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June, 2010:

Seeking the Road Less Traveled in the Legal Profession

Last semester, I had a powerful conversation with my friend Julia while we were sitting outside the law library during a study break.  I looked up at her and said, “I don’t want to be a traditional lawyer.”  She responded by giving me a look that screamed, “Duh.”  I was spending the semester working part-time at a big law firm in Phoenix, and while the people and the projects were top-notch, it was not an environment I could thrive in long-term.  I understand that being a lawyer involves a lot of research and writing, however I am not meant to spend my waking hours alone in an office surrounded my other people who are equally isolated in their offices, and where there is little collaboration.  I realized that I need human interaction and laughter to be happy.

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One of my classmates told me that there used to be a law firm where the lawyers frequently shot each other with Nerf guns.  Unfortunately, that firm no longer exists, but I was so glad to hear that there are non-traditional lawyers out there.

Despite how untraditional I am, I thrive in structure.  I like guidelines, road maps, and guarantees when it comes to achieving my goals.  In law school, there are suggested strategies for getting a job.  The ideal way is to work a summer job at a firm between your second and third years of school where they offer you a job for after graduation.  Having a job offer like that provides a huge sense of security going into the last year of school.  For me to say that I don’t want to be a traditional lawyer or work at a traditional law firm makes me feel like I’m operating without any type of structure, a road map, or any sense of security when it comes to building my career.

It’s a bit frightening to operate with only vague ideas about what I want to do career-wise.  I know that I want to work on problems that have a significant impact on people’s lives, and not just a significant impact on their wallets.  I like the idea of trying to figure out how the law applies to situations that lawmakers never imagined when they were drafting the laws.  I have mental image of my clients calling me on my webcam and saying, “Hey Ruth.  We have a great idea for X, but we need to know how to do it without getting sued or arrested.”  I want clients who want to push the envelope without crossing the line.

I appreciate Google’s dress code policy.  According to rumor, their dress code is simply, “You must wear clothes.”  They encourage employees to do what they need to do to be effective and creative whether that means showing up in a suit or pajamas.  Some law firms believe that they get higher quality work when their lawyers wear suits and professional attire every day.  I work better when I’m comfortable.  If I’m not meeting with clients, I’d prefer to work in jeans and a hoodie.

When I think about seeking a firm that suits my personality or hanging my own shingle, I have fears about money and having enough work to make a living.  I try to temper those fears with the excitement and freeing sensation that come with the prospects of being professionally happy.  When I worry, “What will happen if I try for my dream and fail?,” I try to counter it with, “How much will I regret it if I don’t try?”

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Law School: My Grades Can’t Tell You Who I Am

Law school grades baffle me. I don’t understand the purpose of the “forced curve.” If a class has more than 20 students, the professor can only give a limited number of A’s and must give a certain number of C’s. The difference between the best and worst student in a class could be 5 points, and the professor would still be required to adhere to this grading system. Therefore, law school grades give no indication of what a student actually learned. Apparently many industries operate this way, where someone always has to be labeled as below average regardless of their performance. This makes no sense.

When I realized that this was how the school operated, I stopped checking my grades. I cannot tell you what my GPA and class rank are. This has lowered my stress level considerably and made me a happier person. Ignoring my grades keeps me focused on developing my skills and learning about the law as I hope it will apply to my career. The only thing I do at the end of the semester is check with the assistant dean to verify that I passed all my classes.

I have been lucky to have six different jobs, internships, and externships in my short legal career thus far. Each position has been unique, yet they all required similar skills:

  • Thoughtful, concise writing
  • Research skills
  • Good listening and communication skills
  • Professionalism
  • Dedication
  • Determination
  • Knowing when to ask for help

A person’s GPA, class rank, or grade in a particular class can’t tell you whether they possess any of these skills. Given that most legal jobs require these skills, most applicants will have them. It seems what matters most is finding the applicant who is the right fit for the company.

I get frustrated with the legal profession when I see job postings where firms only want applicants who are in the top 25% of their class. What if the ideal applicant is in the top 26%? The firm just shot itself in the foot. I have heard that hiring partners put these arbitrary limits in job postings so that they are not bombarded with dozens, if not hundreds, of applications, but I would think that that would be a good thing. When I see firms limiting themselves in this way, I worry that they are pretentious, that they are too busy or lazy to find the person who will be the best fit for the job, or that they don’t care about the other qualities an applicant can offer.

