Erin Binns is director for career planning at Marquette University Law School.
You’ve heard it before. The decisions you make on social media sites can damage your professional reputation. Career services offices remind new law students every fall: Be careful. Keep it private. Shut it down. Don’t offer photographic evidence of your lapses in judgment. All sound recommendations. But the advice here is different. I say: Get online. Populate your profile. Broadcast your activity. Connect with others. Create a profile that stands out.
Professional networking sites offer terrific opportunities to promote your accomplishments and to brand your competencies. LinkedIn is at the present time the largest professional networking site in the United States. Other sites exist and are growing, including www.zoominfo.com, www.ryze.com, and Connected at www.martindale.com to name a few. LinkedIn serves as the basis for the suggestions proffered here because it’s the most prolifically used professional networking site, but the general advice applies when opting into any online legal or business community.
LinkedIn can be powerful when used well. Its myriad dimensions support job search activities on many fronts. Through LinkedIn you can construct and distribute an up-to-date résumé, build and nurture contacts, search for jobs, join groups and associations, and stay current with headline news. Recently when I logged into my homepage, I was alerted to a general counsel position being posted by an area employer, had a blog entry recommended by a contact, learned a former business associate was stepping down from a position as board president, and saw a colleague connected with an alum whom I should reach out to as well. That’s fantastic information for a 45-second read that was bundled and delivered to me.
Networking sites are great resources—but they have limits, too. The true value of any professional site is determined by your prudent use of it.
Promote and Protect Your Image
Professional networking sites are great places to shape and disseminate your professional brand. As you populate your profile, be thoughtful and selective in what aspects of your experiences, skills, and education you include. You needn’t—and shouldn’t—include all former activities and positions, especially those from days of undergrad that may have little professional flavor. Share only those meaningful experiences that contour your professional image in ways that benefit your current and future plans. Think about the employer and clients you are trying to impress and choose complementary content. What this really means is you shouldn’t build an online profile until you engage in a bit of self-assessment. Defined objectives and goals help you best cater your profile to the audience you hope most to capture.
Update your profile frequently. Once you establish a network, every individual to whom you are linked will get updates broadcasted on their home-pages when you graduate, changes jobs, receive an award, add a skill, and so on. This regular feed of information to your contacts is fabulous because it gives them front-row seats to your professional growth and development.
The fact that your activity is advertised supports the need for it to be tempered with good judgment. Pace your invitations, updates, and group affiliations. Adding 75 contacts and joining 12 groups in a day and then ignoring your account for months doesn’t maximize your exposure.
Make your “Headline” a tagline. The LinkedIn system will automatically provide as your “Headline” the title of the last position you’ve listed in your profile. The headline feature is best utilized by bypassing the default heading and crafting a dynamic tagline. So rather than reading, “Assistant Director of Compliance,” your headline could state: “Juris Doctor with emphasis on compliance and regulatory work in varied settings, including collegiate athletics and government agencies.”
Don’t include anything about “seeking work or unemployed” in your headline. The graduate who gives a shout-out to her law school with a heading that reads, “Another unemployed graduate from X,” won’t be well received by the school’s LinkedIn alumni group or her school-affiliated contacts. Lapses of judgment on social media sites, including the professional sites, are very public and often indelible as they are cut and pasted, forwarded, and otherwise shared.
Take advantage of summary statements. When sites offer a summary section, make the most of this space by drafting dynamic statements announcing where you are professionally with regard to experiences and education. These statements should be drafted with an eye toward employers—present and future. If you had their attention for less than two minutes, what would you want them to know about you? This is the content for your summary. Summaries may be written in first person and may be infused with some personality, which affords you more flexibility than a traditional legal résumé.
Highlight legal skills and professional strengths in specialties sections. LinkedIn offers a specialties section that allows you to emphasize upfront specific skills and experiences that might get lost in the confines of a traditional, chronologically ordered résumé. This is a perfect section to spotlight practical training and unique coursework. Consider how narrowly you brand your specialties if your job search is broad. Likewise, listing every specialty under the sun can undercut the validity of your profile, especially when you haven’t practiced yet.
Use activities sections for insight into you personally. On LinkedIn, the “Activities” section is synonymous with a “personal” section on a paper résumé. Include information that provides interesting insight into you as an individual and that adds to—not detracts from—your professional image. Examples may be that you play an instrument, coach or play a sport, have hobbies like biking, running, and gardening.
Proceed with Caution when Connecting
The idea that professional contacts who know you and your work can recommend you to the world via LinkedIn and other sites makes for a powerful endorsement. But lawyers and law students need to proceed with caution when inviting others to make written recommendations on their behalves online. The legal profession has rules and regulations when it comes to advertising and promoting one’s skills and services. Some states prohibit attorneys from using testimonials in marketing materials, and other states have limitations on what can be said in a testimonial and/or require a disclaimer to be present. Before you go forward soliciting recommendations, you should consult the Rules of Professional Conduct as they stand for the jurisdictions in which you are practicing or intending to practice.
