Are you nervous before you tweet? Do you avoid most social media altogether because you’re concerned about what could come back to haunt your future career? Aspiring lawyers are unsure about how or whether to use social media, and understandably so. Stories about social media posts jeopardizing careers plague the news. People in the legal profession need to be particularly delicate, as their profession focuses on unbiased justice.
Although I am #NotALawyer, nor do I aspire to be, I am an expert in social media. I manage digital and social media for the R Street Institute and I engage with many lawyers, scholars and law students on Twitter… and sometimes in real life (IRL) as well.
Whether or not you’re comfortable posting on social media, there are ways your career could benefit from using it. I asked Georgetown Law professor, constitutional scholar and my top scholar bae @RandyEBarnett, how law students can best use social media. He told me, “Pro tip: Don’t do it!” However, he added that students can have profiles “to read what friends are doing, but not to post.”
If you follow Barnett’s advice, I would recommend creating an account on Twitter—you don’t have to use your name—and just following legal scholars, lawyers and others. Many of the brightest minds in law regularly post wisdom to the platform. It is valuable simply to follow them and learn from them. I follow many of my favorite constitutional law scholars, including @RandyEBarnett, @ishapiro, @IlyaSomin, @ConLawWarrior, @jadler1969 and @OrinKerr.
Rob Barthelmess, a recent law school graduate working at a law firm in Los Angeles, adds that, “social media also presents a forum to engage the ideas of others and see how the areas of law in which you have an interest are impacted by current events.” He further added how social media helped his career:
“Social media may seem to be a waste of time during law school, but I found that it helped create opportunities to interact with the legal community and stay up to date.”
Because of social media, I have learned about dozens of books about law and other topics. Scholars are always posting their newest SSRN paper, their speaking events or what books they recommend. Twitter often is the first or the only place they post this information.
If you’re comfortable, you can also ask questions. The opportunity to engage with leading legal minds is enormous, but make sure to be respectful of their time and also not to ask questions just for attention. Do your research, and if you still have legitimate questions (no GOTCHA questions) you can direct-message them.
Learning social media
Social media is becoming an increasingly important tool for virtually every organization. Understanding how it works is always a useful skill, no matter where your career takes you.
You’re never fully ‘anonymous’
Don’t use an anonymous account as an excuse to troll or say anything that you wouldn’t if your name was revealed. There are various ways to learn the identity of anonymous accounts. I’ve been able to figure out the identity of anonymous accounts by looking at a few tweets and who they follow. Few are truly anonymous. People also sometimes post a status or reply from the wrong account or to the wrong medium. Accidents happen.
If you DO decide to post on social media…
Don’t post anything you wouldn’t want a future employer to see…
Maybe the human resources director at the law firm to which you’re applying will laugh off an Instagram photo of you streaking through campus. Maybe he won’t. It is also best to avoid trolling or posting outlandish or rude statements on social media.
@Popehat notes that, “most prospective employers check social media now, so take that into account in deciding how to act on public accounts.”
@ConLawWarrior, vice president for criminal justice at the Cato Institute, explains that, “perhaps more than most other vocations, hiring decisions in the legal profession are often made right at margin.”
“That means the difference between you and the next most competitive candidate for a plum position like judicial law clerk or new associate may be negligible from the employer’s standpoint, which means that who finally gets the nod can come down to something as seemingly trivial as a single injudicious tweet or Facebook post.”
…or anything that would reflect poorly on your current employer or clients
Chris Cooke, who has worked as a junior associate at a large law firm and as a judicial law clerk, says he “would caution law students, and practicing lawyers for that matter, to remember two things about their activity on social media: there is always a record and your actions reflect on your employer.”
“Particularly if you’re in the private sector, freedom of expression does not necessarily protect you from being fired by an employer that you have spoken poorly of or embarrassed on a social media platform. For practicing attorneys or students in clinics, it’s especially important to be sure you are not sharing anything on social media that would jeopardize attorney-client privilege or breach confidentiality.”
How to know when to post and when not to post
Be judicious and be conscious of how your social media presence and posts appear to others. @ConLawWarrior notes that, “a significant part of being a good lawyer is exercising good judgment.”
“After all, much of what we do is help people resolve difficult and sometimes embarrassing problems with wisdom and discretion. Look at your social media and ask yourself a simple question: item by item and in the aggregate, do they convey the impression of someone who can be trusted with sensitive matters requiring good judgment and discretion?”
Even if your posts are well-reasoned and written with the best of intentions, “keep in mind that you may be a much different person today than you will be in five, ten, or fifteen years after the momentous events of your mid-to-late twenties and early thirties have had their influence,” says @ConLawWarrior.
“Save your passions for your close friends and confidantes, and conduct yourself on social media the way you might at a dinner party where you only know a few of the guests. Conduct yourself with grace, modesty, and a sense of decorum—at least until the dessert course!”
When I deleted my Myspace account, I cringed reading over my old posts and profile description. Those were written in my early teen years, and I was always an overzealous political nerd. What seems wise in the moment isn’t always so wise in the future.
Whether or not you decide to tweet or post on social media, creating a Twitter account to follow different players in the legal community is most certainly worth the effort. Nearly every day, I learn from wise men and women who tweet legal ideas, analysis and further reading. Furthermore, in our increasingly digital world, having a working understanding of social media will always be an asset.