Q: I am a new lawyer, and I understand the need to keep my “filter” on. But it seems awkward to focus on that all the time. And I sometimes find that I have let my guard down before I know it. Any suggestions?
A: Yes. But it takes practice and planning ahead. Here are some tips to help keep you from stepping in it:
Pinpoint your vulnerabilities
Thankfully, we are all different. Some people tend to be more deliberative; others are more impulsive. And many external factors can affect what we say or do.
Think about your natural tendencies and situations in which common sense and judgment may abandon you. One successful associate realized early in his practice that whenever he was anxious he made sarcastic jokes. In school this trait had endeared him to his friends. But it did not play well in front of senior lawyers or clients.
Sometimes our surroundings provide subtle reminders that we must be vigilant about what we say. Wearing a suit or being in court are two examples. Without those, we may be more likely to let down our guard. Add in alcohol, a well-known filter destroyer, and things can go awry in a flash. Stress, anger, and insecurity can also cause people to end up in a ditch. Figure out when and where you may need to be extra careful about exercising judgment.
Once you’ve identified when things might go wrong, come up with a plan to keep them on track. The associate who tended toward sarcasm decided this happened most often in meetings. From then on, if he began to feel anxious in a meeting, he made a conscious effort to stay silent. If he had to say something, he paused before speaking. Mentally, he bit his tongue. With this focus, he banished the bad habit in short order.
If you are getting together with friends for cocktails and you think you might blab about your fascinating work, develop a plan. Make a mental list in advance of things you can’t talk about. And decide ahead of time how you will pivot if the topic of your work comes up. Or maybe you decide to imbibe less.
Do whatever works for you in the risky situations you have identified. But thinking ahead can help you interrupt unhelpful impulses.
Develop a social media strategy
Because the Internet is forever, I also recommend having a social media strategy. Social media platforms give you the power to exercise poor judgment in front of the entire planet – in perpetuity. And there are no cues, like a judge in black robe, to remind you to exercise caution. You may be on your phone. You may be at home in sweats. And you may be chatting with your friends. And with friends you might say things you would not say to others – including things you don’t mean literally.
It appears that is what happened to Hayley Geftman-Gold the former senior lawyer for CBS who posted about the Vegas shootings. Her post was part of a discussion thread on Facebook. One screenshot later, she was out of a job. (As an aside, she did an admirable job of owning her mistake.)
Once upon a time there was a Google Chrome plug-in called Internet Shame Insurance. It popped up with a warning that you had to dismiss before you could post. Alas, there is no more Internet Shame Insurance, and you have to rely on other strategies. Try to remember that whenever you post, it can be like sending an e-mail to the universe. As a fallback with Facebook, you may also want to limit the number of prying eyes. (The tech-savvy, which includes most new lawyers, can skip the next paragraph.)
Here are some options to consider:
- Create two separate profiles (just don’t get them mixed up).
- Be selective about accepting friend requests.
- Only allow friends to see past posts (can be accomplished with one click).
- Only allow friends to see future posts.
- Don’t allow others to tag you in photos.
- Create a restricted sub-group of friends who can only see what the public sees.
- Don’t use Facebook at all or remove the app from your phone (extreme, I know).
Take a pause
As you progress in your career, practice taking a momentary pause before you speak or act. It’s not a lengthy, awkward pause, but the kind of pause you take before answering an interview question. And in that moment, you ask yourself, “How will this be perceived?” “Should I do this at all?” “Is there a better way to say this?” Over time it will become second nature.
A friend of mine who is a litigator said to me recently: “I am very passionate, I always speak from the heart.” I responded, “No you don’t – not in court.” And he replied, “Of course not, that would be malpractice.”