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The Google effect

|Written By donalee Moulton

The internet is a fact of life, and a logical source of information. In time, it may routinely be used to provide some insight into job candidates, new hires, and lawyers up for promotion.


John Dough and Sara Smith are competing for a position at Liberals LLP. Dough graduated top of his class from the University of Prince Edward Island Law School.

Smith emerged magna cum laude from the number-one law school in Canada, according to Maclean’s magazine's scientific assessment, the University of Scarborough. Both have been through round one of the interview process and have been called back for a follow-up, and perhaps final, interview en route to a job offer.

While they wait for the appointed hour, their would-be colleagues at Liberals LLP are doing their due diligence. References are being checked; notes from the first interview are being reviewed. And they’ve plunked John Dough and Sara Smith’s names into today’s great background checker: Google.

Here they discover a posting Dough made after his trip to Cabo, which came days after he wrote his final law school exam. The post is revealing, although it’s not clear exactly what the stripper is doing in the third photo. No photos of Smith in Cabo, with or without a stripper, are found, but she did launch a blog while she was in law school. The intent was to help other students, and would-be students, cope with the rigors of law school. And the B.S. Seems there are a number of faculty who, to put it gently, are not that bright. Two of them work for Liberals LLP.

This story is fictional, as are the candidates, their law schools, and the firms. However, the scenario is all too real. The internet is a fact of life, and a logical source of information. In time, it may routinely be used to provide some insight into job candidates, new hires, and lawyers up for promotion.

“I don’t think firms are routinely screening candidates at this stage, but it may become that way,” says Kara Sutherland, director of professional resources for Fraser Milner Casgrain LLP in Toronto.

She notes that such internet searches are perhaps more often used today when there is something “percolating” out there about a candidate — a reference has been made, perhaps to a blog or a vacation in Mexico, and a lawyer, or two, in the firm take a few minutes to see what they can find out.

Expect such information to be used, says Charles Perez, a trademark agent and lawyer with Wickwire Holm in Halifax. “I would be surprised if any negative information would not be used against a person in a hiring, or firing, scenario. I know of businesses [that] have fired, or are at least attempting to fire, several employees based on negative Facebook groups and postings.”

“Modern technology,” notes David Debenham, counsel with Lang Michener LLP in Ottawa, “robs us of our privacy.” Associates should expect such theft to occur — and to occur more routinely as time marches on. At the very least, reputation matters. Darrel Pink, executive director of the Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society in Halifax, notes that a “lawyer’s history is relevant to their application to join the society.”

It is also relevant to a number of interested parties. “Associates should have in mind what colleagues would think, what employers would think, what clients would think, and what opposing counsel would think,” says Sutherland, who recommends that associates do Google searches on themselves to see what pops up.

Chances are they will be surprised. “From a common-sense perspective, you must remember that virtually anything that you post on the internet, every word, picture, comment, whatever, is almost impossible to remove,” says Perez. “Further, such things are difficult to hide from people who really want to know about you and your habits.”

Indeed, there is no hiding. “You can have a lot of control over what you have put out there, but once it’s out there you have no control,” warns Sutherland.

Information that is years old, information that was posted on sites that no longer exist, and, if sites like Facebook become indexed so that search engines can scan and post their content, even information that you thought was restricted to designated individuals can all fall into the hands, or computers, of people you would rather not see it.

Which, of course, leads to the first, and most obvious, piece of advice: “Don’t put anything on the web that you wouldn’t put on a résumé,” says Debenham.

Perez agrees. “Do not post something or do anything on the internet that might cast you in a bad light — now or in the future,”
he says.

And therein lies the rub. Good judgment when you’re 17 may not be the same as when you’re 27. “The reality is that my teenage kids don’t think about what they’re posting today from a perspective of 10 years from now,” says Pink. “Stuff that could embarrass you in a few years may seem cool now.”

And most employers, colleagues, and clients will understand that, even if they have been diligent enough to search in the crevices of Google, says Sutherland. “What we’re looking to hire, and clients are looking to hire, [is] good judgment.”

That brings us to today’s postings, Cabo San Lucas aside. Online tools are the tools of today’s generation of lawyers and no firm realistically expects associates to post only sanitized bios and comma-perfect résumés. Indeed, many are encouraging greater use of the technology to reach and support clients and the profession — within reason. Perez, for example, has a blog entitled Atlanteknology, which provides “insight, information, and inspiration to Atlantic Canadians on technology issues.”


“When I started my blog,” he says, “I simply informed the managing partner and asked permission, and it was granted after a review of the blog before it went live,” he says. “I do not believe anyone monitors it. I suspect that it is left to an individual’s judgment.”

The “J” word again. Add it to your vocabulary, recommends Sutherland. Web postings that lack them, she notes, are “potentially like [a] bad e-mail on steroids.”

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