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Law Students Should Embrace Social Media, Study Suggests

J.D. students should prepare for an increasingly plugged-in and social job market, experts say.

Although law students have good reason to be cautious on Facebook and Twitter, a study suggests they’ll use those networks as lawyers.
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Anyone who has received an E-mail from a lawyer with a signature packed with legalese—"This message is intended to be confidential and may be legally privileged..."—knows that attorneys are aware of the risks associated with online communications. Recently, for example, a government attorney referred to social media as "an absolute legal mine field for employers."

But despite the many reasons for attorneys to be gun-shy online, the legal social media landscape is expanding in scope and size, according to a new study from the American Bar Association. The 2012 Legal Technology Survey Report, which shows marked rather than overwhelming growth in the legal community's embrace of social networking, suggests that law students should use platforms such as Facebook and Twitter more, law professors and recent graduates say.

Generally, law firms and lawyers are more likely to blog, and use Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, than in previous years, according to the ABA's 658-page report. In 2012, 55 percent of respondents said their employer has a presence on social networks, compared to 42 percent in 2011 and 17 percent in 2010, according to the survey.

Lawyers also report using social media for professional reasons in larger numbers, according to the survey. In 2012, 9 percent of lawyers blog professionally—compared to 5 percent in both 2011 and in 2010—and 3 percent spends more than 11 hours per week blogging. Seventy-eight percent of respondents use Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, or a similar platform, which is up 13 percentage points over 2011 and 22 points over 2010.

These numbers represent growth, but not a mass migration to social media, at least for the time being, says Ryan Calo, an assistant professor at University of Washington School of Law.

"One day technology will revolutionize the practice of law, which will become virtually unrecognizable in some areas," he says. "For now, the survey appears to suggest that lawyers are adopting technology at, if anything, a slower rate than the general population."

[Learn how to use social media to get into law school.]

Despite lawyers lagging behind on social networks, many law professors are embracing the platforms, adds Calo, who tweets from the handle @rcalo. "There has been increasing recognition of the importance of law and technology as its own field, distinct from intellectual property," he says. "Not familiarizing yourself with social media puts you at a disadvantage, whatever your field."

James Milles, a professor at SUNY Buffalo Law School who tweets @jgmilles, also encourages his students to use social media.

"Used well, social media can help in career planning and client development. Social media is ubiquitous: Online reputation management is incumbent on all lawyers," he says. "If you don't take control of your own digital footprint, you still have an online presence. The problem is that you will be at the mercy of what other people say about you."

But Milles says he has seen an increasing number of law students quit Facebook, citing privacy concerns, particularly about being visible to potential employers.

[Read about the higher consequences law students face online.]

"Facebook seems to be at an uncertain point with respect to adoption in the legal community," he says. "Facebook may be a victim of its own success if young professionals start to stay away."

Milles's students tell him that Buffalo's career services officers warn them about potential employers snooping on Facebook, but he still recommends that they build their professional reputations on social networks.

"It may be that many law students have not yet developed a sense of what being a professional means, and therefore have difficulty distinguishing between professional and personal uses of social media," he says. "I had a discussion a couple of years ago in my class about how most social media users develop a particular presentation of themselves online, but most of them rejected that idea. What they do online is who they are; they didn't have a sense of a persona online or elsewhere."