Online presents

Ever wondered how developing your online presence can help you prepare for life as a trainee lawyer? Christelle McCracken will get you up to speed.

The pace of change in social networking advancements is blistering. Nobody, very least any business or law firm, can ignore this even to a minor degree. Miss one trick, miss one possible social media platform and you lose your competitive edge in the battle to put yourself out there to the widest audience possible. Unmet legal need is very much true to our times and has been since legal systems were developed.

Research conducted by Orange Business has found that solicitors are missing out on fees by failing to engage with the public and potential clients on Twitter. By offering legal advice and contributing to debates on legal topics through social media platforms law firms have been able to win clients and drive business.

Using social media also enables solicitors to understand their existing clients business better and in turn improve the quality of their service.

Magic circle firms have also jumped on the social networking bandwagon to interact with students with Linklaters developing a multi-layered approach across Facebook, Twitter and Youtube to ensure there are channels of communication open to students. Further down the UK 200 Kinglsey Napley has even gone as far as setting up a trainee solicitor blog, offering would be trainees an insight into the workings of the firm.

This revolution in the way lawyers attract business has even spread to the most aloof and urbane branch of the legal profession, namely barristers, that most sacrosanct and traditional type of lawyer. No longer will they sit passively like a taxi expecting clients to appear but rather are aggressively seeking out clients to instruct them via Twitter.

This online struggle for business includes those who will have to use this method in the near future when they too have become qualified to dip into that ever-diminishing pot of legal gold. No one can be left behind in this race for social interaction and as the phrase goes res ipsa loquitur– the facts speak for themselves. Today trainee lawyers are not just lawyers of the future they are marketeers of their own making.

The importance of developing your social media identity

“Social media now plays a major part in recruitment and having a ‘360’ on a candidate will certainly help to secure a training contract, rather than rely on the traditional 2-dimensional CV,” explains Rupert Sellers, CEO and founder of Compact Interview.

Research by ExecuNet has found that 77 per cent of employers had used search engines to find out more about candidates. Anthony Lyons, a paralegal at SJ Berwin (@ParalegalTony), explains, “most employers will now check your social media profiles before or after interview. The figures differ depending on the sources that you read but I know that my profiles were all searched for my last three paralegal positions.”

Ten years ago the norm was that personal information should never be shared online. The position today has somewhat changed. Those who decide not to engage in social media have become non-existent in the virtual world. It has therefore become increasingly important for would-be lawyers to establish a professional social media identity to ensure that recruiters are impressed with what they see when they hit the Google search button.

“Not having these online profiles or having them on ‘lock-down’ with overly zealous security settings is fine but it is a missed opportunity to impress before you have even had to shake your interviewer’s hand,” says Lyons.

How to Approach your Social Media Strategy

The first step to implementing an effective online strategy is to assess where you are, where you want to go and what you want to achieve. If you want to be a criminal solicitor start thinking about the type of content that will impress a recruiter at a criminal law firm. You may want to voice your opinion on a contentious legal issue you have discussed in a seminar, comment on a trial at the local Crown Court or share the details of your work experience at a law firm.

Whatever approach you take, you need to need to make sure that the content is of a very high quality. There is no room for spelling mistakes and unprofessionalism.

“Share as much professional related information as possible. Build your networks, get recommendations – and add your photo. No-one likes looking at a blank face icon,” explains Sellers.

Keeping the potential employer in mind with every tweet you send and every blog you post will teach you to become aware of your digital footprint. Recruiters at law firms are not going to be impressed by candidates who tweet about their hangover and post semi-naked pictures on Instagram.

“My advice to anyone searching for work is to imagine you are an employer and go through your profiles to remove any content that might be considered dubious as they reveal a lot about an individual – particularly any shortfalls,” insists Lyons.

When developing your own social media strategy it is important to realise that not every platform is going to be right for you. Assessing your own skills can help you to make an informed choice when picking the right channel to showcase your talents. If you are good at writing think about settling up a blog, if you have excellent presentation skills think about opening a Youtube channel. However, employing one platform alone will not be suffice to developing an effective online brand; an integrated approach will assist you in maximizing your online visibility.

