I have been meaning for some time to write a post about what’s described as ‘personal branding’. My interest lies in providing a constructive platform for those entering the profession and who seek to dip their toes into social networks as part of their development of a professional identity.
I was prompted again by the recent cases of academics Roz Ward and Martin Hirst each of whom has had their employment threatened due to a personal Facebook post unrelated to work, and a series of publicly available tweets, respectively. These cases, and many others like them, raise a myriad of issues about privacy, employers’ rights, employees’ responsibility, contemporary standards of discourse, and working out when they apply.
Before I could get my thoughts together to finish a post, Martin Hirst posted on his own blog most eloquently about the issues he and others face. So I have scaled back for now. The topic will likely need a series of posts to canvass the different facets of the complex issue of personal freedoms online and their intersection with our professional lives.
This post is a minimalist start on the topic of online professional personae. It addresses what I see as the professional needs of that most conservative of professions, the law. It is designed to offer a starting point for reflection about one’s digital presence in the context of professionalism in the law. It is not a highly critical piece – critique will come in later posts.
The idea of ‘personal branding‘ is not new. When I started in legal practice in 1990, even as articled clerks we were urged to engage in marketing activities. This was more than taking clients to lunch. We were taught that every time we engaged with people, we were presenting ourselves to a potential client. (Welcome to Big Law.) We were encouraged to do volunteer work, to join clubs, in general to ‘brand’ ourselves as engaged citizens – although the label of branding was not around then, that was what we were doing.
The goal of personal branding in this sense is to establish ourselves as holding the relevant expertise and authority to do our work – we package ourselves to appeal to clients, and to appeal to employers.
I use the term ‘personal branding’ to mean establishing a consistent professional persona. I do not distinguish between online or in real life activities, although this post is about online presence. Building up a CV has always involved interpreting our lives and our activities to represent our professional capacities in a way that is attractive to an employer. There is however a qualitative difference between in real life and online.
Our digital footprint is becoming ever larger. While it encompasses the metadata of our web surfing, and smartphone and communication activities, I use the term here to mean our visible online presence – notably through social media. For the aspiring lawyer, there are two sides to this: an active plan to build a professional identity online; and a risk-management facet. These two aspects converge in three foundation principles that lawyers need to know before going online.
- Anything online, or sent digitally, is forever and will haunt you til the end of days.
- Nothing is private.
- Lawyers’ professional responsibilities extend to conduct occurring in private contexts.
Once you accept these foundation principles, the rest follows. Lawyers have always had to watch their behaviour for fear of censure for bringing the profession into disrepute. I think that this is a good foundation for considering how we conduct ourselves in the online environment too.
For those who are already digitally capable and engaging in online networks before entering the profession, there may be some translation required to raise awareness of how this experience translates into the old-world (analogue) prism of the legal profession. Principally the dissonance relates to the different norms of discourse in law and those in a social online environment.
Before social media, our student conversations were not captured to haunt us for eternity. Now, as those entering the profession move from one phase of their life into the next, there is already a history of behaviour that is on the record for employers, clients, and regulatory bodies to inspect, but which are likely to be unappealing from a professional standpoint.
The risks of unprofessional engagement online once admitted to practice, can have implications not only for the employment contract. Such behaviour may affect the client relationship, matters before the court, and may even become a regulatory matter if the activity is deemed unprofessional conduct or misconduct under the relevant legislation.
The risk-averse student of law will start developing a positive professional presence online – in all media, no matter how ‘private’ – as early as possible. A sobering message perhaps, but one that is likely to come into sharper relief as the lines between personal and professional become increasingly blurred.