June 15, 2010
Social Networking and Class Actions
Both the ABA Journal and the Wall Street Journal have articles in today's news about the use of social networking as a legal tool. The ABA Journal notes that law firms' websites are "set up to resemble community forums or news boards." But a closer look at the forums shows that they're principally meant for client recruitment and information dissemination. For example, Sokolove Law's website Yaztalk.com has created a Facebook group (with an empty "discussion" board) where it poses questions as posts, such as "Do you know your clot risk." Its main website has a chat function and a form for requesting a free legal consultation. Thus, both the website and the Facebook page seem focused on client recruitment, not building communities. The Wall Street Journal's report confirms as much in this short excerpt: "'Young ladies spend a lot of their time online, socializing through social media,' said Michael Skoler, [Sokolove's] chief marketing officer. The YazTalk.com site, which includes a sign-up form for legal consultation, has netted hundreds of clients, he said. 'The folks who reach us through social media are twice as likely to become clients as those who would reach us through television or print."
As someone who has written extensively about the power of social media to connect claimants in nonclass aggregation, allow them to discuss the litigation's progress and their particular ends with one another, and, ultimately, to make decisions and exercise client control, I have mixed reactions to websites like Yaztalk.com.
On one hand, the sites do a nice job of educating the public on alleged drug risks. Similar sites such as bigspills.com keep the public abreast of news developments in the growing BP oil spill. Sites like these provide a notice function (albeit one that is largely one-sided), which is an admirable public service. Other sites like Napoli Bern's site for the First Responders' 9/11 litigation (www.877wtchero.com) provide litigation documents, legal news, transcripts of judicial hearings, frequently asked questions, and all of the pertinent settlement documents.
On the other hand, despite the Wall Street Journal's quote that "[w]ith sites like Facebook and Twitter, it has become easier for firms to 'build targeted communities and to network within those communities,'" I see little evidence of genuine community. But I also see tremendous potential. As I wrote recently in Litigating Together: Social, Moral, and Legal Obligations, "Technology has changed the way we interact with one another socially, but it has also provided a means for facilitating traditional face-to-face interaction. Plaintiffs might use these new communication media to set up regional face-to-face meetings, discuss key decisions, receive attorney updates and recent court documents, pose questions, tell their stories, and generally keep in touch with one another. In short, this kind of technology makes it easier for geographically dispersed plaintiffs to coordinate initial meetings and, subsequently, to communicate, deliberate, and bargain with each other." (at 32) Giving litigants a voice in the decision-making process (through communicating with one another and voting on major litigation decisions) furthers litigants' faith in the judicial system and makes it less likely that they'll collaterally attack the result.
So, while I applaud the use of technology, I do hope that it can be deployed in more meaningful ways that extend beyond client recruitment to allow claimants to communicate with each other. (Of course, to the extent that it includes privileged information, it would need to be password protected and include appropriate security measures.)
If you're interested in the use of technology in class actions, you might also take a look at an article by Bob Klonoff, Mark Herrman, and Brad Harrison titled "Making Class Actions Work: The Untapped Potential of the Internet."
(h/t Jason Solomon)
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