The afternoon portion of today’s Law Camp session was mostly administrative. We heard from several deans and student leaders about various different aspects of academic and social life at law school. The last speaker this afternoon was the dean of career services.
The dean went over a few important dates, and then offered us a piece of advice. I paraphrase:
The single most useful and important thing that you can do in these first several weeks is to investigate and think carefully about the images and information about you that exist on the Internet.
He went on to propose two hypotheticals, in both of which we should assume the role of a hiring partner at a national law firm.
- You gain access to a promising candidate’s Facebook profile, and find a picture of the candidate sitting on the beach in her swimsuit with two of her friends, raising beer cans in a toast. Do you disqualify the candidate based on this image?
- In researching a different but also promising candidate online, you come across a college newspaper article complete with photo that says, referring to that candidate: “SGA Secretary Convicted of Stealing School Supplies.” Turns out, it was the April Fool’s edition of the newspaper, but it is not clearly marked on the article and not apparent from the writing style. Do you disqualify the candidate based on this discovery?
The dean didn’t answer the hypotheticals for us, but heavily implied that they were in fact abstracted from real examples in which candidates had been removed from consideration for jobs. He then reiterated that we should attempt to find the information available about us online, and again encouraged us to “think carefully” about getting rid of it.
Now, I’ll try as hard as I can to be a realist. I understand that competition is fierce for jobs, especially in the legal market, and that recruiters will look for the tiniest things to differentiate one candidate from another. I certainly think anyone seeking a job should know what is available online about them and consider the effect of that information on their professional reputation.
That said, both of these hypotheticals bothered me. First, I think the “beers on the beach” photo is pretty innocent. The candidate is almost certainly 21 or older. There is no first-hand evidence of a law or regulation prohibiting consumption of beverages, alcoholic or otherwise, on the beach. What is the problem? That the candidate is drinking? Shocker, folks: lawyers drink. When you’re a summer associate, they wine and dine you and then wine you again.
In the April Fool’s scenario, the firm is guilty of the conduct for which many older folks chide younger generations: believing that everything they read on the Internet must be true. Where is the continued research into the matter? Where is the follow-up question or demand for explanation? Congratulations: you might have lost a great candidate because you took things at face value. (I realize that the concern here is that someone might use this information agains the attorney, but this one’s a situation that can be fixed by contacting the school newspaper and asking them to publish an addendum or other clarification on the article. It hardly warrants summary dismissal!)
The dean asked us if we would have reconsidered hiring these people. The real question is: do we want to work at a firm that is so obsessed with petty and superficial details like Facebook photos and fake news articles? Do they not want lawyers who have a social life, who don’t mind being playfully made fun of by their peers? Maybe not. But I’m not sure I want to work for that kind of place, so I hope they’ll state it up front.
William & Mary puts a lot of emphasis on the ideal of the citizen-lawyer: the attorney who is not only a great legal mind, but also a great member of the community. How can we build citizen-lawyers for the 21st century when we ask them to censor their leisure time? Again, I’m not saying that all pictures or digital records are appropriate. If you have an incriminating photo of Phelpsian proportions online, by all means seek to hide it. But there is a difference between presenting a decent profile and sterile one.
I do hope that my new classmates and colleagues will think carefully about how they appear online. But I hope they won’t overdo it.