Lawyers and Foursquare: ethical problems?

Foursquare is one of the many social networking ideas online today. I’ve never used it, but from what I gather, with Foursquare you can “check in” at various venues like restaurants, stores, movie theaters, and the like. As a person checks in more often at a single place, that person can earn titles. I think if you are the person who checks in the most at a certain locale, you win the title “mayor.” (This particular “game” has little appeal for me. I don’t need all my friends knowing that I’ve just arrived at the local burger joint.)

Foursquare’s business model obviously counts on business locations to play along. Foursquare encourages businesses to offer incentives for people to check in. For most business owners, this is a good plan: if my customers know that they’ll get a free large espresso when they get to X number of check-ins, those customers will come back to my coffee shop more often. It’s simply a variation on the punch cards that many restaurants offer to regular customers: a classic customer rewards program.

What does this have to do with lawyers? It appears that some law offices have decided to join the Foursquare world. Clients can check in on their smart phones while waiting for their appointment. People apparently love to check in on Foursquare as a way of competing with their friends, and law firms appear to be cool and current with the latest trends. Sounds great, right?

I’m not so sure. While digging around on Foursquare’s web site, I found that one client of our firm apparently checked in (even though our firm has not registered as an official Foursquare participant). I realized that it might be wise for our firm to “claim” our business on Foursquare before someone else does, so I went through the process, and Foursquare sent a static cling window label we can use to advertise the fact that our firm is participating on Foursquare.

At no time did I seriously consider putting the label on our front door, but that idea made me think of something. By encouraging our clients to check in on Foursquare or any of the similar social networks, are we getting too close to the line of breaching a client’s confidence? Some clients or potential clients may not want anyone to know that they have visited a lawyer’s office. A person seeking a consultation about a possible divorce fits into this category nicely. Of course, one would hope that a person in that type of situation would know not to check in on Foursquare. The possibility that a person might do so without thinking through the idea is what concerns me. I would guess that some people are so into Foursquare that they semi-automatically check in whenever they see the window decal. People tend not to think when they are doing something out of habit. As an example, we had one close call where a client almost had her credit card receipt mailed to her house after a divorce consultation. That caused us to change our forms and ask if the client wants the receipt mailed elsewhere.

These concerns have led me to the conclusion that our firm will not be an active participant on Foursquare. We’ve claimed our business, but that’s as far as we’re going. If clients are waiting and just happen to check in on their own, that’s fine. We’re not going to encourage the practice, however.

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