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How Social Media is Impacting Law Students

Graduates are grappling with their presence while navigating an increasingly competitive job market.

They were the sort of offensive, cringeworthy online posts that one might expect to see on a teenager’s Facebook page. They included thing like: “That girl is hot as f***;” “Straight NUTT in that b****;” “who is the [gay slur] that made this video?;” and a  reference to improving videogames by getting rid of “gay s***.” Yet these online musings were posted not by a teenager, but by a recent law school graduate, Otion Gjini, applying for admission to practice in Maryland. The online statements, many of which were made during Gjini’s final year of law school, were cited by the Maryland Court of Appeals this July in denying Gjini’s admission to the bar on “character and fitness” grounds. Although the majority of the court based its ruling on Gjini’s lack of candor about his brushes with the criminal justice system, the judges were clearly troubled by these “patently offensive” comments. The court quoted the chairman of the Maryland State Board of Bar Examiners Character Committee, Benjamin Vaughan, who said, “The very fact that such expressions directed at any person within our community would continue to find any degree of acceptance in our culture, pop or otherwise, might be the most compelling reason why they should not be tolerated among members of the legal profession. The legal profession cannot aspire to justice on behalf of just some members of the community to the exclusion of others.”

Given the prevalence of social media–Facebook now boasts more than 1.7 billion users worldwide, with 293,000 status updates posted each minute–wannabe lawyers are being scrutinized through the unforgiving lens of social networking. As far back as 2011, a Kaplan Test Prep survey indicated that 37 percent of law school admissions officers reported checking out applicants on social media–a far higher percentage than admissions officers for colleges and business schools. A 2015 survey by recruiting software company Jobvite found that 52 percent of recruiters say they “always search” candidates’ online profiles during the hiring process. And, according to a 2013 Careerbuilder study, 43 percent of hiring managers disqualified applicants based on information found online, including provocative photos (50 percent), posts about alcohol or drug use (48 percent), badmouthing a current or former employer (33 percent), making discriminatory comments related to things like race, gender, or religion (28 percent), and lying about qualifications (24 percent).

Wannabe lawyers are being scrutinized through the unforgiving lens of social networking.

Law students and recent law graduates today have to navigate one of the most challenging job markets in recent history. The National Association for Legal Placement recently reported that the class of 2015 secured fewer private practice jobs than any class since 1996. And they are doing so having come of age in the era of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, where comments and content that can sink a career are just a few keystrokes away, preserved for posterity, and sharable with an online audience of millions. Florida law student Taylor Chapman recorded and posted a racist rant about employees at a local Dunkin’ Donuts in 2013, only to see the video go viral and jeopardize her chances at legal employment. In 2012, a newly licensed South Carolina lawyer, Dannitte Mays Dickey, was disciplined by that state’s Supreme Court for grossly exaggerating his experience and credentials–even lying about the year he graduated from law school–in his online profiles. Of course, even older lawyers aren’t immune to social media missteps that can jeopardize employment or professional standing.

So, do such Facebook foibles mean law students and young lawyers should remain cloistered from the digital realm? Of course not. But they do have to find “the right balance between their personal lives, their friends and family and hobbies, and their soon-to-be professional lives,” says Stephanie Kimbro, a North Carolina lawyer and Stanford Law fellow who taught a course on “e-professionalism” for law students. Actually, positive use of social networking platforms can help law students find jobs and jump-start their legal careers. Patrick Ellis was a Michigan State law school student and avid blogger, when he began reaching out to like-minded lawyers on Twitter, via blogs, and at legal technology conferences like New York’s annual LegalTech. Today, Ellis works in the office of the general counsel at General Motors, a job he landed thanks to social media. Nowadays, the importance of social media to the job search is undeniable. An Aberdeen Group study revealed that 73 percent of 18-34 year olds found their last job through a social network, and a nearly identical percentage (72.1 percent) of college graduates indicated that they use online profiles to showcase their experience and search for work.

While technology may offer law students and young lawyers ample opportunities to put their worst foot forward, it also provides plenty of ways in which they can enhance their professional development. The University of Nebraska College of Law, for example, unveiled a first-of-its-kind app in August designed to help students develop 27 distinct professional skills, from problem-solving and networking  to conflict resolution, research and information gathering, and client and business relations. For law students and recent law graduates, blogging can showcase critical writing and analytical skills in a more immediate, accessible way than attaching a lengthy writing sample to a résumé or LinkedIn profile. Those interested in niche practice areas, like white collar criminal defense, might consider following influential leading practitioners on sites like Twitter, and retweeting, commenting on, or sharing quick takes on developments in those fields. Arturo Errisuriz, assistant dean of career services & bar relations at Texas A&M University School of Law, cites one recent graduate who connected through LinkedIn with a California patent law firm. That led to a recommendation and then a job offer for the young grad from a New York intellectual property firm.

Although law schools in general have lagged in incorporating technology into their curriculums, career services professionals have championed the use of social networking platforms to connect with potential employers and clients. Karen Sargent, assistant dean in SMU Dedman School of Law’s Office of Career Services, is a believer. So is SMU third-year law student Jillian Bliss, a former journalist whose active Twitter presence and following among state officials has helped lead to internships with state agencies and points to “tweets that let them know I am very interested in what goes on in our state government and want to be involved.”

Few law schools, however, have embraced social media the way Texas A&M has. Dean Errisuriz says that the school doesn’t stop at just lecturing students on the importance of social media. “We actively help them with their profiles,” he points out. “LinkedIn is one of the resources we are really pushing. We have a staff photographer available to take professional-quality photos for students’ LinkedIn profiles, since hiring partners and recruiting coordinators tell us all the time that they are checking candidates’ social media profiles.” In fact, Errisuriz says that the school’s commitment to social media is also a financial one. “We pay for each student to have a one year LinkedIn premium job-seeker account, which is not cheap. We’ve also brought in a LinkedIn representative to give presentations to students and faculty alike on leveraging their social media connections.”

And after all, it’s also not a bad thing for a future legal employer to note a robust social media presence at a time when the internet and social networking platforms in particular are assuming greater importance in generating business. A recent FindLaw survey showed that 69 percent  of American adults between the ages of 18 and 44 are more likely to hire a lawyer who is active on social media. The same study found that 34 percent of consumers already use social networks to help them find legal services.

Nevertheless, at a time when breaking into the legal job market is more difficult than ever, it is critical for young lawyers to stand out, and not in a bad way, from the rest of the pack. So while that wild spring break in Cancun may have been fun, or while that Facebook page may have more bong references than a Seth Rogen movie, no good can come of letting those personal glimpses overshadow one’s professional presence. As professor Jan Jacobowitz of the University of Miami School of Law, an authority on legal ethics and social media, sagely reminds us, “The takeaway for law students and lawyers alike remains: beware of what you post. Membership in the legal profession affords you both 24/7 privileges and obligations.”

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