Recently, I reached out to a Twitter friend who is a talented and respected director in Hollywood. Although we've never met, I feel like I know him because we've traded Tweets and shared information. My nephew had recently graduated from USC film school and was in the process of beginning his career. My Twitter friend responded in an admirable and unselfish way, with an offer to help my nephew.
Facebook has allowed me to reconnect with people I haven't seen since high school. And although many years and miles now separate us, I feel like I have become reacquainted with them- I've seen pictures of their kids, I know what careers they have chose and what they look like.
These are examples of the incredible power and the potential for positive effect of social media.
At the same time, I recently read a news story dealing with a lawyer's representation of his client in a criminal matter. The story was followed by reader comments, lots of them. Each comment became increasingly hostile, angry, vulger and profane. After attacking the subject of the news story, the commentators began to attack each other. Then, in a weird Goldmanesque "Lord of the Flies" way, they turned and began to form alliances. Each level of attacks became more degrading and insulting. By the end of the comment thread, the only thing left was a scortched earth scenario of humans who had become incredibly inhumane toward one another.
I hope this phenomenon is simply a "start up" thing. Like kids with a new toy, we explore the boundaries, but eventually our character and humanity take over and we act the way we should. "Lord of the Flies" was fiction- children don't actually kill each other . . .right? People don't act this way in real life, do they?
But I'm not sure. If this kind of behavior is unchecked, it can only result in deterioration of everything that makes us good and caring people. I'm sure I'm not the only person who feels this way. But in our society, unfortunately, the mean people are generally noisier than the nice people.
If you are a law student, or want to be a lawyer some day, you should understand that, in a way, anything you post on the internet is "forever". As countless of people have learned, there are consequences that arise from what the writers consider to be random, funny, anonymous posts. Future employers can find them. Opposing counsel can find them. Bar authorities can find them. Your grandmother can find them.
And I'm not so sure that stuff you post "anonymously" is truly anonymous. The legal doctrine is still in flux. Regardless, I don't think I would take the risk that something I post anonymously will necessarily always remain anonymous. There are simply too many variables.
A caveat: I'm as much for the First Amendment as anyone. But as any law student knows, the First Amendment requires a government action of some sort. And much of what we read on the internet is purely private speech, which means it can result in defamation claims. Further, even the First Amendment has its limits and certain kind of speech- obscene or shouting "fire" in a crowded auditorium for the purpose of creating a panic- are unprotected. So before you argue First Amendment, you should understand what it really means.
As a result, I offer the follow suggestions for soon-to-be lawyers:
1. Seek first to understand, then be understood. It's easy to fire off something on the internet in anger. It can also be an easy way to look pretty foolish. Before you rant and rave, try to understand where the object of your anger is coming from. You might be surprised at exactly how much you can misunderstand.
2. Don't Buy It. I've seen stuff on the internet referring to lawyers as drug-addicted, alcoholic sex addicts. Some of it is even from people claiming to have an inside track into the profession. Interestingly, it's always anonymous. Certainly, in America, we love to hate our lawyers. And I suppose, to some, it's funny to talk about lawyers in this way. And maybe there are lawyers out there who fit this description. But I've never met one, or even close.
If you wonder why these posts are anonymous, it's because anyone who has ever obtained a law license understands that it is a privilige and not a right. So people hide behind the shield of internet "anonymity" in order to criticize the profession. But you should understand that internet "anonymity" isn't always anonymous. The bar authorities are the sole determiners of whether or not you possess the requisite character and fitness to practice law. And some of them may be looking at your social media in order to determine whether you have such character and fitness.
Further, any lawyer understands that he or she has an ethical obligation to uphold the integrity of the profession. This stuff doesn't do that and is in fact, extremely destructive to the public perception of lawyers.
And if you argue First Amendment, I'll argue defamation. And if you are a law student, you understand that truth is a defense to defamation. I've been in practice for a number of years now, and have worked with hundreds of lawyers across the country. I've never met anyone who would even come close to those described in these posts. Further, every lawyer I've ever known has been extremely dedicated to his or her clients, hardworking, intelligent and of high integrity. So, I'm not buying it.
Unfortunately, I've seen stuff published by non-anonymous practicing attorneys as well. I don't know these people and I suppose they believe they that they need to somehow display themselves as "lawyers of the people". And they believe that "the people" enjoy rants, anger and insults. However, my own opinion is that if I ever needed a lawyer, I would want someone who was calmer, more thoughtful and candidly, more dignified.
3. Treat Others Like You Want to Be Treated. It's one of the oldest rules in the book; we call it the "Golden Rule." It's actually pretty simple in its operation, but it becomes difficult in the execution. But if you endeavor to live by it, your life will ultimately be richer, more rewarding and fulfilling.
Bottom line: Just because the internet is unsupervised, doesn't mean that there are not consequences from the things you put out there. There can be legal consequences, as well as consequences to your professional career. But long term, there are also personal consequences. If you get into the habit of firing off a rant at the drop of a hat on the internet, eventually you could train yourself to do it in real life. It's just not a good way to be. Don't take the easy route, don't take cheap shots, and don't do anything that your grandmother wouldn't be proud of. You are better than that. And this isn't the wild, wild west.
I wish you much success in your legal career.