Though I’m not sure about their long-term effectiveness for attracting clients, most law firm contests are undeniably fun as well as a way for a firm to give back to the community. A recent sampling of contests that I culled from the news included a contest for high school students to create videos about the importance of bike safety, a contest celebrating March Madness with give-away of two free Jazz basketball tickets and a contest for best business pitch. Of course, some contests seems a bit tacky, such as the Valentine’s Day divorce contest run by a West Virginia firm (it’s not the divorce that’s tacky, in my view – just the contest’s timing).

As more firms adopt social media, expect contests to proliferate, for a couple of reasons. First, there’s nothing like social media — either a Facebook Fan Page or a Twitter stream to build buzz and enthusiasm about a law firm contest. Second, many law firms may view contests as a way to generate more friends and followers by making prize eligibility contingent on “liking” the firm’s Facebook page or following it on Twitter.

Regardless of their reasons for sponsoring a contest, when law firms use social media as a platform to conduct or publicize their contest, they must comply with three categories of rules: (1) Bar advertising rules (which I won’t discuss here; suffice it to say, read your jurisdiction’s rules in advance or contact bar counsel with questions), (2) laws governing sweepstakes and games of chance and and (3) platform-specific regulations regarding contests.

Laws on Online Contests Because online contests have been around for more than a decade, the basic legal principles are fairly well established. An excellent summary is available in this excellent online compliance guide for online contests and sweepstakes by Antone Johnson of Bottom Line Law.

As described in the guide, companies must avoid operating an illegal lottery which generally involves payment of an entry fee, a winner chosen by random chance and prize awarded. However, companies can run sweepstakes, which is a drawing for a prize by chance alone or contests which requires some kind of skill and judging and an entry fee is permissible. Contests must have official rules that specify eligibility requirements and disclose restrictions on receiving the prize.

Platform-Specific Rules But contests conducted on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter include an added twist. Not only must companies holding contests comply with the general rules just discussed, they must also adhere to the social media platform’s contest policies. Failure to comply with these policies can result in removal of promotion materials or disabling of an account.

Twitter’s contest guidelines are fairly simple and straightforward:Contest sponsors should encourage entrants to use Twitter conventions (@ sign to signify a reply and a hashtag(#) showing a subject) to communicate with each other, and discourage them from tweeting multiple entries. Finally, both the contest sponsor and participants are expected to abide by Twitter’s use guidelines.

Facebook’s contest rules are subject to frequent revision (the last revision was December 1, 2010) and are far more complicated. Facebook users are prohibited from using their wall or other pages to create a contest; instead, they must set it up through an application on the Facebook platform. Users can enter the promotion only via the application or a tab created on the Facebook page. The promotion must include certain disclosures.

Facebook also sets rules on what contest sponsors can ask of entrants. A sponsor can ask an entrant to like a page as a condition of entry, but cannot require any other action such as uploading a photo or writing a post or comment. (As an aside, seems that this contest, which required a wall post may have run afoul of Facebook’s rules).

Many firms may be tempted to hand off administration of contests on social media to PR reps or marketing gurus. Don’t. It’s you or your firm that will wind up with the suspended account on Twitter or Facebook if the contest isn’t run properly – and further, many face the embarrassment of e-shaming if competitors learn of your missteps.

Law firm contests can be a fun, as well as a way for a firm to show its appreciation for clients and the surrounding community. But having someone contest your firm’s contest because you didn’t follow the rules will take the fun right out of it.