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What I Wish I’d Known: Judge Roy Ferguson

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I wish coming out of law school I’d known how a lawyer’s professional life could be impacted by their personal behavior.

When I was in law school, social media didn’t exist. Phones didn’t have cameras. Vehicles didn’t communicate with satellites. And people didn’t voluntarily carry GPS trackers in their purse or pocket. Basically, if no one saw something happen, it didn’t happen. You always had plausible deniability.

Now, everything we do or say is recorded and stored—forever.

Opportunities lost

As a judge, one set of ethical rules governs both my personal and professional conduct. Because the same isn’t true for lawyers, some conclude they can live separate personal and professional lives, such that behavior in one doesn’t impact the other.

A few months ago, after watching a lawyer show his whole self on Twitter, I tweeted a warning that a lawyer’s professional life can be impacted by their personal public conduct.

The reaction from law students and young lawyers was swift and unfettered outrage. They were incensed.

Well, bad news, folks—it’s absolutely true.

Employers routinely scour applicants’ social media histories as part of the hiring process. They’re looking for anything that reflects negatively on the person’s character or work ethic, that would impact the firm’s bottom line, or that would embarrass the firm.

Attention-seeking, ignorant, or angry posts that glorify bad behavior or attack the study of law, the profession, or a particular judge, appellate court, professor, or major multinational company can curtail your future opportunities. And everything you’ve ever posted, including every picture you’ve ever uploaded, is still out there waiting to be found.

Remember, the hiring process isn’t just about grades, law review, and moot courts. It’s about personalities.

Someone who’s toxic, cruel, or abusive on social media might not be someone you want down the hall all day. You may never find out why— you just won’t get a call back. Or a new client. Or a referral. Or a partnership offer.

“Govern yourself accordingly”

I know what you’re thinking: “No one really cares what I say on Facebook, so I don’t need to worry. Besides, how much exposure can a few hundred followers generate, anyway?”

Funny you should ask.

On February 9, 2021, I tweeted a 48-second clip of a mundane civil forfeiture hearing over which I presided in my virtual courtroom. I thought my scant 1,700 Twitter followers would get a kick out of it and learn an important lesson about Zoom filters in the process. Little did I know that within six hours, the video would be seen more than 120 million times on Twitter alone.

That’s right. The #Lawyercat hearing occurred in my virtual courtroom.

It’s the most viral video in world history, having been seen by roughly one-third of humanity.

And in that moment, I unintentionally made the lawyer behind the cat filter famous.

He embraced the unexpected fame.

He went on news networks, game shows, and talk shows around the world. He sold T-shirts and even did a commercial for a well-known alcoholic beverage. Sounds great, right?

Well, with fame comes scrutiny, and he was milkshake ducked before sunset for a personal indiscretion alleged to have occurred years before. It took mere hours for the internet to dredge up that story and plaster it across social media.

The difference between your first years as lawyers and mine are the receipts.

Back then, all that circulated was rumor, gossip, and apocryphal stories. Now it’s in a tweet, or a recording, or a video. And we’ve all seen the impact leaked video has on public perception of alleged misconduct. When it’s recorded, you can’t deny it, and they can’t ignore it. Simply put, you won’t have the luxury of plausible deniability.

As you enter the practice of law, remember this: Virtual actions have real-world consequences.

Google searches don’t distinguish between personal and professional information.

As we jokingly say in #lawtwitter, “Govern yourself accordingly.”

Roy Ferguson Roy Ferguson presides over the 394th District Court— the largest judicial district in Texas—and serves by assignment on the 8th District Court of Appeals. He has conducted roughly 3,000 virtual hearings via Zoom and presided over 12 fully virtual jury proceedings during the pandemic.