Legal work has changed dramatically over the last two decades. Not only the developing areas of IT and IP law, human rights, data protection and privacy rights and international law have confronted us with challenges. But also how we work. My leather desk diary has long beeen replaced by an electronic component to office software. Letters and documents sent by post are becoming very scarce. Even faxes are in rapid decline. Emails and IT data exchanges are the predominant form of communication. The personal contact and words of face-to face discussions and meetings are now often video conferences, conference calls or otherwise skyped through the internet. A few weeks ago a client even starting advising me by WhatsApp…the face of things to come? Will I meet my next client in facebook or on a Twitter account?
All of these changes in our current social and political climate are impacting the legal profession directly. Climate change has come to the lawyer’s office. That change is not only causing a higher sea level because of the flood of information, but there has also apparently been a dramatic temperature increase in the tone of communications.
Indeed the change has become so apocalytic that the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) in England has seen itself obliged to issue a warning about declining standards of communication by lawyers and especially those in the social media. In its warning to solicitors the SRA has expressed concern that it has experienced a significant increase in the number of complaints regarding “inappropriate” communications, specifically in relation to emails and the use of social media, both inside and outside practice. The SRA refers to the following types of behaviour:
- Offensive or pejorative comments relating to another person’s race, sexual orientation or religion.
- References to women made in derogatory terms and the use of sexually explicit comments.
- Comments which harass or victimise the recipient.
- Use of language which is intended to shock or threaten.
- Offensive or abusive comments to another firm about that firm or its client, or to individuals who are unrepresented.
The SRA is advising solicitors that “the communications you send to others or post online should not contain statements which are derogatory, harassing, hurtful, puerile, plainly inappropriate, or perceived to be threating, causing the recipient alarm and distress.”
I would have thought all of this to be terribly self-evident, especially to professionals supposedly trained to use the subtleties of language as their tool of trade. But in a world where political leaders see themselves issuing utterances to the population by way of noctural tweets and re-tweets, “what the f…!”