If you don’t know my grades, I have to give you a reason to look twice at my resume. The pressure is on me to set myself apart from the other applicants. Perhaps my involvement in student organizations will suggest that I can take on a leadership role. My community involvement outside the law school will tell you that having a work-life balance is important to me, or maybe it will speak to my abilities to prioritize and manage my time, or that I intend to stay in the area after graduation. The quote from my cover letter might suggest that I’m a great big geek and a confident genuine person.

Perhaps that’s the real message here: law students aren’t numbers, we’re people. If you have to evaluate us, use a system that gives you the information you need, not an arbitrary system that doesn’t even tell you how we inherently performed in our classes.

EDIT (added July 23, 2010): To anyone who is reading this because they are wondering if they have to put their law school GPA on their resume – my GPA is not on my resume and it has not kept me from getting interviews for the jobs I’ve wanted.  If the interviewer wants to know your GPA, they will ask.

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The Legal Side of Blogging – Part 4 of 4: Can My Blog Get Me Killed?

Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer. I am a law student. In accordance with ABA policy, this blog should not be viewed as legal advice. It is simply my experiences, opinions, and stuff I looked up on the internet.

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There have been too many situations where someone has been killed because of what they posted online.  That is not what I’m talking about today.  I wanted to find out if simply posting a blog could legally get you killed.  (The mafia doesn’t count.)

In the United States, you have to be guilty of homicide, a crime committed related to homicide, rape, criminal assault, or something equally heinous to be put to death.  It’s pretty hard, if not impossible, to commit one of these crimes via the words on a blog.  If my words were so shocking that a reader had a heart attack and died, could I be arrested for homicide?  I doubt it.  There are other countries, however, that are more likely to kill you because of your point of view or beliefs.

I did some digging into other countries’ laws and found a handful of capital crimes that could possibly be committed via a blog:

  • China: Corruption, Endangering national security
  • Iran: Homosexuality, Crimes against chastity
  • Libya: Attempting to forcibly change the form of government
  • North Korea: Plots against national sovereignty (includes attempting to leave the country)
  • Saudi Arabia: Witchcraft, Sexual misconduct
  • Sudan: Waging war against the state, Acts that may endanger the independence or unity of the state
  • Syria: Verbal opposition to the government, Membership of the Muslim Brotherhood
  • Vietnam: Undermining peace
  • Yemen: Homosexuality, Adultery

When it comes to crimes committed via blogs, the first question that came up for me was jurisdiction.  Since a blog can be accessed anywhere that there’s an internet connection, a prosecutor would have the burden of proving that it has jurisdiction to bring the charges in that country.

Let’s consider my blog.  I’m a citizen of the United States and this blog is hosted by a company based in the United States.  If I travel to Iran and post a blog from my hotel room that says that I had sex with a girl, but it doesn’t say when or in which country the sex occurred, would Iran have jurisdiction to charge me with a capital crime and kill me?

If a Syrian citizen was studying in the United States on a student visa, had a blog that was hosted in the United States, and posted a blog from the United States where he declared his membership in the Muslim Brotherhood, would Syria have jurisdiction to charge him with a capital crime or would he have to return to Syria first?

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The Legal Side of Blogging – Part 3 of 4: Can My Blog Get Me Fired?

Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer. I am a law student. In accordance with ABA policy, this blog should not be viewed as legal advice. It is simply my experiences, opinions, and stuff I looked up on the internet.

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This is a question that has an obvious answer – yes, your blog can get you fired.

People have always done things that could get them fired – saying bad things about their company, clients and coworkers; breaking the company’s rules; disclosing confidential information; and stealing from the company – but now they are making it more obvious that they are doing it.

My general rule is don’t say anything online that you wouldn’t put on the front page of the newspaper.  When it comes to keeping your job, don’t say anything online that you wouldn’t say to your boss’ face.

There are some amazing true stories about disturbing things people have done online in relation to their work:

  • Whole Foods CEO John Mackey was investigated by the SEC for posting anonymous messages that praised his company and condemned Wild Oats Market, his company’s competition.  (Poor form!)
  • An Illinois attorney allegedly posted an ad for a secretary in Craigslist’s adult section and told an applicant that her job responsibilities included dressing sexy and having sexual interactions with him and another attorney.  (Seriously?!)

How did these presumably intelligent people think that they might get away with this?

