Is your Facebook an Open Book? It probably shouldn’t be.

By Alexandra Sumner

You know what wasn’t covered in my Professional Responsibility class but should have been? Social media use. It’s a far cry to say the area is up-and-coming; Myspace was founded in 2003 and Facebook just a few years after. A lot of us grew up in the booming age of social media: picking a song for our Myspace page, messaging chatbots on AOL and venting our teenage angst on Tumblr. After growing up in such technology-driven times, you would think Millennial law students would know how to conduct themselves professionally but — like a well-counseled politician — they plead the fifth.

Pop quiz, which of the following types of social media posts could be seen as inappropriate: (A) a photo of you “studying” at the law school with a bottle of Jack Daniels, (B) a list of the stupidest people in your section, (C) a post complaining about your externship, while gushing over how hot your supervisors are, or (D) a tweet about how drunk you got at the Barrister’s Ball?  (As if people didn’t already know.)

The answer is (E), all of the above. These posts are not inappropriate in and of themselves — law students are entitled to their own opinion, just like everyone else — but the fact that law students hope to be a part of the legal profession means they ought to know the difference between a shall and a must. You shall interact with colleagues and professionals on social media. You must do so carefully. The point is not to censure ourselves into oblivion or to encourage us to be disingenuous; but rather to show law students how to use social media as a tool to help instead of hinder us.  

So where do we draw the line? Should 1Ls be scared to post anything about their law school experience? Should 3Ls abstain from sharing any news about their job search? What types of things are inappropriate and which are “just life?”

The best advice I’ve heard for incoming law students came from my Contracts professor, a woman who (thankfully) took time out of her first lecture to talk to us about the law school experience and professionalism standards. In her words, “Don’t post anything you wouldn’t want your grandma to see or your grandpa to read in the paper.” Keeping this third-party refence test in mind should help quell the inappropriate posting, but I’d like to add one more category to the adage: Don’t post anything you wouldn’t want the state bar association to see. It’s not worth losing your (future) license because you decided to take a picture of the complaint your firm just filed — #mistake!

Until the powers that be promulgate new standards, law students should be careful not to offend the old ones. What can we do to prevent this? Maybe don’t post that “only ugly women wear pantsuits” or take pictures of opposing counsel (and their client) and call them both “trolls” instead of women. Maybe don’t take a Snapchat video of your desk and your many computer screens — forgetting to close out the tabs containing incredibly confidential information. And maybe don’t Photoshop famous celebrities into your photos to heighten your credibility, making you look “cool” by association. (There’s a case on that one.)

Going forward, there are a lot of ways law students can use social media to make a name for themselves. You can engage in thought-provoking discussions with other professionals on Twitter. Or connect with key individuals in your field on LinkedIn. You can create original content on topics that interest you — blogs, videos, Facebook posts — all engaging readers in a respectful manner. You don’t have to change who you are, just how you act online.

Call me crazy, but I think there is a way to balance your first amendment rights, your professional obligations, and general human decency in such a way that you are able to express yourself without offending anyone or exposing client information. Social media can be a great tool for job hunting, resume building and engagement. It can show prospective employers who you really are, what you enjoy and what your goals are. In an era where everything is discoverable and your entire history is just a “google” away, be careful what you release into the ether. A joke about a client may be funny now but having to explain it to your supervisor certainly won’t be. Use social media responsibly — because if you don’t, nobody will “like” you.


Alexandra Sumner is a 3L at Indiana University — Robert H. McKinney School of Law in Indianapolis. 


 

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