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Protecting your online reputation

7 March 2013

What is the issue?

  • As solicitors you should continually think about the importance of protecting and maintaining your, and your practice's, reputation. This increasingly includes the recognition that any presence online plays a significant part in shaping that reputation.
  • Your online reputation, whether personal or corporate, can be damaged in a number of ways. The speed at which information can spread online potentially affects reputations at a quicker pace than ever before.
  • You/your practice should take steps to ensure that you portray a positive online reputation and the hard work spent in building up your reputation 'offline' is not compromised in any way by what happens online.

Legal status

This practice note is the Law Society's view of good practice in this area. It is not legal advice.

Practice notes are issued by the Law Society for the use and benefit of its members. They represent the Law Society's view of good practice in a particular area. They are not intended to be the only standard of good practice that solicitors can follow. You are not required to follow them, but doing so will make it easier to account to oversight bodies for your actions.

Practice notes are not legal advice, nor do they necessarily provide a defence to complaints of misconduct or of inadequate professional service. While care has been taken to ensure that they are accurate, up to date and useful, the Law Society will not accept any legal liability in relation to them.

For queries or comments on this practice note contact the Law Society's Practice Advice Service.

SRA Principles

There are ten mandatory principles which apply to all those the SRA regulates and to all aspects of practice. The principles can be found in the SRA Handbook.

The principles apply to solicitors or managers of authorised bodies who are practising from an office outside the UK. They also apply if you are a lawyer-controlled body practising from an office outside the UK.

Terminology

Must - A specific requirement in legislation or of a principle, rule, outcome or other mandatory provision in the SRA Handbook. You must comply, unless there are specific exemptions or defences provided for in relevant legislation or the SRA Handbook.

Should

  • Outside of a regulatory context, good practice for most situations in the Law Society's view.
  • In the case of the SRA Handbook, an indicative behaviour or other non-mandatory provision (such as may be set out in notes or guidance).

These may not be the only means of complying with legislative or regulatory requirements and there may be situations where the suggested route is not the best possible route to meet the needs of your client. However, if you do not follow the suggested route, you should be able to justify to oversight bodies why the alternative approach you have taken is appropriate, either for your practice, or in the particular retainer.

May - A non-exhaustive list of options for meeting your obligations or running your practice. Which option you choose is determined by the profile of the individual practice, client or retainer. You may be required to justify why this was an appropriate option to oversight bodies.

The Law Society also provides a full glossary of other terms used throughout this practice note

1 Introduction

1.1 Who should read this practice note?

All solicitors, particularly those engaging in online activity on behalf of their practice. It will also be of interest to a practice's marketing staff (if applicable).

1.2 What's the issue?

As solicitors you should continually think about the importance of protecting and maintaining your, and your practice's, reputation. This increasingly includes the recognition that any presence online plays a significant part in shaping that reputation.

Your online reputation, whether personal or corporate, can be damaged in a number of ways. The speed at which information can spread online potentially affects reputations at a quicker pace than ever before.

You/your practice should take steps to ensure that you portray a positive online reputation and the hard work spent in building up your reputation 'offline' is not compromised in any way by what happens online. This can be done by:

  • building a profile online
  • monitoring your online reputation .

Whether or not you/your practice has directly engaged in online activity to date, it is becoming increasingly commonplace for those who are interested in your services to interact in this way and it may be that others have already posted content about you/your practice.

You/your practice should consider actively monitoring your online reputation - if you do not control your reputation online, others will.

If you act to control your 'brand' online you will not be leaving yourself vulnerable to others, whether by criticism or other comments, doing it for you. Generally, being active in communicating online with clients and potential clients to get links, 'likes' and comments will assist in building your reputation, as well as establishing expertise and attracting clients. If critical or negative comments are made about you/your practice any existing presence is likely to dilute such comments.

This guidance includes information both about how to build a reputation online and factors to consider if responding to criticism online. In undertaking online activities you should always consider and observe your legal and professional obligations.

2 Building a profile online

2.1 Have a plan

You should take a thoughtful and strategic approach to build and manage your online reputation.

You/your practice should think about the best approach to suit your business and, regardless of the size of your practice, consider having a strategy for any online activity. Some relevant questions to think about are:

  • If for the first time a client or employee searches for your name online, or that of your practice, what do you want them to see?
  • How can you build up a presence online that reflects your own brand?
  • Can you speak with 'one voice' or do you need to segment target audiences?

You may consider how any approach to online activity fits into your practice's wider business plan and any additional resourcing implications; it is important that any online presence is maintained and monitored and that time is set aside to do this.

2.2 Consider whether you need a policy

You/your practice should consider whether to put a policy in place to broadly define the boundaries of online activity and guidelines for engagement.

This may not be appropriate for smaller practices. If this is the case, an alternative would be to consider selecting one person to oversee online activity.

