Protecting Your Professional Identity: Start Before You Apply to Law School

The New York Times ran a front page article yesterday about a cop whose Facebook profile listed his occupation as “human waste disposal.”  Clever, right?  Cleverer if you share the implicit politics, but clever regardless.  Clever until the officer was involved in a fatal shooting, a reporter looked at his Facebook page, the cop was placed on desk duty and had to backpedal with a public apology.  Not so clever, and though the officer seems to have weathered the storm, there’s little doubt in my mind that his career advancement opportunities have been at best, delayed and at worst, ended.

There are two problems with having potentially embarrassing material (oh, wait, it’s “content” now) on the web, social media sites, wherever.  First, it’s embarrassing for as long as it’s up.  Second, it never really disappears.  My guess is that any Google search of this police officer for the next several years, at least, will put the Times article front and center.  The fact that the content is up forever is one reason I’m not naming the officer.  He’ll have trouble enough getting past the Times article, he doesn’t need others piling on.  (My Times wedding announcement was almost seven years ago—if I ever forget my anniversary, it’s still on page 1 of a Google search of my name, which is nice because if you knew my wife, you’d know how brilliant that makes me look.) 

At some point early on with every law school or law school admission client, I ask them if there’s any potentially embarrassing material out there (fortunately, knock on virtual wood, the answer has always been “no”).  What counts as “embarrassing” is pretty simple—if you’re shown or described doing anything that would decrease a client’s confidence in you, that’s embarrassing.

Client?  But I’m not even in/am still  in law school?  Yes, I take the long view with my clients.  It’s not just about getting them the best LSAT prep and law school admissions possible, but their best long-term career options.  To begin with, you will eventually have clients if you go to law school (or customers or students).  And those people will want to have confidence not just in your intellectual ability but in your judgment and professionalism.  Now work back.  Legal employers want to have the same confidence.  And law schools are training professionals.  As I point out a lot in Advise-In’s webinars and seminars, the best way that law schools have to assure themselves that their graduates will be professionals is to admit those who already act professionally.  In addition, the best way to prepare for being a professional is to act like one; that’s one reason that all Advise-In Solutions programs focus on developing skills that will actually make you a better lawyer (yes, even in LSAT prep, it’s not only possible but also yields a better LSAT score).

Do I know that law school admissions personnel regularly do web, Facebook and LinkedIn searches on applicants?  I don’t.  But I’ll guarantee that some do, for some applicants.  And if you were in their shoes and trying to decide between closely-matched applicants, you would, too.

The best way to protect your professional identity is to act professionally.  If you’ve had a slip or two, well, that’s life.  But then you want to make sure it never finds its way onto the web or social media.  That includes friends’ pictures of you at drunken parties posted on their Facebook pages, for example.  It certainly includes your Facebook posts, dumb or offensive tweets, web pages, on-campus posts, etc.  And it even includes material about you that may not even be true.

It certainly includes your e-mails.  Those are forever on a server and we’ve all seen examples of embarrassing e-mails, texts, IMs, etc. being leaked, misaddressed, or otherwise revealed to those who weren’t the intended recipients (I know a person who was fired from her job because she inadvertently sent an e-mail critical of her boss to, yes, her boss).  There’s a simple rule–before you hit “send,” ask yourself, are you ok with everyone reading what you wrote.  If the answer is “no,” you want to rethink whether to send it, keeping in mind also that the more inflammatory or salacious the content, the more likely it is to be spread.   

That’s all about prevention.  For some law school applicants or students, it may be too late for that.  If there is material that’s potentially damaging that’s on the web, the first step is to kill it, that is, take down any live material.  That’s usually pretty easy as long as you or a friend was the one who posted it and it’s not being hosted by a third party over whom you don’t exercise control.  If it’s material that’s hosted elsewhere, it’s harder to kill but still possible (as long as it’s not controlled by an enemy).

That’s only part of the solution, though, because the link will far outlast the material.  To control the damage of such material, you’d need to make a decision about how much it’s worth to you to pay a consultant to help you try to lower the rank of the material (if it’s in a search engine search) to the point past where anyone looks, or figure out a way to get the link removed from search engines altogether (we won’t discuss other strategies that might persuade even those who dislike you to remove offending content).  There are very wealthy people who pay a lot for this kind of web/social media cleansing; if you’re not one of the wealthy few, you’d have to make do with a “good enough” solution.  But it may still be worth it, especially since you’ll want that material even further gone by the time you start looking for jobs during and after law school, and I’m told these processes take awhile to fully effect.

The difficulty and cost of getting rid of a lot of material in an era of global connectivity (or, less charitably, the age of universal snooping) is, of course, the best reason to do your best not to have potentially damaging material up in the first place.

~ by Kyle Pasewark at Advise-in Solutions on April 8, 2011.

6 Responses to “Protecting Your Professional Identity: Start Before You Apply to Law School”

  1. Hello Kyle:

    This is a fantastic post – critical career counseling advice, not only for pre-law students, but for everybody. I have on occasion “read the riot act” to participants in my classes and seminars about this very topic.

    The advent of blogs, social media, and the internet in general have made it easy to locate any person and to learn lots about that person.

    The best solution – Be careful of what you say and who you “friend” on Facebook and similar sites. Use an email address that contains your name and does not make a statement. Never send an email in anger that you will regret later.

    John Richardson – Toronto, Canada

  2. I’ve the heard the stories about bosses looking into your facebook. How can they really though if you have private settings? You would have to accept them as your friends first right?
    And on linkedin would they see whether you are making up jobs? Does this mean you have to keep linkedin as updated as possible?

    • A very helpful comment. Thank you. I’m told (though I don’t know if it’s true) that Facebook security is fairly easy to circumvent but I don’t want to add that to my list of gripes with Facebook, especially since you’d have to ask yourself if you really want to work for an employer who would try to work around that security. Even if your page is private, though, it’s still possible for others to repost your posts, so you still want to be very careful about what you have up.

      You do want to keep LinkedIn updated, among other reasons because if you don’t do it, it makes you look a little less professional as well as providing outdated information.

      Two basic rules: first, any resource that you use will require maintenance and occasional review. The second is, don’t throw into cyberspace anything that could be damaging to you (or, if you do, be clear about why you’re doing it and the risks you’re taking, and have made decision that the advantages outweigh the risk).

  3. […] couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the importance of protecting your professional identity as early as possible—for potential law school applicants, that means that you don’t start managing your online […]

  4. […] careers and yes – law school admissions.  This issue has recently been canvassed on the blog of a pre-law advisor. To be forewarned to be […]

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