Digital Strategy for Legal Career Development

The following post is a narrative version of a presentation given to Michigan State College of Law students and faculty in November 2014 and the Detroit Legal Innovation Meetup in January 2015.

Law school was once a safe path. Not only were you guaranteed job security, but you would join a profession and embark on a fulfilling career. Even if you didn’t love that career, greener pastures, commonly encapsulated in the “you can do anything with a JD” mantra, always seemed within reach.

My classmates and I, entering law school in 2011 and graduating in May 2014, did not enjoy this fabled safe path and instead found ourselves at not-quite-the-bottom of the legal unemployment trough, but close enough. Up until about November of my 2L year, I was confident that I would find a firm home for the summer. The formula for success I was led to believe and believed existed was quite simple: Perform well on exams the first year, get a summer internship doing something law-related, make law review or moot court, get a summer associate position with a firm, don’t do anything crazy and coast through 3L into your awaiting associate position’s arms.

I checked a lot of items on off “the list”: (1) good grades, (2) member of the law review, (3) internship the previous summer with a federal judge, and (4) I typically interview well. There were, however, a number of things working against me that I utterly failed to consider, the most notable factor being that I was in a less-than-average and crowded legal market. This wasn’t the only reason I didn’t secure a position through OCIs, but certainly one that was out of my control. In short, I didn’t stand out.

Around the same time, I started researching and writing my “note” that I was tasked with writing as a member of the law review. You know, because people love reading forty-page dissertations on esoteric legal issues written by people with one year of legal ed under their belt. Seriously, the requirements of writing a law review article are basically two-fold: It has to be long and on a super-novel topic. To fulfill these demands, I set out to write a comparative piece on the regulatory framework behind Dodd-Frank and Islamic Finance regarding OTC and exchange-traded derivatives. As you can imagine, I didn’t get very far.

About mid-way through my semester, I switched topics (typically indicative of a meltdown) and started writing about something I enjoyed much more, social media. The thrust of my article being that social media can be leveraged not only as a marketing tool for lawyers, but also as a mechanism for the democratization of legal information. I aimed to prove this by using Twitter as the sole source of my research. Rather than combing Westlaw and dusty treatises, I instead read Twitter, LinkedIn, and legal industry blogs.

It was through my OCI rejection and note research that I came to an important realization: Although the “traditional” path to a career in law is narrowing faster than ever, there are new and accessible avenues for lawyers and law students to build networks and establish expertise.

Since, I’ve worked on building an online presence through Twitter, LinkedIn, and blogs with the goal of building a strong network within the legal community and learning from that community. All of these things were topics of discussion during interviews and part of the calculus that eventually led me to the position I’m fortunate to have.

One caveat, I’m in a non-traditional legal role. As such, it’s possible that my recommendations may not be a good fit for everyone. With that in mind, here are a few notes on what I’ve learned from others and tried to implement both in law school and beyond.

Why?

The experience detailed above is a drop in the sea of similar law student stories. I’d bet that most law students in my graduating class, as well as our predecessors and successors, have similar stories of disillusionment and uncertainty. I’d also wager that almost all of them have similar stories of hustling to make it work and finding their path to a fulfilling career in law.

Times have been, and will likely continue to be, difficult for legal job seekers. The industry is changing, and we must continuously adapt and practice flexibility. At the same time, technology, which is partially responsible for the shifting legal landscape, is reallocating social capital and redefining value in our industry. That is, going to a top law school or graduating in the top ten percent of your class are still very valuable, but for the rest of us, there are new ways to convey future value.

A Framework for Digital Strategy

The steps I suggest below are by no means surefire ways to build a strong network or land your dream job. They are, however, iterative tactics that seem to be used by some of the brightest minds in the online legal community and, so far, they’ve worked for me as well.

Listen

When transitioning to or starting a professional presence online, the first instinct may be to get your voice out there. What are you reading, writing, or thinking? But unless you have deep experience in a topic and people are clamoring for your first 140 character declaration, first just listen. For law students, the first step, aside from setting up your profile is to find people and organizations that interest you. Interested in international human rights law? Go follow the UN, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International. Then go follow everyone they follow. Or maybe you’re interested in working in Big Law? Go follow the Am Law 100 on Twitter and LinkedIn, or like them on Facebook. This is a learning process, and as you dive deeper into the social graph of a theme or person, you’ll discover who the leaders are and what the hot topics of conversation are in those circles.

Then, simply listen. You have direct access to the thoughts, reading lists, blogs, and contacts of some of the most influential people in the world, including some of the best lawyers, judges, professors, and legal organizations. Choosing to ignore all of this powerful information, literally at your fingertips with the Twitter app or an RSS reader, is a missed opportunity.

