Straight Outta Edmonton: Social Media and Legal Advocacy: Lessons from MWCI

Within the legal community, blogs, twitter, and other social media platforms have grown to become the norm, as lawyers and firms have realized the potential of these tools to expand their reach and influence. However, at least in the Canadian context, social media has played a secondary role to one’s legal practice, used to build market presence or engage in commentary, rather than being incorporated into a lawyer’s courtroom advocacy.

Being a conservative institution that values confidentiality, it’s clear why social media — with its openness and accessibility — has not been incorporated more directly into legal practice. But there are aspects of legal advocacy that complement the strengths of social media, allowing lawyers to take advantage of them.

The use of social media by lawyers involved in the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry is an example of this. The public inquiry is investigating the factors that allowed serial killer Robert Pickton to murder dozens of women from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside without being apprehended.

Lawyers acting for the victims’ families (@NeilChantler and @ACameronWard), Downtown Eastside (@JasonGratl), and aboriginal interests (@RobynGervaisMWI), have employed social media in novel way, demonstrating how these platforms can enhance legal advocacy. These lawyers routinely live tweet witness testimony and procedural developments, usually followed up with blog posts that provide more extensive discussion of what occurred in court and its implications (in addition to using these platforms for standard legal and social commentary).

By incorporating social media directly into the courtroom, the lawyers are advancing their client’s interests on a number of levels. Firstly, due to funding restrictions imposed by the province of British Columbia, each lawyer individually represents a large and disparate number of people. Not only does this pose challenges to ensuring that each individual client is being served, but how to communicate with them on the developments at the inquiry on an ongoing basis. This is particularly true with those representing the victim’s families, whose clients are spread out across the country. Though the CBC live streams the inquiry, clients may be unable to watch the day time proceedings or easily relate what’s being discussed to the larger issues being investigated.

In addition to the access to justice consideration raised above, the inquiry explores a matter that is clearly in the public interest. Therefore, counsel for the affected parties have an added responsibility to engage broader society in the inquiry. Legal commentary does serve this purpose, but so does tweeting and making available documents, such as weekly overviews of the proceedings. These documents in particular allow the public to directly engage with evidence presented at the inquiry and assess its significance, rather than relying on secondary news reports that can obfuscate much.

Further, by engaging in social media, these lawyers are not merely dispensing information regarding the inquiry, but are also seeking the public’s input. Consistently, we see counsel request feedback in the form of questions, comments, and suggestions, attempting to make their work in the courtroom a collaborative effort.

For legal advocates, as well as law students like myself, the innovative use of social media at the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry is an indication of how these tools can be effectively incorporated into one’s legal advocacy. However, employing social media is not appropriate in all aspects of legal practice. During a public inquiry, it certainly may be acceptable, but not necessarily in private civil cases. Be conscious of the limits.

For further information on the inquiry, please consult:

Hashtag: #MWCI

Counsel for Victims’ Families: Neil Chantler (@NeilChantler) and Cameron Ward (@ACameronWard), as well as their blog.

Counsel for the Downtown Eastside: Jason Gratl (@JasonGratl)

Counsel for Aboriginal Interests: Robyn Gervais (@RobynGervaisMWI) and her weekly proceedings overview found on Harper Grey LLP’s website (though not easy to navigate: Week 1, Week 2, Week 3, Week 4, Week 5, Week 6, Week 7, Week 8, Week 9, Week 10, Week 11).

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