Reputation is a key component in all legal careers. With the world becoming increasingly virtual, lawyers have to become ever more aware of the impact and potential consequences of their “virtual” reputations.
Although law students are not professionals just yet, there are many ways not maintaining a positive online identity can harm students as you enter the field not only for articles, but also for summer positions. In an effort to prepare students, the University of Ottawa Common Law career services recently held its first information session on how to maintain an online presence that will help, rather than hinder, professional goals.
“It’s never too early to go forward with a clean professional online image,” says Joanne Silkauskas, student services counsellor at U of O. “All you have is your reputation as a professional.”
Many employers in Canada have begun to include online searches in their background checks for potential hires. Almost more importantly, current and potential clients have conducted online searches of lawyers. Many often base their opinion on what they find online, thereby threatening your and your firm’s client base.
“Everyone is susceptible to being searched,” says Silkauskas. “Your [virtual] past is always with you, and so you need to be willing to stand behind what you put online.”
If managed correctly, an online identity can be a significant asset. Listing conferences spoken at, papers published, extensive experience, and qualifications on a site like LinkedIn, for example, can serve as promotion and attract clients and potential employers.
The crucial element to keep in mind when posting on social media sites like Facebook or personal blogs, is how this information may be perceived by third parties. To keep your online personal life as personal as possible, set the highest security settings on these accounts. Also make sure the people you allow to access accounts, such as your Facebook profile, are people you trust with that information.
Not only is online information easily accessible and nearly permanent, it also travels very quickly. Silkauskas spoke of how word of mouth about online activity affected one law student participating in interviews for a summer position a few years ago. Right after finishing an interview, the student posted negative comments about the firm and interview process on a personal web site. Within days, word had spread and recruiting managers hundreds of miles away were aware of what this student said, questioning why they would want to interview someone who would spread negative information about their firm.
Whether you are searching for or already have a job, you should not “draw negative attention online through blogging, YouTube or a personal web site,” said Silkauskas. “Everything that is put online is public, and it is really hard to pull the plug.”
Online identity is not only linked to personal web sites, but also to personal and professional e-mail, right down to the impression that can be made by e-mail addresses such as firstname.lastname@example.org.
It is also crucial to consider who should be on the receiving end of the e-mail, and the tone set by the content. Once an e-mail has been sent, it is not possible to retract.
These habits are particularly vital in the legal field where confidential information is discussed. One accidental addition of the wrong person in the “to” box for an e-mail could mean significant consequences for a firm and put a lawyer’s professionalism in question.
If something negative does come to the attention of an employer, Silkauskas advised to own up to the incident and mitigate the damages as best as possible. Telling the truth and highlighting your positive accomplishments and professionalism will work in your favour, rather than compounding the negative impression made online with defensiveness and inappropriate comments about the incident.
Other “dos” for your online presence:
• Use the highest confidentiality settings on all accounts and web sites.
• Limit how many people you post to on web sites and by e-mail.
• Treat e-mails professionally.
• Read employer policies.
• Save personal computer use for home, and avoid personal use on work computers.
• Use spellcheck before posting or sending any messages.
• Google yourself to see what comes up to see if you need to address any potentially negative search results.
Important “don’ts” to keep in mind:
• Don’t risk putting inappropriate content on the Internet.
• Don’t assume that anything is private online.
• Don’t assume that employers are not doing online content checks.
• Don’t blog excessively, unless it’s professional.
• Don’t have an inappropriate e-mail address.
• Don’t press send on an e-mail without double-checking.
• Don’t hit reply all, unless it is necessary.
• Don’t argue by e-mail.
• Don’t put insider/confidential information on e-mail or online.
• Don’t get caught “playing” on the Internet while working.
Just like it is important to think before you act or speak, this mantra becomes even more important before posting online. Building a good professional reputation often takes quite a while, whereas ruining that reputation can happen with the click of a mouse.
“Your online identity is like a tattoo,” says Silkauskas. “You may like it for the moment, but the long-term consequences can be painful and costly. [Your identity] is not easily erasable, but can be easily traceable.”
Sasha Toten is a first-year law student at the University of Ottawa.