Lawyers are notoriously slow at adopting technology. Despite this the use of social media in law is becoming more and more common. In this episode of On Balance, hosts JoAnn Hathaway and Tish Vincent talk to Justice McCormack about the benefits to judges using social media. Some of these benefits include communicating with other judges across the state and effectively sharing information with the public. They also explain how to get started with social media, taking proper precautions, and not oversharing personal information.
Justice Bridget Mary McCormack joined the Michigan Supreme Court in January 2013 and is a law professor University of Michigan Law School.
State Bar of Michigan: On Balance Podcast
Bringing Social Media to the Bench
Intro: Welcome to State Bar of Michigan’s On Balance Podcast, where we talk about practice management and lawyer wellness for a thriving law practice with your hosts JoAnn Hathaway and Tish Vincent, here on Legal Talk Network.
Take it away ladies.
JoAnn Hathaway: Hello and welcome to another edition of the State Bar of Michigan: On Balance Podcast on Legal Talk Network. This is JoAnn Hathaway, Practice Management Advisor for the Practice Management Resource Center at the State Bar of Michigan.
Tish Vincent: And this is Tish Vincent, Program Administrator for the Lawyers and Judges Assistance Program at the State Bar of Michigan. We are recording today’s show at the NEXT Conference in Detroit, Michigan.
JoAnn Hathaway: Joining us now we have Justice Bridget McCormack from the Michigan Supreme Court. Welcome to the show.
Justice Bridget Mary McCormack: Thank you very much.
Tish Vincent: Before we get started, please tell us a little bit more about yourself.
Justice Bridget Mary McCormack: Absolutely. Well, thank you very much for having me. I am one of the seven Justices on the Michigan Supreme Court. I was elected in November 2012, so I started serving in January 2013. So I have been on the court, what does that make me, five-and-a-half years.
And before that, I was a professor at the University of Michigan Law School and I ran the Clinical Programs there. So actually, while I was teaching law students I was also practicing in the courts of the state, including the court I now serve on. Before that, long before that, I taught at Yale Law School, and before that I was a lawyer in New York City, a public defender in fact, that was my first job out of law school.
JoAnn Hathaway: Wow, wonderful.
Tish Vincent: Very interesting. Well, thank you for joining us today Justice. We are here to discuss social media and the Bench. Would you like to kick this off?
Justice Bridget Mary McCormack: I would. This is a fun topic for me and one that I have done some other speaking about and I am glad you are interested in it and eager to talk to you both about it. As you well know, because you know lawyers, lawyers have been I think slower than other professions to embrace technology at least generally. Some of that make sense. The law is an industry that can, or at least could for a long time survive without it. It is by its nature sort of slow and deliberate. There are lots of things that are sort of inconsistent about technology and the law.
Having said that, the profession is now embracing technology and that’s a good thing. It’s good for the consumers and the public that we serve and the bench is an interesting part of all that. Technology generally is obviously important in courts. It makes our work more efficient, more effective. But judges individually can still be sort of scared of it. But I have been a proponent of judges, not only using technology, but using social media in particular.
As you know, I am elected statewide, and this is a big state, Michigan, there is a whole other part of it way up there, it’s a huge state, and for me to be able to communicate with the people across the state about what our court is up to, what kinds of work we are doing, it’s almost impossible for me to do that by getting in my car and getting around the state. And I think we have some obligation to do that. And the social media, in my view, is a great tool for communicating the work that we are involved in.
Tish Vincent: That’s an interesting idea. Do you encourage other judges to do it?
Justice Bridget Mary McCormack: I do. There are some judges who do it quite a bit. There are judges in our state who are very active on Facebook and on Twitter and view social media, like I do, as a way in which to communicate to the public what their courts are doing. But there are an awful lot who are not involved in social media at all and some of that is sort of a historic understanding of sort of a judge’s role and how it’s different from other people in public life, right?
Other people in public life, especially other people who are elected, come to their roles believing that it’s their job to communicate as much as possible with the public, and so it’s not surprising that members of the other branches of government have embraced social media at a much faster pace than the bench.
But I believe that that reticence, the idea that judges somehow should be reserved and removed from the public is a mistake. I think it’s a mistake because I believe the more the public knows about what we are doing and knows about what we think about what we are doing and can hear stories about what we are doing, the more confidence the public will have in our work and ultimately in the rule of law.
