Barristers are now well and firmly entrenched on social media, especially Twitter, which was a surprise to me when I started working at the Bar Council back in 2014.
For a profession with a very traditional image, I hadn’t anticipated barristers would embrace it so willingly. Some of our friends at the Bar have even established healthy followings and have made a name for themselves by the sharpness of their Tweets.
However, a recent Bar Standards Board report showed a “dramatic increase” in complaints about barristers’ conduct on social media between April 2020 and March 2021.
There have also been one or two headline grabbing incidents of barristers’ conduct on social media in recent years. But does that mean the Bar should learn a lesson and begin to steer clear of social media or look to lead the professions in social media prowess?
In a Times articles last week, the BSB said it was reviewing its social media guidance and would be launching a consultation in the next few months. So, in anticipation of that public debate, here are the arguments for and against the Bar’s future role on social media.
The case for the prosecution
Social media, especially Twitter, is no place for the Bar.
Barristers are often unrestrained by savvy PR teams who effectively and strictly manage the message, as is the case in many law or accountancy firms.
The increase in complaints about barristers’ activity on social says it all.
With the exception of LinkedIn, barristers can’t convey their points as fully as they might on social media and maintain their audience’s attention at the same time. Twitter isn’t ideal for conveying a lengthy argument.
If barristers blow it on Twitter, there’s a real risk that their practice will suffer. Irrespective of whether they end up in front of the Bar Tribunals & Adjudication Service (BTAS), reputations can be crushed by one false move on social media channels, which can be dangerous for any self-employed barrister. The situation is even worse for those whose practice is its early stages.
There’s also sometimes a lack of awareness at the Bar that what is said on Twitter doesn’t stay on Twitter. The press is watching. Most of the time, that’s not such a bad thing, but it can badly backfire and what was initially considered a harmless Tweet ends up on the front page of the Daily Mail.
Past Tweets could come back and bite you. We’ve seen it in other walks of life, such as sport. How long will it be before the hunt for past Tweets will be uncovered and haunt members of the Bar?
The case for the defence
Social media is an excellent way for barristers to build their profiles. It’s worked well for many, who have almost reached celebrity status, for example, The Secret Barrister, Joanna Hardy-Susskind, CrimeGirl and Gerard McDermott QC, to name a few.
For those at the junior end of the Bar being visible can help them grow their practices especially if they play it relatively safely and don’t attract controversy.
Whether it be Twitter or LinkedIn, social media is a good platform on which to highlight important issues to the public and decision makers, as well as gain support. The obvious one is cuts to legal aid, but many a barrister has successfully used social media to gain support for other issues, such as Sean Jones QC’s Billable Hour.
Social media also plays a vital role at the Bar in relation to access to the profession. It’s been critical in throwing off the stuffy image of an elitist, closed profession by demonstrating that the Bar is not entirely pale, male and stale. The Bar Council’s award-winning social mobility campaign on social media #IAmTheBar is testament to that. After years and years of stop-start diversity and inclusion initiatives, it was a social media campaign consisting of barristers from ‘non-traditional’ backgrounds sharing their stories on social media that turned heads.
The Bar, like other professions, can get its views across clearly and succinctly via social media, once they know how. See the ‘pigs might fly’ example that drew press and social media attention, as well as that of the then Lord Chancellor.
In the olden days the only way to get your point across to a wider audience was via the press. Now we have social media as well, giving barristers and their chambers an additional platform to communicate their news, views and more, reaching wider audiences in the process. Any barrister who’s serious about raising their profile will aim for both press and social media.
Despite the warnings and worrying statistics from the BSB, the Bar regulator also provides guidance to barristers for social media to avoid falling foul of their rules. In addition, very few of the complaints made about barristers’ activity on social media result in investigations and subsequent punishment. Just 11 investigations took place in 2020/21. You’d have to go a long way to break the rules.
Some chambers have become highly skilled at promoting their barristers on LinkedIn, operating more like a law firm with fancy branding and professional photography, not to mention thought through posts which are aimed at reaching the right audiences. It can, when done properly, be a useful marketing tool.
There are risks but the gains far outweigh them.
It’s about getting it right and understanding how the platforms work whilst not losing that independent voice that individual barristers must cherish and that sets them apart from other professions. Some barristers have turned their noses up at social media training, assuming it’s an easy path to navigate, but it can make all the difference, help avoid the traps and ensure you avoid trial and error on a very public platform.
If you don’t believe me, read what some of the barristers who have successfully navigated the social media minefield have to say and their tips for other barristers in this blog from Melissa Davis, MD Communications’ CEO.
Help is also at hand from MD Communications through our free guides:
Steve Rudaini is a Partner at MD Communications, a boutique, global reputation and communications consultancy working in the legal and professional service sectors. Steve was formerly Director of External Relations & Communication at the Bar Council (2014-2022).