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Law students and social media: Do they mix?

Social Media

For someone who teaches Social Media Law and has written books, articles, and essays on the topic, the answer to the question posed by the title of this essay is an emphatic, “Yes.”  Of course, this does not mean that social media is risk-free for aspiring attorneys.  Like most things, problems can and will arise.

For starters, universities including law schools increasingly look at social media accounts of applicants prior to making admission decisions.  Some universities have even revoked acceptance letters upon discovering unsavory online conduct.

When deciding whether to admit new lawyers state bars also review social media accounts.  In 2009, Florida became the first state to adopt per se rules governing when it would examine the social media accounts of those seeking admission to the bar.[1]  The Maryland bar has denied admission to at least one applicant for, among other things, inappropriate online postings.[2]  Social media pitfalls are no longer hypothetical or theoretical; they are real world possibilities.

Perils also exist for practicing attorneys and judges.  One need look no further then Senior Federal Judge Richard Kopf, editor of the now defunct blog Hercules and the Umpire, to see what could go wrong when judges take to the blogosphere.[3]  Judge Kopf’s blog, which had garnered a decent following due to its insightful posts, came under heavy criticism after the judge posted the following:

Around these parts there is a wonderfully talented and very pretty female lawyer who is in her late twenties. She is brilliant, she writes well, she speaks eloquently, she is zealous but not overly so, she is always prepared, she treats others, including her opponents, with civility and respect, she wears very short skirts and shows lots of her ample chest. I especially appreciate the last two attributes.[4]

Yet, despite the potential landmines out there, social media, when used properly, is a useful tool for those in the legal profession.  Due to limited time and space, I will only briefly highlight a few of social media’s benefits.

First, social media, especially LinkedIn, is one of the most effective ways to network.  LinkedIn provides students the opportunity to discover job openings, connect with practicing attorneys, and learn about specific areas of law through virtual conversations.  LinkedIn is also very valuable during the early phases of any job search to include landing that initial interview.

In addition to networking, social media provides law students a platform to showcase their skills.  This is primarily done through blogging where students display their writing and, depending on the topic, knowledge of the law.  Blogging also demonstrates to potential employers a certain comfort level with technology.  Since many law firms now expect incoming associates to both know and use social media, highlighting these skills early makes law students more, not less marketable.

Attorneys also need to understand social media because most clients use it in some form.  Last year, at least 81% of Americans had a social media account.  In the criminal arena, individuals use social media to not only commit crimes, but also to organize, plan, discuss, and even brag about illegal activity.  Social media has even led to the creation of new crimes like cyber banging, revenge porn, and online impersonation.  Not surprisingly, this conduct has not gone unnoticed by law enforcement who also employ social media to monitor, investigate, and apprehend suspects.

In the civil context, there is a whole new generation of Digital Age entrepreneurs that make a living solely from social media.  Some are well known like YouTube star Michelle Phan.  Others fly under the radar but nonetheless derive their financial livelihood entirely from social media.[5]  Not surprisingly, with the monetization of social media comes legal issues.  Topics range from who owns a “Like” on Facebook to whether or not a Twitter account can be inherited.  Providing advice on these issues and others requires attorneys to be well versed in social media.

Finally, social media has forced our legal system to change how it conducts business.  While numerous examples exist, I will only touch upon two for the sake of brevity.  First, courts across the country are slowly accepting service via social media.[6]  This is especially true for secondary forms of service.  Few today can argue persuasively that service through publication is a more effective or efficient means of providing the defendant notice than service through Facebook or some other social media platform.

Social media has also had a significant impact on the jury system.  Jurors have used social media to both research and discuss cases.[7]  This in turn has led courts to take several corrective measures.  The most popular to date has been to update jury instructions.  Widespread use of social media by jurors has also led to increased investigations.  Where in the past investigating or researching jurors was limited to high profile cases or when the parties had deep pockets, today, these methods can be used in every case.  Some have even referred to social media as the “poor man’s jury consultant.”

Like with other advancements, social media comes with some risks; however, these risks are definitely outweighed by the rewards, especially for the law student who understands that each post, tweet, comment, etc. has the potential of reaching billions of people.

[1] Florida Board of Bar Examiners Re Consideration of the Final Report of the Character and Fitness Commission (2009).
[2] In the Matter of the Application of Otion Gjini to the Bar of Maryland, Misc. No. 32, Sept. Term, 2015.
[3] Jacob Gershman, Judge Kopf Causes a Stir with Blog Post about Female Lawyers, Wall Street Journal, Mar. 26, 2014.
[4] Id.
[5] Stacey Mattocks v. BET (S.D. Fla. 2014).
[6] Thaddeus Hoffmeister and John Hardisky, Service of Process Through Facebook Getting “Likes” from Courts, ABA (Aug. 31, 2017).
[7] Thaddeus Hoffmeister, Google, Gadgets, and Guilt: Juror Misconduct in the Digital Age, 83 Univ. of Colo. Law Rev. 409 (2012).