We live in a connected, online world like never before. This opens up new opportunities that are not always obvious. Have you, as a lawyer, considered using social media for research? Sure, you can use social media to check out what your competitors are doing. But there is so much more that you can do. You can use social media very effectively to stay up to date with what is happening in your field of expertise. You can also perform research that pertains to a case that you are handling. And if you are a litigator, you can research your client’s opposing party, witnesses, jurors and even – when warranted – judges. As the example of the judge suggests, there also are ethical considerations to consider. Let us have a look at all of these.
Ongoing research – staying up to date
Social media provide an excellent way to stay up to date with what is happening in your field. Personally, I use Twitter, LinkedIn, Medium, and Quora for this constantly. In Twitter, you can follow the authors and publications that are active in your field. Look for key clients and service suppliers, thought leaders, industry heads, etc. I would recommend creating a list in Twitter that you add them to. That way, you just have to check your list to find the relevant tweets. Noteworthy, too, is that by default lists are public, which means you can follow other people’s lists.
You can do the same in LinkedIn. Even if a person or publisher is not a connection, you usually can follow them. And as is the case for Twitter, you can create custom lists that make it easy and convenient to quickly go through the relevant material. The same goes for Facebook, where you can follow people who are not friends, and you can create custom lists. Typically, though, LinkedIn and Twitter tend to provide more useful information, as lawyers tend to be less likely to put legally relevant articles on Facebook.
LinkedIn and Facebook both have a Group feature, where you can create your own group or join an existing group. Both have plenty of groups that are dedicated to legal topics or fields of expertise. Again, the LinkedIn groups generally outshine the ones of Facebook when it comes to the quality of the information that they are providing.
Quora is a social media platform that focuses on answering questions, but where authors can also publish links to relevant information. Quora has sections that are dedicated to legal topics, and you can configure the email notifications to receive notifications when new information or questions are available.
Medium largely is a blogging platform. Like Quora, it offers the possibility to subscribe to certain topics where you get notifications when new information is available.
Also of interest in this context is Pinterest. In Pinterest, users can create boards that they can ‘pin’ information or links to information on. You can also create sub-boards. If you are interested in legal technology, e.g., you could create a board legal tech, with possible sub-boards for artificial intelligence, office automation, social media, etc. What makes Pinterest even more interesting is that you can also follow other users and/or their boards. So, you can share the benefits of work others have done.
Legal research for a case
A second area where social media are useful is to look for relevant legal information for a specific case. One caveat is that a lot of social media content is not indexed by search engines. So, you may need to perform your research on each platform separately! Quora, Medium, and Pinterest are notable exceptions in that most search engines do index their content. So, for those, it is not necessary to perform separate searches. With LinkedIn, articles that are published on its platform typically do get indexed by search engines, but regular posts and the content of groups, e.g., are not.
Both Twitter and LinkedIn have advanced search features that allow you to perform focused keyword searches. In Twitter, one would typically use hashtags for that. In theory, it is possible to do the same on Facebook, but thus far in practice this has rarely yielded useful results.
Social media for litigation research
A third area where social media can be particularly useful is for research for litigation purposes, in several different ways.
A first way is that social media could be used for opinion mining, i.e. to measure the public opinion on a topic. This typically is useful in criminal cases, especially if a jury is involved. You may want to avoid basing a defence on a narrative that people respond negatively to.
Similarly, you can use social media for reputation research, either on your clients or on their opponents. Apart from profiling litigants and opposing counsel, you can also profile prospective jury pool members, as well as witnesses. Based on the information you find, you can excuse prospective jury members, or impeach witnesses.
You can also check whether the judge has any connections to the parties or their counsel. There have been several instances where a judge had to recuse him- or herself because they were Facebook friends or LinkedIn connections with one of the lawyers.
Furthermore, and importantly, social media are useful when gathering facts and evidence. People have e.g. been fired, lost insurance claims, and have been convicted or acquitted, based on evidence that was found on social media. When looking for facts and evidence, keep in mind that it can be spread over all platforms. You may have to spend some time going through accounts on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp, TikTok, Snapchat, Pinterest, YouTube, Vimeo, … There already are third party service providers who can do this for you.
Finally, there are ethical considerations to take into account. As a first rule of thumb, any information that is publicly available on the Internet for all to see can be used in court. As a second rule of thumb, it typically is not admissible to directly communicate with opposing parties or witnesses: do not send them friend requests, do not follow them or communicate with them on social media. It is wise to apply the same rule of thumb when it comes to judges, as it can result in their recusal or a ground for appeal.
In short, social media can be useful for research purposes in different ways. When researching facts and evidence for specific cases, they can offer a wealth of information, but there are ethical considerations to take into account. When in doubt, contact your local bar association.