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Law Students Face Higher Consequences Online

Your online persona may have a greater impact on law school chances than in other disciplines.


"Who I am professionally is different than who I am on Facebook," says Jordan Freking, a senior at Williams College and a prospective law school student. "A lot of things I would say or do on Facebook—that's not how I would behave in a classroom or in a courtroom. [Facebook] is not necessarily accurate or the best way to go about judging an applicant."

But according to a recent survey by Kaplan Test Prep, which included responses from 128 law schools, an increasing number of admissions officers are using the Internet and social media to peek into a prospective law student's background. In the survey, 37 percent of respondents reported checking applicant Facebook profiles or other social networking sites. In comparison, a separate survey by Kaplan reported that 22 percent of admissions officers at business schools—another field that undoubtedly requires high ethics—have visited an applicant's Facebook page.

[College admissions are also using Facebook to research students.]

This trend may be of concern to many future law students who are not fully aware of the consequences of posting status updates or photos on social media platforms that could be viewed as inappropriate. In the same survey, 32 percent of admissions professionals who have used the Internet to research prospective law students have found something that negatively impacted a student's admissions chances.

Potential law students face higher scrutiny online than prospective business students, according to the survey. Fourteen percent of business school admissions officers who have used the Internet to research students reported discovering something on a profile that negatively affected a student's chances for admissions.

Freking, who has delayed his law school search until spring 2012, says that a student's digital footprint should be "off limits" to law school admissions offices.

"[Law schools] could expand the information they want on the application if they're interested in other parts of the applicant's life," he notes. "But if it's not on the application, then it shouldn't be considered."

[Get more information about applying to law school.]

While some students may believe admissions offices routinely seek information about applicants online, Sarah Zearfoss, senior assistant dean for admissions, financial aid, and career planning at the University of Michigan Law School, says it is not a regular practice in her office.

"It is true that sometimes things are unclear in an application, and it's not in any devious sort of investigation," Zearfoss acknowledges. "I have had on occasion a couple times [Googled] somebody—again, just to get clarification—and learned something that was quite worrisome."

Zearfoss notes that admissions decisions at the University of Michigan have not been made due to status updates or photos on social media, but when information disclosed on an application has been discovered to be false based on information found online. While she says there may be unfair uses of information available on the Internet, "part of a student's professional grooming is to think about" how he or she is represented through social media.

"It is uncontested that once you are a lawyer, people will be searching for you," Zearfoss says. "No big client is going to hire a lawyer that he [or she] hasn't Googled."

[Read about law grads who work in nonlegal professions.]

In the same survey by Kaplan, which surveyed 869 students who took the October 2011 LSAT, 77 percent of respondents stated that as future lawyers they should be held to a higher ethical standard than other professionals. At the same time, 77 percent objected to having their online profiles included in the admissions process.

Caroline Bettis, a third-year law student at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, says that while she doesn't blame prospective students for being wary about admissions officials checking social media profiles, "it's not practical to say admissions counselors should divide your online personality from who you are in real life."