Sweet Tweet? – Elizabeth Cruickshank and Penny Cooper

Social media: career suicide or career success in your hands?

We expect you have heard that good old fashioned advice about not sending letters written in anger until you have reviewed them the next day. Chances are you will bin them or at least tone them down. You could call this “the cold light of day” test.

Sending an irate letter requires a certain amount of effort on the part of the writer. Apart from the drafting there’s the printing, the envelope-filling, the stamping and the posting which are not demanded by more modern forms of communication. In fact the easier communication methods become, the more vigilant you should be about what you say.

Tweeting and booing

Easy to get hooked! Credit: carrotcreative

Online communication has morphed from email through the blogosphere to the latest forms of Twitter and Audio Boo, and the new freedom has made many of us a lot more casual about what we say. We forget that sending a tweet, post or audio boo into the world is the virtual equivalent of sending a letter in indelible ink.

We forget that tweeting, posting and audio booing weren’t exactly designed with serious and contemplative communication in mind. Some of the most successful tweeters (if you measure success by the number of followers) have their tweets read so intently precisely because they are immediate and informal. The followers get the scoop direct from the tweeter as it happens: from the movie star at the premier of her latest movie, from the rock star back stage at his concert, from the MP in the Commons — or even from the lawyer at a hearing.

Good personal publicity

If you decide to boo, post or tweet, the upside can be good personal publicity, although possibly not as effective as some journalists have suggested. The Guardian reported recently that a law graduate had landed a training contract at a top City firm thanks in part to his tweeting. That law graduate was Ashley Connick who rather gave the lie to this piece of information by writing in his blog that he had had posted only one article prior to getting his contract – and that his interviewers had not been remotely interested in his writing.

Perhaps they should have been because his pieces are informative, well-crafted and sensible.

More established blogging lawyers, such as John Cooper QC (no relation to the second author) have seen the possibility of harnessing social media to their career advantage and are eagerly followed by other lawyers, but there is such a thing as…

Don't embarrass yourself! Credit: mloberg

Bad personal publicity

Your messages to the world may bring you considerable embarrassment, ring alarm bells to a potential employer or worse still end your career.

Although some of what is posted may be offensive and could give a bad impression of the person who tweets, blogs or boos, usually there will be no legal consequences for that person. But in something so informal it is easy to forget that as a lawyer you are either an officer of the court or that you soon will be. And this brings a whole new set of sanctions into play.

One barrister was recently fined £2,500 for tweeting insulting messages about an opposition lawyer during a trial. (He was also disbarred but for another offence) The Bar Standards Board decided he had brought his profession into disrepute.

Even non-lawyers can be charged under the Contempt of Court Act 1981 if they have made public comments about an accused which could risk seriously prejudicing the accused’s chances of a fair hearing at trial. The Attorney-General decided not to prosecute Joey Barton for his Twitter comments about John Terry’s trial for alleged racial abuse, but this does not mean that he would treat all Twitter comments about trials in the same way.

The temptation to send tweet-sized critiques of your clients or other lawyers out into the ether to relieve your irritation is very strong, but even anonymised subject, especially if they are skillfully humorous or outrageously abusive, can often be often be identified with sad consequences for the poster.

Safety precautions

Minimize the risk by checking out your professions guidelines on using social media. The custodians of professional standards can see and hear you too and the more you seek to be seen or heard the more chance there is that you will come to their attention. It is quite possible that your followers may include some less benevolent colleagues who are waiting for you to slip up so that they can report you to your professional body.

The bigger your profile the harder you may fall

Listen to that small voice inside you that says ‘Maybe I shouldn’t?’ Ignore it and you might feel the adrenaline buzz as you press the key and say to yourself ‘That’ll show them’ but why not metaphorically put your comment in the drawer overnight?

Remember that actions have consequences and that you risk being shown the exit door to your legal career. As a member of a profession anything you do, good or bad, reflect s back on the profession. Never send out something when you are angry, or drunk, or distracted or in too much of a hurry to check what you are writing.

Beware the downsides of social media that draws you into sending out messages on the hoof at the tap of a few buttons on your tablet pc or phone.

Elizabeth Cruickshank and Professor Penny Cooper of The City Law School are the authors of ‘All you need to know about being a Trainee Solicitor’ (Longtail, 2008) and now also published in Chinese and Nigerian editions.

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