Time to tweet

Social media is everywhere.

Companies are creating their own Facebook pages to inform customers about products and promotions; journalists are using applications like Twitter to keep readers up to date on breaking news; professionals around the world are connecting with one another on LinkedIn; sports fans are debating with each other on online forums; people are writing blogs to express their thoughts and opinions on a wide range of topics — the list is endless. And it’s all accessible on your smartphone now, too.

So it’s no surprise even a traditional industry like law is starting to embrace social media. With law students typically of a generation weaned on electronics, they’re catching on rather quickly. But they might face some barriers in law school when it comes to integrating social media into their legal education.

Michael Geist, a University of Ottawa law professor and well-known blogger, says he’s seeing a lot more students using social media. “The overwhelming majority of the students that I’ve encountered in my classes are on Facebook, a good number of them now are on Twitter and Instagram, and all the many other services that are out there,” he says.

Students are using Facebook to plan events at their law schools; they’re joining the Twittersphere to offer their thoughts and opinions on legal issues; they’re creating LinkedIn profiles to network with other law students, faculty, and lawyers; and some have even created their own blogs.

Geist worries law schools could miss the boat if they don’t start incorporating social media into the teaching environment. “If we’re not using those tools, in some ways we may be missing an effective mechanism for communicating with those students,” he says. “We ought to see some real experimentation using technology more generally, and part of that is social media.”

Ottawa lawyer Jordan Furlong, who blogs on the current and future state of the profession at Law21, says, “There’s a lot of good things social media can do in terms of training good thinkers, good writers, and good debaters.” However, he has little faith law schools are going to come around to the idea any time soon. “I could see it used as a communication tool, as a way to produce content, and as a way to sharpen your debating skills, but I think these are all things, frankly, that the vast, vast majority of law school professors are not aware of, have no interest in, and are not going to adopt.”

However, some professors have jumped on the social media bandwagon. University of Calgary law professor Kathleen Mahoney had never even used Twitter before she signed up last year to be a judge for the world’s first-ever Twitter moot, hosted by British Columbia’s West Coast Environmental Law. Although it was a bit of a learning curve, Mahoney told 4Students after the moot it was a great experience and she even planned to use Twitter as a teaching tool. “[Y]ou could start a little discussion on Twitter . . . with students about issues in class, [etc.] and have a group discussion. That was a very interesting revelation for me; how this could be adapted to other teaching opportunities with students,” she said.

Andrew Gage, staff counsel at WCEL, says the staff came up with the idea for a Twitter moot after trying to figure out how to use Twitter to raise awareness of environmental issues, and had seen others host “tweet-a-thons” to support various causes. So a legal issue was chosen, student teams from law schools across the country were selected, along with several judges, and a virtual moot was born. After the first Twitter moot on Feb. 21, 2012 was such a success, WCEL held a second one on Nov. 20.

Sam Harrison, a first-year law student at the University of Alberta, was a member of the second Twitter moot’s winning team. “It was a neat exercise to make things concise and try to make them understandable for everybody,” he says.

When considering whether social media could be incorporated into legal education, Harrison says it’s “almost boundless. Personally I’m amazed to see how little it’s used in our classes. There’s a lot of benefit to be had [through social media] and the schools that put their weight behind it will reap the rewards.”

Simon Borys, a third-year law student at Queen’s University and popular blogger, says it’s time for law schools to join the social media movement to properly prepare students for the workforce. Social media “has to be incorporated into legal education going forward. I think that we’re entering an age now where you can’t deny that this will be a big part of the future of law, all areas of law — both in terms of the subject matter that you’re going to deal with as a lawyer and also in terms of the provision of legal services that you’re going to provide to clients,” he says.

Many law schools and professors have already started blogs. Some popular ones include: the University of Alberta’s blog; the University of Calgary’s blog; the University of British Columbia’s student blog; Osgoode Hall Law School’s library, dean, and law school each has its own blog; Université de Montréal law professor Paul Daly’s blog; and the University of Toronto’s faculty blog — and those are just a few examples.

It is important to note, however, that social media does come with its risks.

Alexandre Michaud, a second-year law student at McGill University, says he’s pretty conservative when it comes to social media. He recently joined LinkedIn and created a Facebook profile — but under a pseudonym. “I think social media should be a little restrained compared to what some people make use of it,” he says. “I’m very conservative on [those sites]. To me, it’s really something to be used in a rather professional way to set up your image and be reachable.”

