By Tom Collins
If you read the title of this post out loud quickly, you'll get an idea of my personal opinion about lawyers — and their clients — who take a "sue first and ask questions later" approach to the feedback they get from customers via social media. A couple of years ago, I wrote a post called A Blogger in Every Firm, in which I asked,
"Whether businesses and business lawyers can/should continue to operate in a Web 2.0 world without becoming bloggers themselves, or having one on staff?
The uproar about a Chicago real estate company suing a tenant over her tweet implying there was mold in her apartment prompts me to update my opinion: I think every state should make it a mandatory CLE requirement for ALL lawyers to take a course on how social networks spread information and then participate in a blog, Twitter, or similar social media experience before being allowed to offer advice in this arena.
In the earlier post, I gave several examples where the lawyers' knee-jerk response of firing off a cease and desist letter seemed more likely to harm the clients' public image than accomplish anything positive. In the present case, here's the sequence of events:
May 12 - Twitter user @abonnen tweets about Horizon's alleged unreponsiveness to her alleged mold problem
July 27 - Horizon, presumably represented by lawyers, files a lawsuit against Amanda Bonnen, claiming libel and $50,000 in damages
July 27 - by 7:51 pm CT, Chicago's CBS affilliate had the story, including the full text of the offending tweet, on its website (the website's advertiser page boasts that the TV channel reaches 38 million homes, but doesn't mention the site's traffic)
July 28 - Chicago Sun-Times adds the story to its website, which functions like a blog, complete with comments — and by mid-afternoon there were some doozies about Horizon, its buildings, and its lawyers (the website's advertiser page says it gets "3,778,000 unique monthly users")
July 28 - Mashable.com reports the story again, this time adding screen shots of @abonnen's deleted account and (you guessed it) the actual tweet from Google's cache, giving it a national exposure that the lawyers for Horizon probably cannot fathom (advertiser page says more than 6 million monthly pageviews)
So, in the two and a half months from @abonnen's tweet until yesterday, perhpas a few dozen people were exposed to her claim that Horizon wasn't doing anything about a mold problem in her apartment. As Pete Cashmore pointed out on Mashable, she had only 20 followers on Twitter.
Also, according to the Sun-Times article, Horizon acknowledged that it, "never had a conversation about the post and never asked her to take it down." One wonders how they knew her claim was false if they never followed up?
Now, in about 24 hours Horizon and its lawyers have succeeded in presenting her allegation to millions. And as anyone who knows anything about social media will point out, I've only scratched the surface of how this story is spreading.
It seems to me that any damage that Horizon could claim was "caused" by Amanda's tweet stopped yesterday. From 7:51 pm CT last night, when the CBS2Chicago.com story went live, IMHO any and all injury to Horizon was caused by its own — and its lawyers' — actions in pursuit of its “We’re a 'sue first, ask questions later' kind of an organization” policy.
As I asked in my earlier post, what have the lawyers accomplished for their client?
Same goes for lawyers.