I recently attended a swearing-in ceremony for newly-minted lawyers who passed the July 2016 bar exam. The ceremony was nice, complete with several speakers, introductions of numerous city and state bar group leaders, and a reception afterward. During the ceremony, an accomplished lawyer provided remarks about professionalism and the practice of law. Among her remarks were some strong sentiments about internet usage – she encouraged each new lawyer to cultivate a strong presence online through blogging, active engagement on social media, and other public legal writing. I immediately wondered whether this was the first time these new lawyers had gotten this advice. I also wondered how law schools currently educate and advise students about curating content in their online profiles, and whether law schools should do this at all.
Writing publicly online, whether through social media, blogs, or otherwise, plays a role in how lawyers interact with both the public and each another. Above the Law reported recently that a majority of Americans – 54 percent – say they would be likely to hire a lawyer who is active on social media. Among Americans aged 18-44, this number increases to 69 percent. A U.S. News article has suggested that law students use social media for career development because of the rapidly changing legal landscape.
The legal profession was initially skeptical of the internet and social media, but this has changed in recent years. The American Bar Association's 2016 Legal Technology Survey Report indicates that nearly 90 percent of law firms have a website. Since 2013, roughly 26 percent of law firms have maintained a blog, though this number is much higher for larger firms. Among lawyers who maintain a law-based blog, 42 percent say that they have had clients retain them because of their blogging.
Much like the legal profession, many law schools have been reluctant to embrace the notion of encouraging students to leverage blogging and social media for professional purposes. A few have apparently discouraged students from doing so. This is, however, changing. Some schools, either institutionally or through specific professor interest, actively promote it. Emory Law School offers an advanced legal writing course on blogging and social media for law students. Marquette University Law School's faculty blog incorporates a fascinating "student blogger of the month" feature with hundreds of entries. Some professors, including Professor Tonya Evans and myself, require students to blog for certain courses. I even have colleagues teaching undergraduate upper-level pre-law/political science courses who encourage students to live tweet about things of interest during class (since they may be on Twitter during class anyway).
There are issues, of course, with encouraging students to get professionally active online. There are legitimate privacy concerns, as some people just do not feel comfortable with the amount of data being collected by many internet-based companies. Not having a personal account, however, does not ensure that a person does not have an online presence. As noted by SUNY Buffalo School of Law Professor James Milles, "[i]f you don't take control of your own digital footprint, you still have an online presence. The problem is that you will be at the mercy of what other people say about you."
Specifically regarding social media, some oppose it for different reasons. One of the most-emailed articles from the New York Times last month was Professor Cal Newport's very interesting "Quit Social Media. Your Career May Depend on It." According to Professor Newport, cultivating a social media brand "is a fundamentally passive approach to professional advancement," not a productive use of time, and fundamentally a dangerous distraction. A few weeks later, Patrick Gillooly, the director of digital communications and social media for the career site Monster, implored us not to quit social media in his response piece, "Don’t Quit Social Media. Put It to Work for Your Career Instead." Doing so, in his opinion, will actually damage a career because of the ubiquitous nature of social media and the internet.
So what approach is best suited for law schools educating future lawyers? These new lawyers will be increasingly faced with an interconnected world dependent on online interaction. While face-to-face interaction may be preferable, online interaction increases the likelihood of interaction offline. As such, law schools should at least consider integrating meaningful discussions about social media and other forms of online engagement into the educational experiences of their students, if they aren't already.
The ABA's 2016 Legal Technology Survey Report makes some suggestions to lawyers that are equally helpful for law students. As modified for a law school audience, here are some thoughts on how to educate and advise law students about social media and blogging:
- Show students how they can participate and provide value. Social media can be more than just "social." Maintaining a presence online can be useful for curating relevant content, developing information sources, and demonstrating expertise by providing useful information. It can also be helpful for connecting with a professional network, particularly for law students who may not already have those networks in place. This requires active participation through posts, shares, links to other information, and comments, but it can lead to engagement beyond a person's limited circle of connections. Even for law students who may not feel comfortable participating in discussions, they can certainly share and link to relevant information about matters of interest.
- Encourage students to take advantage of smaller, specialty groups. There are so many voices online that one can easily feel lost in the shuffle or drowned out by other voices. Many people find more meaningful interactions in smaller groups with other similarly-interested participants. Facebook and LinkedIn, for example, both provide internal platforms where conversations can take place in more private online spaces. In these groups, posts and comments are more likely to be seen and read. If a student has a particular interest, these smaller groups may provide an opportunity to engage in meaningful discourse with others.
- Suggest that students develop a strategy for their online presence. Not every platform is beneficial or required for every purpose. Even Professor Newport, who told us to quit social media, maintains a very active blog. Students need to determine if they actually have a need for any specific platform and what they want to accomplish with it. From there, they can decide what message their social media profile or blog should convey.
None of this is meant to suggest that there aren't challenges in determining what is best at any given institution or with any given student. There may be some students, and law schools, who will never see the utility of social media, blogging, or public legal writing. Some law schools have attracted unwanted attention related to social media policies proposed by student groups. There are also rules of professional conduct, ethical standards, and other concerns that require serious consideration.
Even with these difficulties, law students would be well-served by an early introduction to the significance of maintaining, or opting out of, an online presence. While these students may understand the technical ins and outs of social media and blogging, they may not have the proper context for the impact such a presence has in the legal profession.
Final thoughts: There is a helpful, albeit somewhat dated, database of information related to Social Media Best Practices for Law Schools maintained by Iowa City lawyer Laura Bergus and the Center for Computer-Assisted Legal Instruction CALI.
The below infographic from MyCase.com illustrates some the most interesting results from the American Bar Association's 2015 Legal Technology Survey Report.