So I believe communicating to the public, however we can, is worth our time and social media is an effective way to do that.
Tish Vincent: I think in talking with some judges just about their own personal use of social media, they are rather frightened that they will make a misstep.
Justice Bridget Mary McCormack: They are. That’s right.
Tish Vincent: And sort of have a connection with someone that might be in front of them in a case or be an attorney. So, are there any special precautions that you encourage judges who are thinking of developing a social media presence?
Justice Bridget Mary McCormack: Yeah, that’s a great question and it’s absolutely the question I get most commonly from judges who have not had a social media presence and frankly they are, as you said, they are afraid that it will somehow embroil them in some ethical problem or some complicated issue that will be hard to recover from.
My response to that is, sure, you could get yourself into trouble on social media, but you can also get yourself into trouble just in any speaking engagement or any other interaction with the public.
It is true that on social media a mistake you make will be amplified and preserved, and so if you made that same mistake in a small room, in a lunch or in an address to a group of people, you might have some hope that it could die out more quickly, so there is that, your missteps and your mistakes will be amplified. But the same way we tell judges, and judges understand that the rules that govern them, the canons that govern them when they are in public life, those same canons govern you online. I mean, the precautions that you would take in preparing for a speech or any other interaction with, or engagement with a group of people, those should be the same ones you take online.
So judges in Michigan at least, I hope everywhere, are prohibited from engaging in partisan activities. Don’t do that online either. It’s sort of simple I think. It’s actually not that complicated, yeah.
JoAnn Hathaway: Well, don’t you find though that a lot of judges maybe just basically don’t have a lot of familiarly with social media? So just the concept in and of itself to engage in social media is foreign to them, so they are not only having to overcome that hurdle, but then, gee, once I have a comfort level with these modes of communication, what do I say? I mean, how do you think that they can position themselves to go down this avenue? Can they basically go out and see what other judges are doing and monitor for a while? Do you have any idea?
Justice Bridget Mary McCormack: Yeah, you can be a lurker for a while. You can say that word. You can hop on to Twitter or Facebook and see what other judges are doing. I addressed the State Judicial Association that the Circuit Judges are part of had a panel on this topic at their annual conference in August and there were a couple of folks in the room who are regularly on Twitter. In fact, I am always re-tweeting them and they are always re-tweeting me, but a whole lot more were skeptical and concerned and worried and they faced exactly the questions that you both have flagged.
One, they are worried some kind of ethical problem or complicated issue that seems amplified. And two, they don’t really know how to do it, because they have been in this profession, that as I said at the outset didn’t require them to learn these modes of communication, so they don’t know how to do it. So they don’t know how to do it, they are afraid of it. And I encouraged a couple of them to just get yourself a Twitter handle and start following me. Start following Chris Yates from Kent County. Start following Qiana Lillard from Wayne County. There are a few of us that are on there a lot.
Follow the Michigan Supreme Court. The Michigan Supreme Court has a Twitter feed and everyday tweets out interesting and informative information, not only about our court and the courts of the state and what they are up to, but also other legal news. It’s a great way to get information out to the public.
Tish Vincent: And some people I think don’t even realize you can get a Twitter handle and not have to identify who you are. I mean, you can make a name and be on there and watch what other people are doing.
Justice Bridget Mary McCormack: Yeah, you can do that. I had to do that before I was active in social media, but I had kids who were.
JoAnn Hathaway: Yeah, we have all done that.
Justice Bridget Mary McCormack: I had a presence in many of the social media so I could see what my kids were up to and sort of learn some things about them that I wasn’t getting from them directly, and that’s a way to do it. But I have seen judges start out slowly and sort of see what’s happening and quickly get engaged in this community.
There are some stories you can tell with social media that are hard to otherwise tell the same way and there are some pretty powerful ones. I mean, I find some of the stories about the successes in our Problem-Solving Courts around Michigan are just told so nicely through Facebook or Twitter, because you are going to have a short link to a positive story, and with a snap of a finger it’s out there, all around the state for people to see.
Tish Vincent: Right, it’s so immediate.
