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Social Media (and Other Online) Follies: Think Before You Click

September 1, 2011

Social media, as the latest technology to become a fact of life, has opened up a vast terrain of opportunity. But that terrain is also rife with personal and professional pitfalls. Some are easy to avoid with a little common sense. It’s not hard, for example, to figure out that “friending” a defendant on Facebook while serving as a juror is a no-no. But there is plenty of gray area where social media have blurred the line between personal and professional relationships. Sure, friending a defendant or a juror is obviously a bad idea, but what about friending peers, co-workers, or even clients with whom we’re friendly? It can help you stay connected, but also create professional implications for any aspect of your personal life that you share online. Once you’re outside the realm of obvious danger and into the gray area, how to balance those competing concerns is an individual choice.

Likewise, although social media such as Twitter or a blog can facilitate a public presence with significant potential rewards, such a presence also has significant potential costs. Gilbert “Agent Zero” Arenas learned that lesson the hard way this summer, finally deleting his Twitter account after some of his tweets led to a fine from the NBA and then an adverse ruling in a federal suit. Most of us have better judgment than Agent Zero, but we all have to negotiate the tensions between connected-ness and privacy. Yet, standards for conduct on social media are not yet fully developed.

For now, caution seems to be the best rule of thumb. Particularly when a few hasty keystrokes and click of a button are all that separate you from a disastrous mistake. Trouble can result not only from ill-considered work email and text messages, but also from less obvious transgressions, such as speaking disparagingly of judges, clients, other parties, victims or others. Elevator chatter has always been fraught with danger, but online diatribes may be equally perilous. (Notably, however, a recent NLRB decision concluded that federal law protected some employee gripes about work on Facebook).

Sometimes, even if our online and social media communications are not directly related to our work, they can have career consequences. Employers, schools and even some bar examiners now routinely vet candidates via social media, which evolving search tools are making easier and easier. An attorney acquaintance who is on her employer’s hiring committee recently described the sad story of a candidate who was considered among the best in her recruitment pool: she was unanimously rejected after revelation of a photo that raised questions as to her judgment.

Ultimately, social media’s ubiquity has made it as indispensable in the professional world as a phone or an email address but, until standards for its use are more settled, think before you click.

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