In our evolving employment landscape, students and employers are no longer confined to meeting one another in person through interviews and networking events. Instead, law professionals and students increasingly share their professional stories and opportunities using online platforms such as LinkedIn and personal websites, as well as other informal social media platforms like Instagram and Twitter. Law school professional development administrators are well-advised to develop progressive ways to advise students on how to navigate this dynamic and powerful but admittedly less traditional method of cultivating connections.
Each of us has a unique professional identity. Lawyers and law students are no different. This identity develops throughout the course of a lawyer’s career and will be affected primarily by a lawyer’s professional engagement with others. In the law school years, though, as a student’s professional identity is still forming, law schools can support their students in refining an identity that is authentic but also professional and capable of evolution throughout their careers. So, how can PD leaders guide students in owning and amplifying their professional identities using online engagement? Here are some simple tips to get started.
Employers frequently “meet” their future employees for the first time through their online photos and activity. A strong professional photo and representation therefore become essential in initiating a positive professional interaction online. But many students entering law school lack a professional photo and have not given much thought to how they might present themselves as developing legal professionals.
- Hire a photographer: Consider designing an afternoon when a professional photographer comes to campus to take head shots of your first-year students. If your school uses a secure file-sharing tool, you can store the resulting photos and invite students to download their images. If your programming budget cannot accommodate a professional, consider enlisting the help of a photography student or aspiring professional for a substantially reduced fee.
- Develop a virtual elevator pitch: Work with students to create a two-to-three-sentence description they can use to authentically present themselves as aspiring lawyers. You can design these statements in a brown bag group workshop or one-on-one. The key is helping students understand what makes them stand out in a crowded field in a way that comports with what legal employers seek -- future executives with strong skills and impeccable judgment.
Provide Context for the Legal Profession
Students who are coming to law school directly from undergraduate programs or from positions in other industries may not yet fully appreciate some of the norms of the legal profession. Of course, their understanding of our profession may not develop quickly enough to catch up with their online activity. PD professionals play an important role in educating students about their new roles and how social media usage can impact their professional engagement both positively and negatively.
- Create early opportunities to learn how to enlist help: The legal profession is replete with challenges and no lawyer should go it alone. Many resources exist to help lawyers navigate the thornier issues the profession presents -- from ethical questions to lawyer struggles with well-being. Now is the time to help students build the muscle for seeking supportive resources. Encouraging students to contact the career services office with any questions or concerns they might have about how to position themselves online can save them from discovering that their online activity damages their reputation or, even worse, violates ethical obligations.
- Supplement legal experience with other activities: While it is completely normal to lack legal experience, some students feel they should amplify relatively minor interactions with the profession instead of highlighting complementary non-legal experience such as engagement in philanthropic work -- whether as a professional, volunteer, or board member. Students can also strategically follow certain organizations and share certain posts to demonstrate their interest in specific subject matter.
Encourage Students to Evolve
The beauty and challenge of online platforms lie in their dynamic nature. What is popular today will soon change, and PD professionals should encourage students to be nimble in response. Students should also be thoughtful about the content they post online and develop ways to disseminate positive professional enhancements over different platforms.
- Make use of tools that can share relevant content broadly: If students attempt to cultivate a professional identity online, they should consider using tools that will allow them to do so across platforms. With a single post, students can demonstrate their identity on LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and more.
- Be thoughtful about platforms: An important caveat to the above tip is that students should be thoughtful about the way they use each platform on which they engage. If, for example, they use Instagram and Facebook primarily to post personal items, they should keep the identity separation clear. (Of course, they should always be mindful of how their personal online activity impacts their professional reputation, as well.) Maintaining clear divisions of purpose across platforms allows students to cultivate a defined professional image.
- Enlist alumni ambassadors as educators: PD professionals are painfully aware that the messenger matters. So, consider supplementing any programming you create with the voice of an alum in practice. Perhaps your school has an alum who focuses on the intersection of professional ethics and social media. Invite that alum to your school to present to the students, bringing fresh and relevant examples from real life.
Online professional engagement tools are rapidly changing the way we interact. A natural tendency of those who developed in a different time is to avoid these platforms or advise students against using them. A smarter strategy is providing students with strong education and specific tips and tools that will help them harness the power of these platforms and grow an authentic online professional identity without landing in hot water.