By Heather N. Williams
It only takes seven seconds to form a first impression of a new business acquaintance1, based upon commonly accepted tenets of professionalism deemed “basic employability skills”: timeliness, work ethic, attendance, and a respect for coworkers/superiors.2 But, with the increasing presence of technology and social media, this dynamic has been altered. Many times, we know more about a new person due to their online activities than we know about our own coworkers we work with daily–where he or she eats, what movies he or she likes, how many miles he or she ran this morning…or how many drinks he or she had at the bar last night.
Employers are Googling their potential hires, clients are researching their lawyers and doctors, and romantic partners are watching their would-be mates from a distance on Facebook and Twitter. So, while we may dress for the job we want, not the job we have; walk out telling the world to kick us, and know it will kick us; or work on having a firm handshake, the internet allows others to pre-judge us based on what we publish online and enables our embarrassments and gaffes to live on indefinitely. And because our online reputation precedes and outlives us, professionalism now requires monitoring one’s presence on the internet.
The legal field is far from immune to this.
Sites that provide law service ratings, like Avvo or Martindale Hubbell, expose attorneys to their potential clients and courtroom adversaries, while also providing some accountability, as members of the bar know that they will be evaluated in a professional manner. In response, many attorneys work to cultivate their ratings by answering questions on message boards or merely tailoring the appearance of their profiles.
However, professionals being exposed online goes beyond this: searching one’s name may show YouTube videos, Facebook pages, Twitter feeds, or photo albums, all of which may contain personal information that affects how one is perceived. Often, for professionals and public figures who are expected to have higher ethical standards, such personal information (that is not as diligently cultivated as one’s professional online presence) is especially sought out by competitors, clients, and supervisors.
Take, for example, Don West, the defense attorney for George Zimmerman in the Trayvon Martin murder case this past summer. His opening remark to the jury was in the form of a knock-knock joke, which has been uploaded numerous times online and analyzed on various news sites for being improper and in bad taste3; and on Instagram, a photo appeared of him and his daughters eating ice cream with a caption proclaiming he “beat stupidity” after cross-examining a State’s witness.4 Whether he faces disciplinary sanctions or not, West will likely never escape the legacy of these actions.
Even less notorious or egregious (e.g., not likely to hale one to the disciplinary council) things, like an opinionated Facebook post or a vacation photo in non-court attire, can affect a lawyer’s career for many years to come. The takeaway is that as attorneys, in the pursuit of maintaining the integrity of the tribunal and the dignity of the profession, we must ensure that our public online selves and our real life selves are not like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; but, instead, a cohesive depiction of competent, ethical practitioners.
1Carol Kinsey Goman, Seven Seconds to Make a First Impression, February 13, 2011, Forbes.com.
2Mark Bauerlein, What Do US College Graduates Lack? Professionalism, May 8, 2013, Bloomberg.com.
3Zimmerman attorney uses knock knock joke in opening statement, July 5, 2013, NBCNews.com.
4Pamela Engel and Dina Spector, George Zimmerman Attorney Took A Photo Eating ‘Celebration Cones’ During Court Recess, June 28, 2013, BusinessInsider.com.
About the Author
Heather N. Williams is Assistant Prosecuting Attorney in the Juvenile Division for the Franklin County Prosecutor’s Office in Columbus, OH