The Florida Bar

Florida Bar News

Integrating professionalism and social media in the age of lawyers that grew up with it

Special to the News Columns

'Many students are their social media pages and as social media continues to revolutionize society, it will only become harder to separate it from one’s professional persona'

(Editor’s Note: Allaa Tayeb, a 2022 graduate of Florida State University College of Law, was the winner of this year’s FSU Law Writing Competition, sponsored by the Henry Latimer Center for Professionalism. Tayeb’s essay,  “Integrating Professionalism and Social Media in the Age of Lawyers that Grew Up With It,” was originally published in The Professional, a publication of The Florida Bar’s Center for Professionalism. )

Allaa Tayeb

Allaa Tayeb

Social media has transformed the way we view society over the last few decades. This emerging generation of law students entering the legal field grew up during this transformation. Social media websites like Facebook, Myspace, Tumblr, and Twitter were foundational to their upbringing and represent a virtual second home. This generation of law student is different from former generations because, for many, their existence is entwined with their social media presence. As such, separating personal and professional personas on social media is unrealistic and counter-intuitive to the progression of the legal profession.

Many legal professionals advise students to “be professional” on social media, citing stories of online misconduct costing students’ jobs and professional relationships. Advice to law students using social media often centers on one solution: separate your online presence from your social media presence. However, separating one’s professional life from their social media life strips people with a large social media presence of a part of their identity. Take for instance a law student that doubles as a social media influencer. Many law students, including some at Florida law schools, pride themselves on sharing stories and advice on surviving law school. This advice is paramount for prospective students or even students about to start their first year of law school. In these instances, it is difficult to separate a law student’s personal persona from their professional persona without depriving the legal field of a valuable social utility and free law school marketing. So too is it unfair to judge these students for oversharing stories about their law school experience. One legal scholar even noted that “[s]ocial media platforms encourage oversharing and disinhibition.”[1]

Besides, social media influencers are broad in range, and even represent the current community of legal professionals, e.g., the @lawbyMike and @ugolord on TikTok provide helpful advice on common legal issues, and many legal scholars, including law professors, have a large social media following on Twitter. In this way, social media makes the legal world more accessible to non-lawyers. Even outside this particular example, law students that double as influencers on other topics like comedy, cooking, fashion, or art deserve to share their full lives, or part, online without filtration. Social media has a ubiquitous influence over everyone’s lives and exists in tandem with many people’s identities. Many students are their social media pages and as social media continues to revolutionize society, it will only become harder to separate it from one’s professional persona.

Social media is also indispensable for networking. Websites like LinkedIn make it possible for law students to “connect” with legal professionals that can aid in advancing their careers. This is important especially in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic and the difficulty shutdowns posed to in-person networking. However, LinkedIn, like other social media sites, represents a merger of a professional persona and a personal persona. In fact, “people can choose to fill their LinkedIn connections with both clients and their college classmates, they can be Facebook friends with their coworkers right along with their neighbors, and they can utilize social media sites to market themselves or their business to a wide audience.”[2] Social media governs and even dominates the way we communicate as a society, and it would be unrealistic to expect law students to completely separate their personal online presence from their professional persona without losing some sense of their identity. This is especially the case because “divorcing real-world and online personas can be messy and fraught with error,” since “seemingly innocuous attempts to separate real world and online personas still create the risk of disinhibited behavior and unprofessionalism.”[3]

It is likewise true that we meet many people through social media. In fact, social media provides an essential medium for law students to market themselves as future legal professionals. Social media provides a number of benefits, including allowing law students to “bring attention and traffic [their] work,” and “build, craft and enhance [their] brand.”[4] People want to hire those they trust, and social media is a utility for building that trust. For example, law students can follow law firms on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter through their personal accounts. This gives students the opportunity to engage in a virtual “face to face” with potential employers. Students can also learn of job opportunities from law firms they follow, and by being an “active follower, sharing, “liking” and replying to posts”[5] students directly engage with the law firm and show interest in them as a prospective employer. It also helps if students engage with prospective employers through personal social media accounts. People want to work with people they like, and a law student’s personal online persona can flaunt their personality, interests, and hobbies better than a professional account could.

Of course, professionalism should not be completely lost in the age of social media. The rules of professional conduct still dictate the practice of law, and as future legal practitioners, law students are expected to conform to those professional standards. However, this does not mean law students should maintain no social media presence or a separate presence online, it simply means not doing anything online that you would not do in real life. Law students can develop a social media persona that provides a safe space for a professional persona to breed. For example, if a law student chooses to blend professional with personal, they should be aware of their audience and the potential bias certain posts might pose to their legal career. Making conscious choices about what you post, who follows you, and how you engage with them is vital to maintaining professionalism online on a personal profile. Part of this consideration, however, falls on the shoulders of the current legal practitioners in the legal field. Social media is inherently different than the real-world, meaning it is governed by different rules too. As mentioned earlier, oversharing is a staple of many social media sites and legal practitioners should learn to subdue bias against certain common online practices. Unless a student’s online behavior poses questions of integrity, trustworthiness, or reliability as understood by the rules of professional conduct, it should be a non-factor in judging a student’s online social media presence.

Professionalism and social media are oftentimes viewed as a sour mix. Social media, however, provides a forum for many law students to network and flourish. Law students should not have to separate personal and professional personas on social media because doing so stifles their free expression and identity, as well as severely limits a law student’s marketability in law school and even after. Social media has the power to build a relationship between the legal profession and society, and there is no better group of lawyers to do this than this new generation of lawyers that has used social media their whole lives.

[1] Agnieszka McPeak, The internet Made Me Do It: Reconciling Social Media and Professional Norms for Lawyers, Judges, and Law Professors, 55 Idaho L. Rev. 205, 206 (2016).

[2] Erin Brendel Mathews, Forbidden Friending: A Framework for Assessing the Reasonableness of Nonsolicitation Agreements and Determining What Constitutes a Breach on Social Media, 87 Fordham L. Rev. 1217, 1217 (2018).

[3] McPeak, supra note 1, at 226.

[4] Sree Srennivasan, How to Use Social Media in Your Career, NY Times, https://www.nytimes.com/guides/business/social-media-for-career-and-business.

[5] Id.

News in Photos