Setting up a Linkedin and Twitter account should be an essential part of every would-be solicitor’s social media strategy. These platforms will help you to publicise and keep track of all the online content you have created and make your CV accessible to the widest possible audience. The important thing to remember is to keep your accounts active and to engage with people who may be able to offer you invaluable advice in your quest to secure a training contract.

“The best way a training contract applicant can develop their social media identity to prepare them for life as a solicitor is to follow, connect, add (whatever the term may be) with professionals who are doing it well and learn from them. I’d suggest Kevin Poulter (aka @KevinPoulter – employment lawyer at Bircham Dyson Bell) and James Turner QC (aka @JamesTurner37 – silk at 1 King’s Bench Walk) to begin with. Get involved, ask questions and ultimately discover what online branding can do your training contract application,” says Lyons.

Thinking Outside The Box

Fiona McEwan, human resources officer at O’Melveny & Myers LLP was once impressed by a candidate who hinted on his training contract application form that he had made a Youtube video to support his application.

“I wouldn’t suggest that everybody who applies goes down this route, but it was a great way of getting noticed, demonstrating that he’d done lots of research into the firm and showing how keen he was to join our vacation scheme,” explains McEwan.

The power of Youtube as an online advertising tool is unquestionable. Youtube now ranks as the second biggest search engine. Even the Supreme Court has decided to launch it’s own Youtube channel, creating video archive of the court’s judgements. It is therefore surprising that many graduates have failed to take advantage of the benefits in video marketing.

Creating quality content on Youtube is not out of reach for young people today. Many universities now have their own TV stations. Instead of writing an article in the student magazine, it is now possible to produce your very own piece of broadcast journalism, upload it to the web and create a permanent record accessible to the general public. I myself started reporting for UniTV and produced reports on stories I knew would impress potential recruiters. Through this experience I have reported on a murder trial at the Old Bailey and interviewed Peter Tatchell on his ‘Equal Love Campaign’ to end the twin ban on same sex marriage and opposite sex civil partnership.

Developing online video content not only gives you a face in a faceless job market but also develops your communication skills and research skills. Toby Hornett, legal director at Canon Europe has even predicted that law firms will start using video interviews as part of the online recruitment process.

“There are numerous advantages of video interviews, but perhaps the most important one is the considerable time saving that this innovative recruiting tool provides in the candidate screening process. Asynchronous video interviewing eliminates the need for scheduling interviews, and is more efficient than phone screening during the initial selection process,” explains Sellers.

Social Media: A Substitute for Educational and Real Life Experience?

Although developing a social media identity may help graduates to set themselves apart from other hopeful candidates, most law firms have yet to acknowledge the part that social media can play in the recruitment process. The Linklaters graduate team have insisted that a “candidate’s social media presence isn’t part of our selection process”. The contention is that application forms already provide a sufficient platform for the applicant to demonstrate their skills and commitment to a career in law.

“We use an online application form for all of our vacancies so we do not see students attaching videos to their applications. Our applications cover the types of questions that give students the opportunity to showcase, among other things, their academics, involvement in extra curricular activities and their interest in a career in commercial law,” says Linklaters.

Other firms have also expressed caution with accessing a candidates social media profile to aid the recruitment process. Jennie Kreser, partner at Silverman Sherliker LLP argues that “Conducting an X Factor selection would not be appropriate. Could it discriminate either directly or indirectly against the disabled, ethnic minorities or on grounds of sex or sexual orientation? What would the show video contain? How would you compare a ‘professional production’ as against a shaky IPhone job? A simple standard form for initial selection is much fairer. The candidate can prove themselves at interview face-to-face”.

Although most law firms are reluctant to confirm that social media plays even the slightest role in the recruitment of trainee lawyers, the advantages of developing an online identity cannot be denied. As law firms look for new ways to connect with their clients and increase their profit margins, candidates who are well adept at using social media platforms as a marketing tool are bound to have a slight competitive edge over their social media-phobic counterparts.

As Lyons remarks, “the important thing is to get the basics of the CV and application right. The online content is la crème de la crème so to speak and should only be used to promote the skills which are already well demonstrated in a more traditional fashion”.

Christelle McCracken is studying for an LLM in Criminal Law and Criminal justice at the University of Sussex. This article was a runner-up in the Lawyer2B essay competition to win a free place on BPP Law School’s legal practice course.