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My friend is an associate in another big firm, and she recently got pretty chummy with her firm's recruiting department at a summer event. After a few beers, some of the people from her recruiting department started telling stories about crazy things they had found out about law student candidates from their MySpace pages! Apparently, the recruiters routinely google law students and lawyers who apply for jobs at the firm. They even reject them if they find something sketchy on their MySpace or Facebook page.
I am thinking of changing firms, and I don't want spies researching me on the Web! I was in a pretty well-known college fraternity and I play in a band, and I don't see how that's relevant to a law firm. Can they really look at my personal information? Isn't that an invasion of my privacy or something?
Back in the day, summer associates had to worry about getting drunk at a swanky event and throwing up in a potted plant. My friend, the Internet has made it a whole new ballgame. The line between personal and professional is blurred when people live a significant part of their lives on-line - and every bit of personal information (with photos) is just one click away. Social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook operate like living rooms with glass walls; as unpleasant as this may sound, it's hard to argue for privacy when you were the one who put it all out there.
What your friend discovered from the recruiting staff is probably becoming more the rule than the exception. Notwithstanding such - in defense of recruiting professionals everywhere - the vast majority would never share information about applicants, regardless of the number of beers. In fact, the National Association for Law Placement recently conducted a survey on its website (www.nalp.org) about the use of search engines when researching candidates for legal employment.
Although the sample size was small, 82.6% of law firm respondents acknowledged looking up job seekers on Google, MySpace, Facebook or other on-line sites. Half of the firms described the practice as "standard operating procedure" and most used it for both summer associate and lateral hires. It is a bit less clear what the firms are seeking when they google their applicants; while about half of those responding report that the search research results would "definitely" or "somewhat" affect the candidate's prospects of getting a job, an equal number were unsure.
While we could easily debate the implications on society of this explosion of "too much information," I would prefer to focus on dispensing career advice. The reality is that each and every lawyer creates a "professional brand" - an amalgam of academic credentials, job experience and community involvement that defines who he or she is to the world. Your professional reputation is influenced by the opinions other have of you, from the partners and associates with whom you work every day, to others in your firm who barely know you, to opposing counsel, clients and judges. You can enhance your professional brand through writing or speaking engagements in your field, community service or other worthy pursuits. On the flip side, your brand can take a hit if you engage in questionable behavior.
At one time, the likelihood of your personal life coming to the attention of anyone in your professional circle was small - barring some catastrophic event or a run-in with authorities. In the past, lawyers might have lived in moderate anxiety that someone would discover that horrific year book picture or hear about their college escapades. Now, people of all stripes make friends, share information and even create alternate personas on line. However, the misadventures of your misspent youth assume a very different cast when you choose to advertise them - accompanied by colorful "in the moment" pix from your camera phone and the soundtrack of your favorite Gnarls Barkley jam. I'm not suggesting that law firms want their employees to live monastic lives, they don't. But one's decision to broadcast one's social activities in such a public and easy-access manner could indicate poor judgment.
Remember, too, that the partners and senior administrators who are making these hiring decisions didn't grow up in the age of MySpace and FaceBook, so this is all a bit foreign to them; it may strike them as immature, or worse, unseemly. The remembrance you posted from your wild trip to Cancun, complete with group photos with your equally sunburned and inebriated friends, may not square with the impression you are trying to create of a hard-working corporate associate. Even something that seems relatively benign, like photos of you from your trip to the Sci Fi Convention in your best Stargate SG-1 regalia, might not present the professional image you were seeking.
Whether you are expressing yourself on-line through social networking sites like MySpace, dating services, chat rooms or blogs, consider how your supervising partner or a prospective employer would react to your web persona. If you currently play in a band, there may well be photos, video clips and songs that present a wildly different image than that of your mild-mannered law firm associate-self. The stage antics, piercings, tattoos or song lyrics you display on your MySpace page are out there for everyone to see; you must weigh the relative value of their presence. Will the A&R guy at an indie label see them and offer you a record deal? Will a law firm google you and be scared off?
It is a useful measure to google yourself periodically to check out your "on-line" presence. Your well-meaning friends may have posted those photos from Cancun without your knowledge. Your college fraternity might be proud of their Web site, but your picture in high heels and a wig may not need to be part of it. The keepers of these various sites will probably understand and sympathize with your need to present a professional image and take down that photo. At the very least, most employers would weigh materials posted by a third party a bit differently than your own MySpace page. You may have exhibited the bad judgment (or youthful insouciance) to don the heels and lipstick in college, but if you elect to post it (or any unquestionable material) yourself, your current level of professionalism and good judgment can be called into question.
Above all, remember, you are a professional - you must consider your "brand" in all you do. Whether you plan to launch a job search or one of your clients randomly runs across your Facebook page, your on-line persona should be as spotless as your off-line reputation. Your law firm considers you its representative in all of your encounters - hence the public relations nightmare that results when a lawyer from a prominent law firm is caught in possible criminal misdeeds. A sterling professional brand takes decades to build and only one poor decision to tarnish. Big Brother might not be watching you, but he might google you one day, so place (and photo and post) accordingly.
Good luck with all of it and please stay in touch,
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