The purpose of a policy should be to:

  • consider the value having a profile online will bring to your practice and its clients
  • ensure that all individuals working in a practice are aware of any standards and processes that are in place and that those actively engaged online have had appropriate training, for example to ensure that they are using the most appropriate online channels
  • protect your practice's reputation from inappropriate online activity, both within the practice but also from outside, for example via third party websites that you/your practice has little control over.

Our social media practice note considers in more detail what could be included in a policy.

2.3 Sharing any plans/policies

You/your practice should ensure that employees are aware of any plan or policy that is in place. This may include providing clear guidance and instructions to any employees actively engaged in developing, or monitoring, online activity.

You/your practice should also think about how to monitor who is operating, and has access to, a practice's online profile eg the practice's website, corporate social media accounts etc.

Even if employees do not engage in a practice's online activity, do not assume that it is not necessary for these individuals to be covered by your practice's policy. For example, social media channels will be used by employees for personal use and you may wish to make it clear, if work or work-related subjects are mentioned in a personal capacity, what is acceptable.

2.4 An effective website

Having an effective website is fundamental to your online reputation as it will often be the first point of contact that many clients have with you/your business. You should think about continually updating and improving your website. For example, you may consider:

  • making sure it is accurate and up to date - this may include reviewing the main pages on a regular basis and fixing any problems promptly
  • including full contact information - you may think about including photographs and information about employees who deal with clients
  • ensuring that the design is professional and appropriate to your business
  • linking to any blogs or social media accounts associated with your business
  • considering adding relevant, verifiable client testimonials
  • making sure that it is accessible and can be used by individuals using assistive technology (see our practice note on Equality and diversity requirements: SRA Handbook for more information).

Your domain name should include the name of your practice ('domain names' are unique names used to identify websites and emails, for example lawsociety.org.uk is an example of a domain name).

You are able to register variants of your top level domain name (for example .com, .co.uk, .biz, .info) to reduce the risk of them being registered by third parties for misuse but please note that there may be a cost to maintaining multiple variations of a domain name.

If you engage a website developer to assist you in this area, you may discuss ensuring that your IP rights are appropriately protected.

2.5 Ways to build an online profile

In addition to having an effective website, you/your practice can build a profile online via:

2.5.1 Search engines

If your website can be found in the major search engines results pages this will help to raise your profile and you should think about ensuring your website is visible in this way. If you are not already listed, the easiest way to get listed is to submit your website directly to the search engines. You may consider doing this for the two main search engines; Google and Bing.

You may also submit your practice to Google Local, Google's local business listings. Having a listing means that your practice may appear marked on a map when people search for relevant services in their area. If you do this remember to regularly review and update your information. Please note - Google Local will allow verified users to rate and review your business.

It may be worth thinking about 'rich snippets', which are the few lines of text that appear under every search result. These are designed to give users a sense of what's on the page and why it is relevant to their query. Guidelines on rich snippets can be found in Google's support pages.

2.5.2 Social media

Social media channels ­can be used to raise your profile online and assist you in building a reputation for quality and expertise. Our social media practice note has full information on using social media.

Even if you decide not to use social media channels such as Twitter or Facebook, you may consider registering your practice name with them to prevent it being registered by third parties.

2.5.3 Blogs

Writing blogs around your areas of expertise or contributing as a guest blogger to other popular blogs can help to raise your profile online. You may wish to think about linking all blogs back to your main website and whether disclaimers may be appropriate, for example, if views expressed are personal and not representative of your practice.

2.5.4 Linking all your online activity

Depending on the extent of your online presence, you should think about including links to your website from other sources. For example:

  • linking to your website from any social media profiles, blogs etc
  • getting listed in online business directories
  • asking partner businesses or clients to link to you.

Raising your profile in this way is called 'link building' and it can take time to see improvements in ranking. Google provides a Search engine optimisation starter guide' (PDF). There are also companies that can help you improve your ranking in search engines' results pages through link building and other search engine optimisation techniques.

2.5.5 Other

Other means of promoting yourself online include writing press releases and submitting them to local news websites. You may wish to investigate whether your practice is on Wikipedia. Read Wikipedia's FAQs for businesses.

3 Monitoring your online reputation

You should be aware of what is being said about you/your practice. You/your practice will likely be affected by content on external websites which is out of your control (although you may be able to respond or take action, see below).

You should consider regularly reviewing and monitoring your online presence. This may be time consuming initially but by doing this you can review, and possibly remove, any information that could reflect negatively on you or that do not feel comfortable with.

If you/your practice delegate monitoring to a third party you may consider making the limits of such an agreement clear and mutually agreeing it in writing. For example, noting that such an agreement is restricted to monitoring activity and is not about responding to on behalf of a practice.

3.1 How you can monitor your online presence

You may wish to monitor:

  • Search engine results page positioning – aim for your website to appear first in the listings for a search of your practice name
  • @ replies in your Twitter feed or posts on your Facebook page
  • General comments made about your practice on social media or other websites
  • Review sites
  • Hate sites – sites that disparage individuals or practices.

