Rumors, transparency and the role of blogs: NALP Conference

by Vault Law Editors | May 07, 2010

  • My Vault

Among the key themes that emerged from the recent  NALP Conference were:

  • The desire for, and expectation of, greater transparency;

  • The plethora of resources available makes it difficult to sort fact from fiction;

  • A generational gap between students/new lawyers and partners/firm management complicates both issues.

Perhaps nowhere were these issues more pronounced than in Friday’s session on Navigating Online Rumor Mills.  The panelists included T.J. Duane from Lateral Link; Marguerite Durston from Quarles & Brady LLP; and Kelly Obenauer from Northwestern Law School. The audience represented a mixture of law firms and law schools, along with a few media types like me and Elie Mystal of Above the Law, whose site was the primary topic of discussion and target of restrained ire. What some might regard as a journalistic tool in the service of greater transparency, others view with sometimes helpless frustration as an indiscriminate rumor mill — rumors, often untrue, get posted or show up in the comments, and then schools and firms have to run around squelching them.

Like it or not, however, social media sites like Facebook and legal blogs like Above the Law are heavily frequented by law students, and law schools and employers need to deal with them. While they can’t control the information, Duane argued, they can at least participate in the process. One aspect involves monitoring what’s being said. Google alerts, for example, offer firms and schools a fast, easy way to know what’s being said about them online. Some law schools now employ social media interns or work-study staff specifically to track and respond to what’s happening in the blogosphere. Another alternative (far more expensive) is the employment of online reputation management consultants.

With respect to blogs, Duane suggested that firms keep track of their tags and be proactive, engaging with bloggers and commenting on posts. This is an area, however, where I suspect he failed to make much headway, at least on the law firm side. Law firm personnel may well be monitoring what’s being said about them, but they aren’t necessarily eager to respond to it in a direct, official way. Some of this is attributable to legal concerns about confidentiality and employment law issues; even if they want to, firms might not be free to comment on every rumor or leak that makes its way to the ATL site.

But some of this reluctance seems to stem as much from personal distaste as professional concern — a sense that it’s both undignified and unnecessary to engage with a rumor-mongering tabloid. And here is where I think the generational gap comes into play; as one BigLaw staffer I spoke to suggested, some of the older partners just don’t understand the weight that ATL and its ilk carry among students and young associates. Law schools may advise students to take ATL with a grain of salt, likening it to the People magazine of law firm life, but students seem to take at least some of its reports at face value.

Among the panel’s slides were several highlighting results of an HL Central survey of Harvard Law students. While students may not consider Above the Law especially trustworthy as a source of information about prospective employers,* 93 percent said that a negative rumor about a firm on ATL was likely to be true. A similar majority (90 percent) want a firm to respond to such rumors, and more than half said that a firm’s failure to respond or issuance of a “no comment” increases their belief in the rumor’s truth or negatively affects their impression of the firm. Nevertheless, from the discussions of hypothetical situations posed by Durston, it was pretty clear that firms remain loathe to comment officially on rumors or leaks of confidential information. On the other hand, many attendees admitted that their firms draft internal memoranda with the assumption that they will appear on Above the Law.

It seems to me that firms are going to have to learn to deal with the brave new blogging world, where reaction time counts almost as much as response substance. But students and associates also need to become more discerning readers. To paraphrase Frank Kimball from another NALP session, if you’re not going to drown in data, you need to learn to swim.

- posted by vera

*Asked to rate the trustworthiness of sources, students gave more weight to NALP, Vault and firms’ own websites than to Above the Law.

Filed Under: Law

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