Geist knows students who have cleaned up their Facebook profiles in advance of law firm interviews because they realize potential employers may be searching them online, and there’s a certain image students want to project. Furlong says students should always be careful about what they say online and how they say it. “Don’t say or do anything on social media that you wouldn’t do as a lawyer five years after your call,” he advises.

Borys says it’s imperative that students not be perceived as giving legal advice. Avoid making broad, authoritative statements, he suggests. He also uses bold disclaimers on his blog Simon Says.

Harrison says he’s wary of his online activity. “It can be hard to kind of keep in check your social media persona and online persona,” he says. “I think you just have to be really careful what you do online, and for that reason I try to use it less for my social life and more for only my professional life.”

Although using social media inappropriately could land you in hot water, it could also be used to your advantage if used properly. Social media “allows you to cast a far and wide net, and maintain relationships with people with very little effort,” says Borys. “It’s a tough market for potential employees to break into and I think that if you want to get hired in today’s market you’ve really got to stand out from the crowd. You’ve got to find a way to distinguish yourself from your competition (from other students) and social media can help you do that. It really allows you to demonstrate your passion for a particular area of law and it also allows you to showcase the unique value that you have to offer to a potential employer.”

He argues that every law student comes to law school with a unique set of experiences, and combined with a law degree that gives them a unique value to offer to an employer. The trick is discovering what your unique value is. For Borys, it was rather easy. He’s a former police officer who’s now an aspiring criminal defence lawyer. Through his blog and other online activities, he was able to showcase his knowledge of the law — and it’s paid off. Last year, he landed his summer job and now his upcoming articling position, and he didn’t even apply. Several employers, who he says knew him through his online activities, approached him with job offers.

Geist says he’s seeing more students using social media as a mechanism to develop some name recognition and awareness early in their careers. “There’s nothing that says a student has to wait until they become a practising lawyer to engage in legal debates of the day,” he says.

Not only can social media help you get ahead as a law student, it can also come in handy when you become a practising lawyer. WCEL’s Gage says an increasing number of law firms are using social media to communicate with their existing and potential clients. “Any law firm that doesn’t have a presence in social media is getting somewhat left behind. So it’s important for students to know these tools,” he says.

Furlong and Geist both acknowledge their online presence has advanced their careers. Furlong’s blog opened up a whole new career for him. It was so successful, he became a consultant two and a half years after launching it and now a bulk of the work he does is paid speaking engagements about legal issues that arise on his blog.

For Geist, social media has become “a major tool for disseminating some of my ideas. It’s great for interaction with the public because I have posts that sometimes generate hundreds of comments, and so I get some real feedback that way. Some of what I’m trying to do is take a closer look at trying to take the ideas and research that I work on and turn it into advocacy-related issues, and social media is critically important in that regard.”

If you’re just starting out, Furlong offers this advice: “Create a blog or a web site, make that the core of your online presence, then use these other services [Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc.] to circulate and distribute it, and also become an informed re-broadcaster of other people’s observations and breaking news in the area.”

Borys says it’s no longer enough to apply to a law firm with just a law degree, so students should really take advantage of what social media has to offer. “There are basically two jobs of a law student and social media can help you with both,” he says. “No. 1 is to build and maintain networks with people who are going to be your future colleagues in the profession, and No. 2 is to get a job — and social media can help any student with both of these.”

Check out these popular law blogs:

Legal Feeds, the daily Canadian legal news blog from Canadian Lawyer and Law Times, canadianlawyermag.com/legalfeeds

Simon Says by Simon Borys, simonborys.ca

Michael Geist’s Blog, michaelgeist.ca

Law21 by Jordan Furlong, law21.ca

Environmental Law Alert Blog by West Coast Environmental Law, wcel.org/resources/environmental-law-alert

The Trial Warrior Blog by Toronto lawyer Antonin Pribetic, thetrialwarrior.com

barrysookman.com by Toronto IP lawyer Barry Sookman

Slaw, published by Simon Fodden (which has many contributors), slaw.ca

Dean Sossin’s Blog by Osgoode Hall Law School dean Lorne Sossin, deansblog.osgoode.yorku.ca

Doorey’s Workplace Law Blog by York University labour and employment law professor David Doorey, yorku.ca/ddoorey/lawblog

BC Injury Law by personal injury lawyer Erik Magraken, bc-injury-law.com/blog

leeakazaki.com by former Ontario Bar Association president Lee Akazaki

À bon droit by Quebec lawyer Karim Renno, abondroit.com

Wise Law Blog by Toronto lawyer Garry Wise, wiselaw.blogspot.ca

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