Justice Bridget Mary McCormack: It’s immediate and there is just no other way to get the information out there quite as effectively or as efficiently.
Tish Vincent: Well, that’s a very trailblazing idea. I think we will see more judges follow on.
Justice Bridget Mary McCormack: I think it’s only trailblazing in law, but yeah, I will take it I guess. Luckily I am in law, so I can trail blaze by doing what everybody else is doing in the world.
JoAnn Hathaway: Justice McCormack, can you talk a little bit about just kind of going on a little sidebar here, you talked about the Problem-Solving Courts. Can you explain a little bit more about what Problem-Solving Courts are?
Justice Bridget Mary McCormack: Yeah, you bet. In Michigan, I think in every jurisdiction at this point we have a significant number of courts at the trial level that are devoted to dealing with the problems that the people — the defendants who appear on these courts show up with instead of just sentencing them to whatever jail time is appropriate.
So we have Drug Courts and we have Sobriety Courts and we have Veterans Treatment Courts. We now have some Mental Health Courts and other courts focused just on particular kids with those issues. And in those courts what we are doing is — what the judges in those courts are doing; I don’t sit on the trial courts so I don’t get to actually do this myself, although I love to go to these graduations, the judges on those dockets are connecting the defendants in their courtrooms with the services they need to solve the underlying problem, the underlying problem that got them there in the first place, whether it’s an addiction to drugs or a mental health issue.
In the case of many of our veterans, PTSD results in both of those things and the courts are able to connect those veterans to services that are already available; services through the VA, but the folks who are having trouble because of their mental illness or because of their addiction, connecting themselves to services. So these courts are connecting them to the services, putting them through a pretty rigorous and usually long-term set of programs and expectations, and then when they are succeeding they are getting the benefit of usually avoiding jail time and sometimes even avoiding a conviction.
And what we have now seen is the success rates from these courts are off the charts. The recidivism rates are way down. And as a result they are not only providing these success stories for the people in the courts and their families of course, but also their communities, because they end up spending less money and having safer communities overall.
So at the Michigan Supreme Court we have invested heavily in these courts. We support them. We train them. We provide certification for them and we are very, very proud of how many of them we have operating in Michigan.
Tish Vincent: They are very successful. If you speak to people that have gone through that process, they really were moved and affected by being involved with Problem-Solving Court for so long, and then the relationships they formed with the people in the court, the judge, and the probation officers and folks.
Justice Bridget Mary McCormack: And usually mentors, especially in the Veterans Treatment Court, we have a mentor model and they have mentors who give up their time. They are just volunteer mentors who serve these courts and are a big part of the success of the folks on the docket.
JoAnn Hathaway: Now, to your knowledge, are these courts then unique to Michigan or is this something —
Justice Bridget Mary McCormack: No, no, there are Problem-Solving Courts all over the country. In fact, there are national organizations that support them. There is an organization out of DC called Justice for Vets that does training and support for Veterans Treatment Courts around the country.
In fact, it’s going to be in Michigan at the end of October for two days doing a regional training for all the volunteer mentors, not just in Michigan, but in this whole region. There are going to be two days at the Michigan Supreme Court doing their regional training. I know Michigan has more Veterans Treatment Courts than any other state in the country however, so we have got that going for us.
JoAnn Hathaway: Good for us.
JoAnn Hathaway: Wonderful. Well, it looks like we have reached the end of our program. I want to thank you for joining us today Justice McCormack.
Justice Bridget Mary McCormack: Thank you for having me.
Tish Vincent: Yes, thank you. If our listeners have questions or wish to follow-up with you, how can they reach you?
Justice Bridget Mary McCormack: Good one. So I would recommend that they go to my Facebook page. They can like it. They can message me there. It’s Justice Bridget Mary McCormack. They can follow me on Twitter @BridgetMaryMc. They can follow the Michigan Supreme Court on Twitter @MISupremeCourt. And I would recommend they do all of the above and they can get in touch with me any of those ways.
Tish Vincent: Thank you very much.
Justice Bridget Mary McCormack: You bet.
JoAnn Hathaway: This has been another edition of the State Bar of Michigan: On Balance Podcast. I am JoAnn Hathaway.
Tish Vincent: And I am Tish Vincent. Until next time, thank you for listening.
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