Ever wonder how easy it is to research people using the Internet? “Several years ago, default privacy settings on social net-working sites were set to no privacy,” says Brian Vail, an Edmonton-based partner at Field Law.
“It was a gold mine.” A gold mine, that is, for litigators who research people involved in their matters. Opposing clients, their own clients, opposing counsel, jurors, witnesses, judges — the Internet can provide invaluable information on them all to search-savvy lawyers, much of it coming from the subjects themselves and their social network posts.
Omar Ha-Redeye believes researching opposing counsel is becoming the norm. “Every time I open a file, I get hits on my web-site from the opposing counsel firm’s IP address.”
Try the following tips on searching the web for useful information on people involved in your cases.
Google is still tops for searching. It finds images, news, blogs and other types of online media tagged with a person’s name. Social network postings often rank high in Google results as well.
You may need to tweak searches to elicit better signal-to-noise ratios. For instance, if you’re looking for John Smith, throw in other search criteria, such as a company name, position or work address.
Once you create an effective search, turn it into a Google Alert to receive e-mails as results appear.
To research opposing counsel and other professionals involved in a matter, join LinkedIn first.
You can expect to find multitudes of lawyers on LinkedIn, the “business” social network. Finding people should be straightforward: LinkedIn enables searches by name, company and professional interests (via LinkedIn groups) among other criteria.
Once you join, start building your network by connecting to people you know. Ha-Redeye says that between his 3,500 Facebook connections and 2,000 LinkedIn connections, he can get a good sense of social circles, political affiliations, and sometimes even hobbies for most people under 40 in Toronto, just by looking at connections they have in common. “Lawyers who don’t use social media simply will not be able to obtain these insights.”
On Facebook, people post vacation photos and share details about their “club life and things they would not share in networks like LinkedIn,” says Monica Goyal, founder and CEO of online service My Legal Briefcase.
Caveat: Stuart Rudner, who works with H.R. professionals in employment law, advises them to take Facebook findings with a grain of salt. “You don’t always have control over what’s posted about you,” says the Markham, Ont.-based partner in Miller Thomson LLP’s labour and employment group.
Rudner says that, since Twitter is a fairly casual medium, lawyers can glean a tweeter’s family, hobbies, views on politics, business and so forth.
Twitter is not as popular as LinkedIn or Facebook. “There’s a certain class of people who use Twitter: tech people, media people, celebrities, business people,” Goyal says. She also says that tweeters may use aliases on Twitter, which makes their Twitter streams more difficult to find.
Legal databases and other traditional resources
WestLaw, CanLII, QuickLaw (owned by LexisNexis, which also owns The Lawyers Weekly) — these and other such resources can offer information on people who will participate in litigation. For instance, lawyers can use these resources to learn how certain judges dealt with issues in the past, as well as the expertise and experience opposing counsel bring to the case.
Try online courthouse records, where available. “I had one case where my client rear-ended somebody on a right turn at a particular intersection,” Vail recalls. “The plaintiff here was also the plaintiff in 14 previous cases, all rear-enders, all at that intersection. This suggested that the accident was staged and my client was sucked into it.”
Protect your clients
“I encourage my clients to Google themselves before coming to examinations for discovery or court proceedings,” says Eric Magraken, a Victoria-based partner at MacIsaac & Company. “Litigants need to know what people can learn about them using a quick Google search.”
Your clients can maximize social network privacy settings and not post anything about their cases. They should not delete postings or deactivate accounts.
If you think opposing clients might remove material from the web, Sparks v. Dubé (2011 NBQB 40), a case Vail describes as “probably the bible on this matter,” enables counsel to conscript opposing counsel to ensure preservation.
Archives, such as the Wayback Machine, store much (but not all) of the web’s con- tent and keeps it even after the owner deletes the original version. It’s worth a visit if you suspect information might have been deleted.
Stay ethical online and off
If an action isn’t unethical in the “real world,” it’s just as wrong online. However, online behaviour that crosses the line, such as friending an opposing litigant on Facebook, may be very easy to do and difficult to detect.
“Many people accept others as Facebook friends even if they don’t know who they are,” says Vail, author of the report Stupidity In E-Space: Social Networking Sites And The Law.
“To communicate directly with the opposing client without counsel present is unethical, whether you do it using Facebook or email or just meeting with them.”
Don’t be afraid to ask for help from the search-savvy. Other lawyers have approached Ha-Redeye for advice on online research, and Vail calls on paralegals at his firm. “I’m constantly amazed at what they find,” he says.
Don’t limit searches to just what’s in this article. The web is a huge mine of information, and this article is but an entrance tunnel. If you learn of other promising avenues, try them out.
From YouTube videos showing “mobility-impaired” insurance claimants dancing to Foursquare profiles listing places a person frequents, the edge you seek could be a click away.