Law firms are often bedeviled by the on-line shenanigans of their young (and sometimes not so young), who can carelessly leave a footprint permanently in cyberspace. While these irritations don’t often rise to the level in titillation value or PR devastation as some of the old-tech crimes perpetuated by errant employees/partners, like the Cravath tax lawyer who solicited children for sexual favors, those types of cases are (thankfully) fairly rare and have a limited media shelf life. Blogs and social networks, on the other hand, seem to just keep on giving and giving, although often an unwelcome PR black eye.
Here’s some recent developments for law firms in the cyberspace sandbox.
Allen & Overy’s London office recently issued a ban on accessing the social networking website Facebook in light of concerns that the impact of downloading videos from the site could compromise the firm’s IT performance. Within days, complaints forced a turn-around by management, nominally on the grounds that the site is used for business as well as social reasons. Currently there are 932 members on the A&O network on Facebook, a nice bump over the 600+ when the firm tried to shut it down. Internet comments related to the episode ran the gamut from condemnation of the firm’s leadership for being so easily swayed to one person’s plea for more such bans so that work could get done.
Arguments for/against law firm blogs/social networks usually include claims that they are useful/extraneous for business development in the internet age, that other businesses do/don’t (investment banks often don’t, for example) allow workers to access them, that social/work boundaries should/should not be imposed, that the sites are time-wasters/efficiency drivers.
Reflecting these mixed feelings, evidently approximately one-third of law firms have Facebook networks, and two-thirds of law firms have blocked them. Big firms with networks on Facebook include at least eight of the largest: Skadden, Arps (with 379 members), Baker & McKenzie (728), Jones Day (286), Latham & Watkins (291), Sidley Austin (199), White & Case (370), Shearman & Sterling (225), and Kirkland & Ellis (192). While Mayer Brown and Weil, Gotschal, among others, have apparently banned them.
As a cultural matter, these kinds of social networks can be a very useful tool in building community and connection at firms that have long been known for neither. Their availability resonates with Gen Xers and Yers, who are most comfortable with an open technological stance. And there are at least nascent efforts to truly use these types of networks for business development purposes.
LegalOnRamp, a relatively new site being developed in conjunction with Cisco, envisions an interactive brainstorming locale involving in-house and outside lawyers, who can meet and discuss substantive legal topics, as well as management and personnel issues. Mark Chandler, GC at Cisco, touts this type of technological meeting ground as the model for how law will be conducted in the future. Instant access to not only profiles, expert articles and form provisions, but also substantive issue forums and interactive document building certainly make it a useful tool. Another feature, being able to see who each party is connected with– their "friends," in Facebook parlance, also efficiently builds reliable connections and makes for more informed referrals.
As to independently run "insider" blogs, most firms have no ability to influence what is on them other than by using their bully pulpit. The latest controversy involves a blog run by two unnamed Skadden Arps employees– with admittedly no authority to speak for the firm– that held a "Hottest Female Associate" contest, with photos of the candidates included. The contestants were neither notified nor asked for permission to post their names/photos and a few photos were of an obviously personal nature (don’t rush to Google it now–the photos have been taken down).
Much to the apparent surprise of the blog-minders–"Damn, we feel like we were called to the Vice Principal’s office today and had our knuckles wrapped (sic)."– Henry Baer, chairman of Skadden, wrote an email to the firm recognizing the prevalence of blogs but weighing in on the inappropriateness of the contests, which "does (sic) not reflect our values and standards of behavior… We urge the authors of the blog to consider both the privacy and feelings of the affected attorneys and to discontinue the contests."
Several points seem worth noting regarding this particular standoff. While the female contest had already been decided, the still outstanding "Hottest Male Associate" contest was promptly cancelled by our erstwhile bloggers. Also, it is interesting that Baer’s objections were confined to the impact of the contest on the attorneys involved and other attorneys at the firm, who were concerned and embarrassed. No doubt he had good counsel on the necessity to counter any appearance of a hostile workplace. But several comments on the blog make it clear that there is potentially another kind of financial downside: the bloggers risked turning off clients and employment candidates as well.
A retort to Baer’s letter by the bloggers–"We’re not quite sure what Skadden’s "values" are (or, for that matter, the Firm’s "standards of behavior")"–is perhaps the most troubling aspect of this little imbroglio. See our upcoming entry Joining the British in Hunting for an Identity on the importance on both sides of the pond of knowing who you are and what you stand for as a firm, and effectively inculcating that into the culture.
A corporate real estate lawyer at Jenner & Block, Jennifer Sara Levin, recently founded Legal Intelligence, an online platform connecting law school students with top-tier firms. A pilot program involving three law firms and her alma mater, Northwestern University School of Law, is running online at http://www.legalintelllc.com. The idea is to help students find the law firm that fits them best, partly through online video conferences.
"It’s like a Match.com for law students," Levin said of her start-up.
Law firms pay to participate, Levin said, because they want to find law school graduates who aren’t just qualified but who also share their firm’s values. Often, Levin said, top-tier law firms end up with graduates who don’t fit their culture. "There’s no way to do it in a 20-minute interview. You can’t get enough information to know if this person is the right cultural fit," she said.
There’s that "v" word again.