Lawyers Going Fishing on Facebook – – Is It Ethcial?

Lawyers are all over Facebook and LinkedIn.  What are they doing?  If they are not marketing or social networking, they are fishing or "mining" for information about individuals and businesses.  They are looking for this information to help with lawsuits.  The business and employment trends involving social media are growing and as a result we will continue to see a variety of different lawsuits and legal issues involving some aspect of Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, MySpace and YouTube.  For example, read the posts yesterday by Dan Schwartz’s Employment Law Blog detailing how privacy settings on Facebook permit easier production in electronic discovery and how facebook wall postings might be unavailable in discovery and deemed private. 

One of the issues lawyers will have to address when mining for data on Facebook and other sites is how to get the information.  Do you seek the material in discovery and possibly risk a judge deeming the information unavailable as private or irrelevant?  Do you just limit your search to what is publicly available?  Better yet, what about having an investigator try to "friend" your target so you can get access to the information that is not available to public searches?   If you are concerned about the ethics of this type of searching, you good instincts. 

Lawyers fishing on Facebook would be well advised to read through a few ethical opinions on the issue. Recently, the New York Bar Association issued an opinion related to ethical concerns for lawyers "fishing" for information and evidence on Facebook and LinkedIn.  The verdict?  Relying in part on a 2009 Pennsylvania Bar Association opinion, it was deemed ethical for lawyers to search for this information from public pages.  Seeking to "friend" for improper purposes, however, is more problematic and may land a lawyer in ethical trouble.  Specifically, if deception was used (by either the lawyer or a third party directed by the lawyer) to gain access as a "friend," it likely would violate the rules of professional conduct. 

Clearly, LinkedIn and Facebook are treasure troves for litigation attorneys.  However, it is a good idea to be cautious about how you access any information from these sites, especially if the information is not generally available from public searches.