In recent weeks, stories about tech in the practice of law have been filling our news feeds. Our last Tech Tuesday blog post focused on high profile failures and flubs. Today's stories reveal more productive uses of technology while demonstrating how the everyday online communication tools we now use are transforming the practice of law.
Lawyers are employing technology in novel ways to serve process and consult with colleagues. As described below, the authorities that govern these developments -- legislation, court rules, case law, and ethics opinions -- are (slowly) evolving as well. Twitter and Facebook are at center stage in these new approaches, as is digital communication itself. From the social media tools we use to the new literacy we've developed (e.g., abbreviations, emoticons, emoji, Bitmoji, stickers, memes, and more), tech is changing the law.
Earlier this month, a law firm representing the Democratic National Convention used Twitter to serve legal documents on WikiLeaks, an international nonprofit organization that facilitates the release of classified information, obtained from anonymous sources, via its website. Aside from the high profile parties to the case and the controversial claims it makes, the newsworthy aspect of this story, particularly for those in the legal field, is that the subpoena was served with a tweet. According to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, a court may serve an individual in another country through a number of channels, and although service by social media is not addressed specifically, Rule 4(f)(3) does allow for service "by other means not prohibited by international agreement, as the court orders." The Texas Rules of Civil Procedure include a similar provision. Rule 106(b)(2) states that a court may authorize service "in any other manner that the affidavit or other evidence before the court shows will be reasonably effective to give the defendant notice of the suit."
This may be a first for Twitter, but Facebook has been used a number of times to legally notify a hard-to-locate party. In a 2015 New York divorce case, a woman was permitted to serve her estranged husband through Facebook. A New Jersey court relied on that decision to allow the same method of legal notice in a similar case later that year.
Routine use of social media as an alternative method of service is still a topic of debate, but plenty of digital ink has been spilled discussing its benefits and risks. In 2013, a bill was introduced in the Texas legislature to allow substituted service through social media websites, but the bill was never referred to a committee, and the topic hasn't been addressed since.
Just weeks ago, the State Bar of Texas Professional Ethics Committee considered this question: Can lawyers use social media to seek advice from other attorneys without violating the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct? According to the Committee, the answer is a qualified Yes. Attorneys may consult with their lawyer colleagues and seek their professional advice regarding client-related issues in online forums if and only if they honor their duty of confidentiality and respect the attorney-client privilege. The best source for further exploration of this topic is, of course, the opinion itself along with this report from the Texas Lawyer which provides an excellent overview of the State Bar's newly sanctioned activity.
The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals recently published an opinion that included the poop emoji. There's almost nothing worthwhile to say about its appearance in this opinion except to recognize it as a historic first. To be fair, the poop emoji appeared as part of a quote from a message shared via Facebook. It was submitted as evidence in an employment discrimination case that ultimately hinged on the content of the quoted message. As it turns out, the use of emoji in employment suits has been discussed before. Legal scholars have also weighed in about emoji and the law and emoji as evidence, topics which are explored in the articles linked below.
- Emoji as Language and Their Place Outside American Copyright Law (NYU Journal of Property & Entertainment Law)
- The Emoji Factor: Humanizing the Emerging Law of Digital Speech (Tennessee Law Review)
- Your Clients Use of Emoji: It Matters (Ingham County Bar Association BRIEFS)