When the pandemic forced the world into isolation two years ago, everyone from teenagers attending class on Zoom to attorneys trying to find new ways to attract clients resorted to a flashy, relatively new social media platform: TikTok.
Ever since then, the short-form video hosting service owned by Chinese company ByteDance has had to face the brunt of many U.S. officials, from former U.S. President Donald Trump to more recently Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Commissioner Brendan Carr. In late June, Carr sent a letter to Apple and Google’s CEOs, cautioning them of TikTok’s alleged attempts to reroute U.S. consumer data to China. He added that such a practice makes the app unfit for the companies’ app store privacy compliance.
Still, the platform’s popularity has barely budged, with one billion active users worldwide to date.
For attorneys, the privacy concerns that have plagued TikTok are not proving a deterrent. But they do see it as an opportunity to brush up on data privacy hygiene and take some extra precautions.
Brandon Pettijohn, the founder of the Law Office of Brandon C. Pettijohn, Attorney at Law, has been posting legal comedy skits on TikTok since 2020 and has amassed over 481,000 followers with millions of likes for his content. For Pettijohn, the privacy concerns around the app are not alarming, but a reminder to create clean data separation between a firm and a personal brand when it comes to the platform.
“I try to use all the basic internet protections, like using a VPN for all my devices. I don’t run my TikTok through my firm, but through a separate media company that does all my marketing. I feel like utilizing a media technology company that is separate from your law firm, from a liability standpoint is helpful,” Pettijohn said. “But for all apps that I have on my phone, my data is, unfortunately, getting out to some extent. But I went into this knowing that I would be giving up some information in order to use this product. That’s the back and forth.”
To be sure, Pettijohn mentioned the additional risks of TikTok content being monetized and a user needing to provide forms like W-9 to receive payments. He especially noted that, for any attorneys monetizing their content and providing financial information to the company, that divide between the firm and a media company is vital.
On the other hand, in spite of his concerns around the “crossover” between Chinese corporations and China’s government, he feels safer knowing that TikTok stores U.S. user data on U.S. servers.
Of course, this is a new development, with the company only recently making the data center switch around the same time a Buzzfeed report quoted a TikTok Trust and Safety department member saying, “Everything is seen in China.” TikTok announced it would revise its data storage policies to limit U.S. user data to the Oracle Cloud, making a “100% pivot” to the Oracle infrastructure from its servers in Singapore or the U.S.
For Pettijohn, like many up-and-coming attorneys, the platform, with all its flaws, offers a chance to step around the usual barriers to self-promotion and brand creation.
“Do I have privacy concerns with TikTok? Sure, yes. But I feel like social media gives a lot of younger attorneys an edge over well-established names [and] I have gotten quite a bit of business from it,” he said. “Weighing those privacy concerns, and my internal message of ‘Hey, let’s humanize this profession,’ I think it helps to be cautious, but I don’t think it warrants me to kind of shut everything down.”
Very similar to Pettjohn, data privacy attorney Cecilia “Cece” Xie also believes the app’s user accessibility, simple editing features, and an algorithm that makes it easy to find one’s audience is why legal professionals are attracted to the platform over others.
While she is hesitant to take a stance on whether attorneys should stay or leave due to differing considerations they might have, she does believe that attorneys should treat “anything you do on an electronic device, especially on the internet, as if that were on a Times Square billboard.”
Xie has over 410,000 followers on the app, where she began posting content about the legal profession in 2020 when the pandemic hit. Even with the privacy concerns around TikTok, and the larger data privacy conversation, Xie doesn’t have plans to leave the platform anytime soon. Still, she is cautious and recommends maintaining data hygiene best practices. While she is not working with a law firm currently, when she was affiliated with one, she maintained separate phones so as to not mingle work and personal data, and only accessed work documents through a VPN.
To be sure, Xie and Pettijohn aren’t the only attorneys who think the benefits of TikTok for attorneys outweigh the risks. Other firms like family law practice Brown & Dutton and legal recruiter Dan Binstock, still have their content up and running on the platform.
“This is true not just for attorneys, but for everyone, that the barrier to entry [on TikTok] is much easier than previous social media platforms,” Xie said. “I also think the interest in legal issues during the pandemic [to now] really increased just given a lot of the world events that have happened during this time. Right now, there’s a lot of attention on the Supreme Court. So a lot of attorneys have been using their platform as a way to interpret the legal news to the general audience.”