You may wish to consider the following (free) tools to help you monitor your reputation:

  • Google Alerts – email updates of the latest relevant Google results (web, news, etc) based on your specified search terms
  • Yahoo! Alerts – as above, Yahoo! Alerts provide updates on news based on your queries
  • Social Mention – social media search and analysis service, providing alerts on areas of interest to you

There are also bespoke services which can provide you with daily updates and alerts. These are usually subscription based.

Whether or not you use these tools, it may be appropriate to review search results once a month. Larger practices that appear in the news regularly may consider reviewing more frequently than this.

3.2 Measuring and improving performance

You may consider putting web analytics code on your website so that you can measure 'traffic'. Privacy and data protection laws may be relevant here.

The most well known tool for this is Google Analytics, which provides digital analytics on your web presence. This includes determining information such as:

  • how many visitors you get to your website a day
  • where your visitors come from
  • which of your webpages are most popular
  • how much time is spent on your webpages.

To use Google Analytics you have to set up an account but it is free to use. Information on how to get started with Google Analytics can be found in the Google support pages.

This is just one of several tools that gathers information such as this.

3.3 Responding to criticism and further action

If you/your practice receive a negative review, or if material has been posted that is defamatory or obscene, there are steps that you can take to deal with this.

If you/your practice has a policy in place on online activity you may consider including reference to some of the steps noted below.

3.3.1 Responding to criticism

Where it is within your power to respond to online comments or reviews, positive or negative, you may wish to consider doing so. How you do this will affect the overall reputation of you/your practice.

Responding to criticism in a prompt, polite manner will assist in building credibility, as well as being an effective means of correcting misleading or inaccurate information. Google offers advice on how to respond to reviews, including:

  • don't get personal
  • feedback is helpful
  • keep it short and sweet

You may think about having a process in place to categorise those comments that you will, and will not, respond to.

  • If a comment raises serious concerns or is constructive criticism you may consider responding online, or think about whether the conversation would be better taken offline.
  • If a comment is from a 'troll' (someone who posts inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community) you may wish to consider if there is any value in responding. You may consider whether to engage at all with users who are aggressive or abusive.

3.3.2 Further action

Under defamation law, those whose reputation has been harmed by statements made by others may be able to sue for damages and to prevent those statements being repeated. Defamation law can apply to comments, opinions or communications made online. Harassment and/or data protection law can also be relevant.

You/your practice should bear this in mind at all times when engaging in any online activity.

It may be that defamatory comments are made about you/your practice. Whether or not you decide to respond to such comments, or have decided that it is inappropriate to respond, you can take further action.

A business can request that an internet service provider (ISP) removes unlawful material.

Furthermore:

  • Social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter often have procedures in place to manage these issues.
  • Review sites may also have procedures in place to deal with offensive or defamatory posts but there is no guarantee that negative reviews considered simply unfair will be removed.

4 Key points to remember

The same ethical obligations that you adhere to professionally, apply to conduct online

You must ensure that before you participate in any activity, and throughout, that you adhere to the Principles and Code of Conduct in the SRA Handbook.

Address the issue of blurring boundaries between personal and professional

It is often not clear where personal and professional boundaries lie, particularly in relation to social media. It is important that personal and professional uses are not confused and the most appropriate social media channel is selected for your activity.

If you engaging in online activity in a personal capacity, you should consider whether you will be associated with activities that may adversely affect your current employer, or be viewed by other professionals or clients.

What happens online stays online

As a general rule it is safest to work on the assumption that nothing is forgotten and that any interaction you have online – every comment, status update, response, photo – is captured and stored.

Be careful when adopting privacy settings

Adopting privacy settings does not necessarily mean that the information you post on social media sites will be protected. Some sites are totally open to the public. You should review privacy settings when setting up any account. Some sites allow you to test your privacy settings from another account's point of view.

You should be aware that confidential, private information can be transmitted without you realising it. For example, with Facebook 'Graph Search' you can look up anything shared with you on Facebook and others can find things shared with you. It could be beneficial for marketing but could present risks if not used carefully.

Consider whether any passwords are sufficiently secure to deter hackers

5 More information

5.1 Practice Advice Service

The Law Society provides support for solicitors on a wide range of areas of practice. Practice Advice can be contacted on 020 7320 5675 from 09:00 to 17:00 on weekdays or email practiceadvice@lawsociety.org.uk.

5.2 Law Society Consulting

If you require further support, Law Society Consulting can help. We offer expert and confidential support and guidance, including face-to-face consultancy on risk and compliance. Please contact us on 020 7316 5655, or email consulting@lawsociety.org.uk.

Find out more about our consultancy services

5.3 Other Law Society practice notes:

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Practice Advice Service

The Practice Advice Service provides a dedicated support line for Law Society members and employees of law firms. Call us on 020 7320 5675.

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