Paralegals: Is It Ethical to Get Information on Active Cases from Social Media?

We’ve all done it: used social media to find out what we can about someone for personal reasons. Yet, the paralegal profession is subject to certain ethical rules. Is it ethical for paralegals to use social medial to get information on parties involved in an active case?

Ultimately, the ethical rules for lawyers in your jurisdiction and exactly what you’re doing on social media will determine how you go about using social media as a means to get information. Below, you’ll find some guiding principles to help you during your search.

First, Read the Rules in Your Jurisdiction

Although you’re a paralegal and not a lawyer, one of the best things you can do is read the rules for lawyers in your jurisdiction. This will help you decide what you can and can’t do. For example, the Association of the Bar of the City of New York Committee on Professional Ethics Formal Opinion 2010-002 forbids lawyers from using “trickery” to get information from a person’s social media account. Trickery included creating a fake social media profile to get the person to add you. However, lawyers are allowed to send friend requests using their real name even if the party isn’t represented by a lawyer. The Philadelphia Bar Association Professional Guidance Committee Opinion 2009-02 states lawyers can send a friend request, but they must tell the recipient why they are sending.

Not all jurisdictions are so lenient about trying to get an opposing party or witness to accept your friend request. So, it’s important that you find, read, and get clarification on the rules in your area.

Know What You’re Looking For

Sure, social media is free. However, you need to have an idea on what you’re looking to find. Your time is valuable to the law office. If you’re doing research at the request of the lawyer, that time may be billed to the client. Just like when you perform legal research, you want to make sure that you’re efficient. It’s easy to get sucked in when you’re reading posts made on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, LinkedIn, Instagram, and other social media sites. Look for relevant material only.

Develop a List of Possible Names

Facebook has a rule against setting up an account with a fake name, but people still do it. Another common naming convention to get more online privacy is to use their last name as their first name and their first name as their last name. Other things to keep in mind:

  • They may use a different last name. Look for maiden names and former names.
  • They may use their middle name as their first name.
  • They may use a nickname.

If you can’t find them on social media and you have names of witnesses for the opposing party who you believe could be friends or family members, look those individuals up on social media. Then, look to see if their list of friends is public. If so, you may be able to find the opposing party in that manner.

Don’t Send a Friend Request

Even if you live in a jurisdiction that allows you to send a friend request with or without a disclaimer, don’t do it. Depending on the type of case you’re involved in, you could put yourself and your family in danger by adding someone you don’t know, particularly if the matter is contentious.

Rely on Public Posts

Go through public posts to look for the information you need. You may also be able to get information from the person’s “About” section on Facebook, provided that they haven’t made that information private.

Document Via Screenshot

If you find useful information or information that has the potential to be useful, create a Word document that you’ll save under a name you’ll recognize. Then, take screenshots of the information and place them into the document. If the date of the status update, tweet, image, or other information is hard to see, make sure that you place that information directly beneath the image.

When in Doubt, Get Guidance

Social media can be a useful tool for gleaning information, but it’s important that you follow the rules in your jurisdiction and keep yourself safe! If you need guidance, contact the bar in your jurisdiction.

Posted in: