the past do listen to ‘Christmas podcast…. with Geeklawyer…and other nonsense…’
Charon QC provides his views on the @Geeklawyer twitter episode at ‘Rive Gauche: A Command Performance from a Barrister now disbarred for unprofessional behaviour on twitter’. This was published before the decision of the BSB was formally issued but do read the comments section of the post which brings matters up to date.
Charon QC ponders “how can one disbar or fine a ‘fictional barrister’ for tweeting… or blogging”.
It appears perhaps that some of the tweets by @Geeklawyer referenced a case that the non fictional Barrister who tweeted as @Geeklawyer was actually involved in. As D_T_T commented on Charon QC’s post:-
There is no separate identity for the BSB’s purposes. Assuming a tweet is not generated by a spambot, it is written by a real person. If that real person is a barrister then that’s within the BSB’s remit. Otherwise any lawyer could get away with misconduct via an online persona they controlled. If a barrister restricted their persona to posts about imaginary cases they might get away with it. If they write about real ones that they are involved with then they will probably attract attention and it in a way negates the separate identity point; obviously the identity is not that separate if the lawyer’s real-life work is the subject of the persona’s tweets.
The Bar Council had their eye on @Geeklawyer and his blogging way back in 2007 when he promised to toe the line. So they clearly knew very early on his pseudonym.
So lawyers beware. Anonymous tweeting may still land you in trouble with your regulatory/disciplinary bodies depending upon what you decide to tweet about.
I wondered what the position would be if you protected your tweets (so that only those you allow to follow you can actually see them). I noticed that @Geeklawyer’s tweets are protected and wondered if this had always been the case. I asked him yesterday and he advised me that no, they were public at the time of the trial. I suppose as long as one person following you could be offended by a tweet that “was likely to diminish public confidence in the legal profession or the administration of justice or otherwise bring the legal profession into disrepute” then that would possibly still be sufficient. But it may mitigate any penalty imposed i.e. the fact that the general public at large could not see the offending material.
What if you delete your tweets? No lawyers, you cannot escape that easily. As Legal Cheek recently reported it is likely that those you may have upset will have saved your tweets – it is very easy to simply take a screen grab of them.
So it looks like lawyers cannot hide on Twitter. I hope though that this does not deter them from tweeting. Just think before you tweet. Back in April 2009 I made that same point when commenting for The Firm Online on the Telford Magistrates ‘Twitter’ case. Lawyers have a code of conduct to follow and if they do follow it they should not go far wrong on Twitter. That should not preclude a bit of fun now and again and Twitter can be fun.
Scott Greenfield mourns the passing of Geeklawyer. I reckon that we have not seen the last of him and that his tweets may now be less restrained than they were in the past, if that is possible!
One can only hope that @GeekLawyer will come back and blog, or tweet, or both, about what he knows about the system. They’ve done what damage they could do. Now he’s no reason not to say what he really knows…and thinks.
This post is a great reminder that tweets fall within the ambit of a bar disciplinary board. It is easy to somehow feel separated from a tweet as though your twitter name and identify has its own personality and set of rules. Great work, Mr. Inkster.
Are there any benefits to tweeting that actually compensate for the potential damage that one badly worded or phrased tweet can cause you or your organisation? The frequency with which the great and the good are hoist by their own petard should maybe serve as a salutary tale for us all?