October 6, 2022

How growing use of social media has changed family law practice

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family-sunset-Article-201601081742By Lizzy McLellan, From The Legal Intelligencer

For a client, composing a Facebook post, tweet, email or text message takes little time, effort or thought. But for family law attorneys, these digitized quips and images have become useful but time-consuming pieces of evidence, shaping their practices and advice to clients.

While young people, less than 30 years old, took to social media most quickly, the percentage of all Internet users with a social media presence has grown to 74 percent, according to a 2014 report from the Pew Research Center. Most of those people are using Facebook, while ­sizeable minorities are on Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest and LinkedIn.

As that large contingent of Internet users posts personal information online, a trend has emerged, said Julia Swain of Fox Rothschild. Lawyers are using that information in court, either to help or to hurt the poster.

“It’s remarkable to me how some people still will post things online whether its Facebook, Instagram or Twitter, and not be cautious about the content and how that can be used against you,” Swain said.

For example, she said, people will post pictures of themselves drinking alcohol, make references to drug use, or post pictures with a new significant other or “not-so-significant” other. They might post about their weekend plans, weekday plans, or activities they’ve done with their children that seem innocuous, but were not agreed upon by both parents.

Swain said she’s been using email evidence in family court for about a decade, and text communication for about four or five years. Twitter and Instagram evidence is newer to the family courtroom, she said.

All forms of electronic communication have been prominent, said Mary Sue Ramsden of Raphael, Ramsden & Behers, not just social media.

“People don’t think about putting things in writing. That’s a big problem, mostly in the custody cases but also in other cases as well,” Ramsden said.

However, even though they warn their clients about posting unflattering material, some attorneys said the wealth of digital information available is a benefit.

“I like the whole record of everything because now if you’re communicating with somebody they can’t accuse you of not providing information,” said David Ladov of Obermayer Rebmann Maxwell & Hippel. He said some family court judges even require that parties communicate via email rather than over the phone.

While he does tell clients to either delete their social media presence or be very careful about posting, Ladov said he likes that electronic communication creates evidence in an area of law that once relied heavily on “he-said, she-said” testimony, particularly in custody disputes.

It’s not just the parents’ communication that comes into play either.

“If I find out in a case that the spouse isn’t watching what the kid is doing [on social media], I’m going to bring that up,” said Lynne Z. Gold-Bikin of Weber Gallagher Simpson Stapleton Fires & Newby.

While Ladov likes having the virtual paper trail, Gold-Bikin said she tells her clients “nothing in writing.”

“The emails to each other, the nastiness that people post, you say, ‘Really, what are you thinking?'” she said. “I am finding that when we go to court, a good portion of our exhibits are Facebook postings, emails, texts, because people say things that they shouldn’t.”

Changing the practice?

Family law practices are changing as a result of the evidence available. For some firms, that means bringing in some younger talent. For others, it’s continuing to learn as the technology changes.

“The things that the kids take for granted is really amazing that we have to learn,” Gold-Bikin said.

Her practice’s new partner at Weber Gallagher, John Zurzola, has been helpful, she said. Paul M. Fires, chairman of the firm, said Zurzola is closer to the age at which clients are getting divorced now, so he brings an understanding of that age group.

“I will tell you that senior family lawyers may not have as great a fluency when it comes to electronically stored data, or any type of social networks. But you would be surprised at how some of them do,” Swain said. “I think there’s a presumption that anyone we hire will have a working knowledge of Internet use, social media use, electronic communication use.”

Ramsden noted that with regard to electronics, every area of law is dealing with how to approach the legal issues that arise from new technology and media, and greater access to information.

“I think in general younger lawyers are much more computer-savvy about what can be done and what can’t be done in creative ways of using a computer,” Ramsden said. “You also need to bring young people in because they bring a different perspective … my firm has always had a cross-section of ages.”

Client Expectations

Because of the increase in available evidence, family court proceedings have ­become lengthier, Ladov said.

“It takes an enormous amount of time because you’re now trying the case through emails,” he said.

And clients, because they can quickly contact their attorneys via email, ask questions more frequently. Interacting with clients is not limited to meetings and phone calls.

Zurzola called it a part of the “customer service culture.” But unlike the rest of that culture, he said, the courts still move slowly.

“We get emails from people and they expect us to respond immediately,” Gold-Bikin said. “I bill them every time.”

Ladov said a busy family law practitioner gets 100 to 150 emails a day, easily. But those interactions are done more quickly, he said, allowing an attorney to advise many more clients in a given day.

Swain said it has become a “client-driven” area of law because of the resources available to clients. Even before they have chosen a lawyer, she said, many clients will research their legal issues or shop around for an attorney. And in family law, Swain said, clients are dealing with personal issues that they are more likely to see as urgent, compared to other legal matters like getting a will or dealing with a human resources issue at work.

“Any individual who’s involved in a family law matter is going to prioritize their time, energy and resources to that, versus another area of law,” she said.

For more on this story go to: http://www.thelegalintelligencer.com/id=1202749449167/How-Growing-Use-of-Social-Media–Has-Changed-Family-Law-Practice#ixzz3zy1gNdsk

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