Aspiring Lawyers Warned About Twitter, Social Media Perils

Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

Firestorms over Twitter and posts haunting social media users underscore advice being given to law students: watch what you say.

Now “is the time to adjust your privacy settings,” Marta Ricardo, assistant dean and dean of career services at Columbia Law School told Bloomberg Law.

Controversy over Tweets by movie director James Gunn, New York Times journalist Sarah Jeong, and technology journalist Quinn Norton have erupted in 2018, putting a further spotlight on the social media platform whose norms have been tested by President Donald Trump.

In the legal world, the failed nomination of Ryan Bounds to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit drew attention to college writings that senators in both parties viewed as racially insensitive.

Those writings from the 1990s predated social media but are part of the discussion “going through all manner of society right now” about the current consequences of past words that may offend, Tung Yin, a law professor at Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, Ore., and a former clerk for the Ninth and Tenth circuits told Bloomberg Law.

Maureen Reilly, an assistant dean at the University of Pennsylvania law school said “we coach our students as they enter the job market to understand that employers check social media.”

About 35,000 law school graduates entered the workforce in 2017, and close to half of them took positions at law firms.

“More and more, our identities as professionals and as people will be wrapped up in our social media presence,” Lauren Casazza of Kirkland & Ellis LLP in New York told Bloomberg Law by email.

So it’s important to “think twice before posting and commenting,” said Casazza, who is co-chair of the recruiting committee in her firm’s New York office.

Two participants in committees that advise senators on judicial nominations told Bloomberg Law they believe a nominee’s social media activity, even in college, should be considered.

Caution 101

Law students should understand their social media presence because it’s “not just employers who check social media,” Reilly said.

It’s also “clients, adversaries, peers in the legal community, and others,” she said.

Ricardo noted that a student had a law firm offer “withdrawn because of what they said on Twitter.”

Ricardo said she sits with law students and checks their social media presence, with their permission.

Being cautious doesn’t mean that “you can’t have political views,” she said.

Civil “discourse is fine,” and the tone used usually matters more than the content of what is said, Ricardo said. It’s ultimately “totally up to the student to decide what their public persona is.”

Reilly said Penn Law students aren’t told “what they should and should not share, but instead, to understand that these decisions may have professional repercussions and that they should be thoughtful about them.”

Legal, Ethical Issues

For aspiring attorneys, social media has implications that go beyond their personal reputations.

At Penn Law, “we have presented programs that focus not only on how students should present themselves to the world, but also some of the legal and ethical issues social media raises,” Reilly said.

For example, students are being educated on “issues related to advising clients on their use of social media during pending litigation,” Reilly said.

Reilly also noted social media implications related to “ethical and professional responsibility issues related to privilege,” court candor and etiquette.

Students are also taught about “modern legal business uses for social media and other online platforms, including client development and legal thought leadership,” Reilly said.

Firm Perspective

Kirkland’s guidance to its attorneys focuses on showing “integrity and common sense in everything they do, both within the legal world and on social media,” Casazza said.

“An attorney’s internet and social media footprint is readily accessible by clients, courts and competitors anywhere in the world,” Casazza said.

Kirkland’s law student summer associates are told to abide by the firm’s social media policy.

They should consider if they would “want a post to show up on the cover of the newspaper, or be sent to their grandparents,” Casazza said. “We all have First Amendment rights, but we also must follow the rules and be mindful that how we express ourselves online will be with us forever.”

Aspiring Judges, Take Note

Judicial nominees “who came of age in the social media” era will be “vetted in ways unimaginable even a decade ago,” JoshBlackman, a professor at South Texas College of Law Houston, who specializes in constitutional law, told Bloomberg Law by email.

Even a nominee’s college social media activity should be considered relevant in evaluating whether a judge can be impartial, Timothy Francis, who has advised both Democratic and Republican senators in Louisiana on nominees, told Bloomberg Law by email.

“If you’re a college student who might want to be a federal judge someday, be very careful about what you write, say, or do,” David Lat, who writes about judicial nominees for Above the Law, advised in an email to Bloomberg Law.

“I think all writings and social media activity by a potential judicial nominee are relevant and subject to scrutiny,” Laurie Mikva, who has served on a nominating committee assisting Sens. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) and Dick Durbin (D-IL), said, speaking only for herself.

However, “more recent writings and activity should be given greater weight,” Mikva said.

“I have no problems with political speech” prior to a candidate’s nomination, Mikva said. But racially “charged speech has no place at any time.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Patrick L. Gregory in Washington at pgregory@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jessie Kokrda Kamens at jkamens@bloomberglaw.com