Attorneys and law clerks also must be careful when inviting a connection between an existing or former client. As you prepare to send an invitation, LinkedIn asks how you know the individual and gives you the option to select, “we’ve done business together.” You may identify an attorney-client relationship in a public forum without permission or intent by selecting this option.
Be proactive and invite connections. The premise of LinkedIn and other networking sites is that you can establish connections and through them build a network of meaningful contacts. Common sense and good judgment must prevail when building a network. Invite connections only in circumstances that make sense based on your experiences and goals. For example, it’s tacky to send messages inviting connections with people you don’t know because you just applied for a job within their organization.
When inviting someone to be part of your network, don’t rely upon the generic, system-generated invitation to make the connection. Invitations should be personalized. If you’re having difficulty personalizing an invitation, it’s a good indication you probably shouldn’t be sending it. LinkedIn places a limit of 3,000 on the number of invitations you can send as a lifetime user of the system, which implies that some discretion is advised and anticipated even by the developers of the site.
Join groups. Affiliating with associations and professional groups can benefit you by keeping you informed about relevant issues and events, and other members. LinkedIn has a Groups Directory that lets you search for groups that complement your professional experiences, education, and goals. LinkedIn will also recommend groups to you based on your profile information. The ABA has a number of groups on LinkedIn, including the Young Lawyers Division. LinkedIn groups are not the appropriate forums for blasting announcements that you’re unemployed and looking for work. You need to nurture relationships and build rapport with people before you can anticipate that they will serve as a resource or guide to you during your job search.
Accept invitations promptly. A great way to demonstrate that you are prompt and responsive (traits employers and clients love in a lawyer) is to accept invitations you receive from others in a timely manner. Be thoughtful when accepting an invitation. Your connections are a reflection of you and define and brand your network. You may not want to accept every invite received. For the invitations you accept, take a few minutes to respond with a personalized message. Doing this helps you cultivate more meaningful relationships with the folks you’re connecting to via the web.
Go Beyond the Website
LinkedIn and other networking platforms are great tools, but they have limits. One significant limit is that they let you stay in a comfortable place behind a computer or mobile device. None of these sites usurp the need for old-fashioned networking—the kind of networking where you meet and talk with people in-person. A solid handshake, a warm smile, an aura of energy, a sense of humor, a professional stature, among many other soft skills and traits, cannot be conveyed through an electronic link.
Also, your connections on the web are only as strong as they are active on their own profiles. You can have the most amazing list of contacts, but if none of these folks ever log in to their own accounts, they remain clueless as to what you’ve been up to. Use online networking sites as resources to complement, not to replace, in-person networking activities.
As with every aspect of your professional image and job search, proceed thoughtfully and with purpose when you jump online. Professional networking sites, blogs, and group affiliations catapult your credentials and good decisions as far as they do your mistakes and misguided choices.
Blogging to Advance your Online Profile
Your Internet profile isn’t limited to a single professional networking website; it’s an amalgamation of the totality of your online activities. Blogs add to your brand. Whether they contribute positively or negatively to your identity depends on your good judgment. Before you delve into blogging, consider the following questions:
- Do you have enough time to commit to maintaining your own blog? Outdated and abandoned blogs don’t broadcast strengths but instead call into question your time management skills and your capacity to follow through on projects. Maintaining a blog that is relevant and engaging and that attracts visitors is a significant undertaking. As a busy student, you might find it’s in your best interest to contribute to existing, high-traffic legal blogs.
- Are writing and research your strengths? If yes, blogs may be a perfect place for you to showcase your skills. Because every comment and response you publish are samples of your work product left to be read by the masses, including current and future employers and clients, your entries need to be polished. Moreover, while the back and forth of blogging promotes opinion sharing, practicing lawyers are in the business of getting the facts correct. Your information needs to be accurate and your opinions founded in logic.
- Does the purpose of your blog add to your professional persona or otherwise make you more interesting to employers? There is a terrific range of quality in law student blogs. A quick perusal around the web and I found a time-saving tip that included photos of a law student eating pasta out of a plastic bag in her car, and I read the ramblings of a student overwhelmed by having a research paper and an appellate brief due during the same week. (Not the best broadcast to future employers as that’s a light load by most standards.) I also read posts entitled: “Brand Protection on the Internet,” “ Interstate Travel and Marriage,” and “Supreme Court to Hear Trademark Case.” All blogs and bloggers are not created equal and poor quality and absence of judgment can undercut your cyber résumé.
- Are you prepared to live with your blogging activities far into the future? The Internet has an everlasting quality. Prior to posting, play out scenarios of where you could potentially land professionally and evaluate how your present-day post may be viewed. Most posts are benign enough in topic to be harmless, but what might an appellate judge think of your stance when determining whether to bring you into chambers? You have an obligation to your present-day self and to the professional you aspire to be in the years to come.