Get yourself connected

Social media is at the heart of our personal lives. Now it can be an integral part of our careers too. Corinne McPartland reports

How many times have you checked your Facebook account today? Perhaps you woke up and found your entire previous night had been documented via dodgy photos downloaded by a snap-happy friend? You may have already tweeted your thoughts on the morning news or even written your latest blog entry for your MySpace page.

We all do it – there’s no hiding it. But now it seems graduate recruiters are getting on the social media bandwagon in a bid to ’connect with potential candidates’ and keep in touch with trainees once they have been offered training contracts.

But before you go deleting every single drunken picture of yourself on Facebook, law firms say they are drawing the line between ­personal and professional social media.

“We have our own Facebook fan page and if you become a fan, the only thing we’ll be able to see is your profile picture,” explains DLA Piper graduate recruitment executive Claire Evans.

“If you make sure your profile picture doesn’t reflect yourself in a bad light, you’ll be fine. Even if we could see your profile we ­wouldn’t have the time to look at them anyway,” she laughs.

But even though DLA insists that it is not trying to encroach on any candidate’s personal cyber space, it suggests that if a student wants to interact with a law firm online they should “think before they type”.

“It’s the same as going to a law fair: if students want to post something on our fan page wall then they should ask valid, well thought-out questions and not something they could easily find on our website,” says Evans.

She also warns against getting too friendly online. “I wouldn’t recommend requesting a potential employer to be your friend on Facebook or anything like that. To use social media successfully you have to establish an employer/employee relationship, even if it’s online,” she insists.

DLA joined the YouTube generation a couple of years ago when it launched an internal social networking site for its future trainees, then called Inside the Tent, now known as Inside DLA.

The site works similarly to Facebook and allows the firm’s graduate recruitment team to communicate more easily with future trainees. The team can also post regular updates, as well as news about the firm and information about forthcoming events and social activities.

Evans insists that since its introduction the site has not only saved DLA from having to send out hundreds of paper-based mailshots, but it has also been key to allowing candidates to keep in touch with each other while they are out of the country.

Teching control

Another firm to embrace the technological age is Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, which launched its own social networking site last year as a ­virtual means of keeping hold of employees and alumni.

The Freshfields Network portal went live at the end of last month as part of the firm’s wider alumni programme and has so far attracted around 3,000 users. The new service operates in a similar way to Facebook or LinkedIn, allowing users to invite their contacts to participate and to build networks of friends and colleagues.

Freshfields global human resources partner Caroline Stroud says the motivation behind the site is to create a community of employees that is about “personal, rather than corporate” communication.

“Even though we say it’s not corporate, it’s still a professional network and a tool that can be used to renew old relationships that may have been made through the firm and really create a community,” she explains.

But the network portal has not been Freshfields’ only flirtation with social media. It has also launched an extranet site especially for its trainees, designed to help them keep in touch before they start training contracts with the firm. The forum allows trainees to chat, buy and sell items, find a flatmate or even arrange social functions.

But Addleshaw Goddard graduate recruitment manager Brett Galloway warns firms to be wary of the often blurred line between personal and professional space.

“We’ve found by talking to students that Facebook is considered a very personal space and other forms of social media weren’t quite right for us, so we’ve decided to go with a Twitter page,” he reveals.

The firm launched its page last month and uses it to send messages to its followers on news, events and activities (http://twitter.com/aggrads).

“We think it’s much less intrusive if candidates have the choice to follow us and that way get to find out about us, rather than the other way around,” Galloway maintains.

And law student Natalie Healey agrees with Galloway: she has just secured a stint of work experience with a law firm through Twitter. The 21-year-old contacted Manchester law firm Ralli for help with a media law assignment after connecting online.

“I’d been tweeting about a Freedom of ­Information exam paper I was working on and Ralli tweeted to ask if they could help. I responded saying I would welcome any help and they directed me to a specific journal that had the information I needed,” she recalls.

Healey, who will be starting at the College of Law’s Manchester base in September, has now arranged work experience at Ralli through the site.

New media, new opportunities

“The internet has a big part to play in law and is something law students should make the most of,” argues Healey. “You can reach different audiences through media such as Twitter and LinkedIn and it opens up so many opportunities.”

And it seems that for Healey, ’opportunities’ for work experience have not stopped at Twitter. After recently completing some research online she made a contact via LinkedIn who is now helping her find work experience.

“I’m interested in architecture and was in ­contact with an engineer who has contacts in the property department of Halliwells and DLA Piper. He is now trying to organise some work experience there for me – it’s amazing really,” enthuses Healey.

But Pinsent Mason’s new graduate recruitment manager Edward Walker says that although his firm is eyeing various social media possibilities, he thinks organisations should be careful not to go overboard.

“I think if we’re going to do things such as Twitter, then we have to make sure we do it properly. So many firms start these things and then don’t update profiles and things go out of date,” he claims. “To be really successful you have to keep things fresh and new and constantly changing to entice people to interact and visit your platform.”

Instead the firm, along with Allen & Overy, has signed up to a new social media recruitment site Brave New Talent, which connects undergraduates and companies in the style of Facebook – minus the drunken pictures and cheeky wall postings.

“I didn’t really like the idea of blurring the lines between personal and professional, so we’ve decided to go with something completely independent and specialist,” he explains. “Social media is a great thing, but students who want to use it on a professional platform need to be sensible and manage their personal brand online.”

So in light of the increased competition for training contracts and vacation schemes, maybe students should start to venture into cyberspace in a bid to make invaluable contacts in the legal profession.

Just make sure you keep your vodka-swigging photographs for your real friends to see.