Thinking Carefully” About Online Reputation

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.

  1. 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?
  2. 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.

2 comments

  1. If there’s not already a cot­tage indus­try devoted to ster­il­iz­ing people’s online pres­ences, I guar­an­tee there will be one soon. It reminds me of work­ing on judi­cial campaigns–the law schools want to hold law stu­dents to the same stan­dards we hold judi­cial can­di­dates to, as far as online pic­tures go.

    Of course, it’s not like recent law school grads have much power in the job market–if you don’t want to work for the petty firm there will be 4,000 other recent grads ready to take your place. Hey, here’s a blog topic for you: how the econ­omy, tort reform, and face­book have cre­ated a per­fect storm of increas­ingly inane hir­ing prac­tices in the legal job mar­ket.

  2. Hear, hear, Jarred. Employ­ers who search someone’s Face­book pro­file for incrim­i­nat­ing pho­tos creep me out a lot more than any­thing I’d be likely to see online from our peers.

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