Companies have realized that online posting by employees can be good or bad free advertising, and are taking steps to protect their reputations by creating guidelines about what employees can and can’t say online.  I’m not a big fan of my employer telling me what I can’t do when I’m on my own time; however I appreciate it when I have clear limits about what I can and can’t do.  I like to push the envelope, but I don’t like getting fired.  Some of these guidelines are pretty obvious – don’t share confidential information, don’t bash the company, its employees, or its clients – but some employees won’t follow these rules unless they’re laid in stone, and maybe not even then.

Having a blog makes you more vulnerable than other social media profiles because it’s open for everyone to see it.  Facebook and Twitter let us control who can see what we post, but with a blog, your words are shared with the entire internet-accessible world.  When in doubt, don’t share information about your work on your blog or anywhere else online.

Employers are getting smart about these things and are Googling job applicants and looking for their profiles on Facebook.  They can’t discriminate against someone based on their race, religion, or sexual orientation, but they can choose not to hire someone because it looks like their preferred weekend activity is beer pong.  A lot of employers are looking at whether a person generally displays good judgment and won’t hire a person who does not act responsibly in their personal life.

I generally discourage people being stupid.   However, I have an exception for those who are genetic morons who can’t be cured with education: keep being stupid.  Make it blatantly obvious how stupid you are so those of us who are not stupid don’t have to waste our time on someone who might clean up and put on a good front, but who ultimately is a moron.

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The Legal Side of Blogging – Part 2 of 4: Can My Blog Get Me Arrested?

Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer. I am a law student. In accordance with ABA policy, this blog should not be viewed as legal advice. It is simply my experiences, opinions, and stuff I looked up on the internet.

While most of what we post online is protected by the First Amendment, not all speech is protected.  Therefore, it is logical to think that anything that would be illegal to publish in a newspaper is likely illegal if it was posted online.  There are a fair number of things that could probably get you arrested if you put it on your blog.

Threats of Violence

In general, it’s illegal to threaten violence against another person.  In Arizona, “intentionally placing another person in reasonable apprehension of imminent physical injury” is assault.  The law doesn’t say what methods of creating this apprehension are illegal; therefore you can make an argument that a threat against you in someone’s blog is enough to have the author charged with a crime.  In Britain, there has already been one arrest when a woman threatened to kill someone on Facebook.

It’s also not a good idea to make threats that sound like terrorist plots.  Sarcastic threats should also be avoided since sarcasm doesn’t translate well from reality to the internet.  Paul Chambers learned this the hard way.  He was angry that the airport was closed due to snow and tweeted, “You’ve got a week and a bit to get your s**t together otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!”  He was convicted of sending “‘indecent, obscene or menacing’ messages over a public electronic communications network.”

Threats Against the President

It appears that the Secret Service patrols the internet looking for postings that threaten the president’s life and that all threats are taken seriously.  Fourteen year-old Julia Wilson was pulled out of class and questioned by the Secret Service after she posted a picture of then-President George W. Bush with the words “Kill Bush” on her Myspace page.  She didn’t know that threatening the president was a federal offense.  The First Amendment lets us express dissatisfaction with the administration, but not with death threats.

Cyberharassment

I’ve already jumped on my proverbial soapbox once about cyberharassment.  It’s illegal in most states and people are getting arrested for bullying people via social media websites, text messages, email, and for bullying people by creating websites about them.  Authorities have been taking these cases more seriously since Megan Meier committed suicide at age 13 after receiving a message on her Myspace page that she was better off dead.

Illegal Sales

The internet gives us numerous forums to sell our stuff; however, selling certain items and services like drugs, human body parts, stolen property, and sex, are still illegal wherever it occurs.  In some situations, you might get off by saying, “It’s not mine,” or “I didn’t do it,” but that will be a harder argument to make if these items are being sold from your personal website.

Solicitation

You can commit solicitation via your blog if you command, encourage, request, or solicit people “to engage in specific conduct which would constitute the felony or misdemeanor.”  I haven’t seen a case like this yet, but given how much the law caters to irrational, foolish people who don’t think through their actions, I can see it happening.

Another thing to remember is that your blog could be used as evidence against you in the event that you are arrested.  There has been at least one case where a sex offender was given a harsher sentence when the judge held that the offender’s blog indicated that he could not follow the court’s orders or control his actions.  His designation was changed from being a sex offender to a sexual predator when he created a posted aimed at his victim.

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