Engage

As you continue to find your online identity and listen, you can eventually start to engage the people you follow. Social media and blogs are very unique because there is a low barrier to communication. Moreover, people have an incentive to engage and respond. Say there is a judge you are interested in interning for. Sure, you could email her your resume and a nice cover letter. Or, assuming the judge is on Twitter (which many are), you could simply use Twitter’s built in tools for engagement by “re-tweeting” or “favoriting” some of the judge’s tweets. You could even tweet her a question or suggest an article she might like. This might seem strange, but going back to the changing nature of social capital, engagement on an open platform garners social currency. And everyone wants that, from judges to first-year law students. This is not to say you should begin firing off your CV on Facebook and asking for jobs in 140 characters, but I found that I had more success when my first point of contact was not an emailed resume.

Curate

Some of my peers in law school asked me how I had time to use Twitter, LinkedIn and blog. I’ll discuss this in detail below, but producing original content takes time and effort. Fortunately, to develop an effective presence, you really don’t need to produce original content. LinkedIn, Twitter, and even some very well-known websites and blogs are based on sharing, not producing, content. You can apply this same concept to building your networks. If you are interested in environmental law, pick a few environmental law blogs or news sources and share those articles across your accounts. You can even offer a quick comment along with the shared content. So, in addition to the time it takes you to read the article, it should take less than thirty seconds to post it to Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, or your blog. Over time, your network will begin to associate you with the topic of law or issue one which you curate content on. This allows you to develop and demonstrate an expertise without the trouble of writing a law review article or taking an exam on that topic.

Create

The final step of the iterative framework is to create original content and add to the conversation. This is by far the most difficult and time consuming step, but one that if executed correctly, makes all the difference. I’m in no position to give advice on writing, but I do have a few observations that I’ve picked up from reading some fantastic legal writers and bloggers. These apply not only to writing blogs, but also posting original content on LinkedIn, Twitter, and other sites.

Focus on Quality. Quality in this case is two-fold. First, as a law student and future lawyer, you are expected to write well and with attention to detail. That’s a given. Be a borderline perfectionist and ask others to proofread your content. Second, focus on substantive quality. You might not have the deepest insight into an issue or topic, but you should still find a way to offer a unique perspective, even if it is from “a student’s point of view.” In a world where clicks are worth dollars and lists are replacing articles, it can be hard to find meaningful content. By focusing on quality, you will convey investment in a legal issue, even if you don’t fully understand it, and continue to develop expertise. Oh, and by the way, you can do all of this without the thousands of footnotes demanded by academic journals!

Be Yourself (Mostly) and Take Intelligent Risk. This is probably the most difficult point for law students and presented a question when I started blogging. Law students and lawyers are generally risk averse. But blogging or using other forms of social media can be perilous in the sense that any dumb thing you put on the internet is there forever. How can you write in a compelling and authentic voice without losing the professional vibe expected of a future lawyer? There isn’t much to say here other than sometimes the reward is worth the risk. At the end of the day, unless you write something crazy, it probably won’t matter. Most importantly, you have to consider your audience. If you want a job in government, you probably shouldn’t publish anarchist manifestos to your blog. That said, if you want to take a side on a legal or policy issue, do it and have the research to back it up. Attorneys advocate. If you always take the middle road, you won’t upset anyone, but you also won’t excite anyone either. Remember your audience!

Have a Strong Sense of Purpose. This one applies not only to developing an online presence, but also to your career in general. Peter Thiel says it best:

A good intermediate lesson in chess is that even a bad plan is better than no plan at all. Having no plan is chaotic. And yet people default to no plan. When I taught at the law school last year, I’d ask law students what they wanted to do with their life. Most had no idea.

For a lot of folks, myself included, going to law school was sort of a “no-plan plan.” That is, I was interested in law and practicing law, but beyond that, I didn’t know much about it. Fortunately, I had a few failures early on that helped me recognize the necessity of a plan moving forward. Simply being in law school was not enough. A plan, even a bad one, starts and ends with a strong sense of purpose. Forget thewhat and how of where you are, and ask yourself why? Once you find that purpose, reflect the why into the content you create. Ask yourself, “What is the purpose of this article, this picture, this connection?” If the answer to that question is in furtherance of your goals as a student and as a future lawyer, hit publish!

Of course, none of this alone will help you land your dream job. But the disciplined development of an online presence may help you circumvent those obstacles over which you have no control; impediments you will face both as a law student and a professional. By the way, it’s fun too!

If this is helpful, you have any questions, or you have further recommendations for law students building an online presence, please let me know in the comments or send me an email at pme@honigman.com.

Views expressed are the personal views of the author and do not represent the views of Honigman Miller Schwartz and Cohn LLP, its partners, employees or its clients.

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