The tangled web we weave – should firms check an employee’s online presence?

Legal blogger Ashley Connick asks whether law firms have the right to check out potential employees’ online profiles

Recently, an email sent by a trainee at a US law firm went viral, making its way around the law firms and banks of the City on its way to email inboxes around the world, via newspapers and magazines. It provided a cautionary tale to all of us who use the internet to talk to our friends that there really is no way of keeping control of information once it is in the ether. It is a fact that all aspiring lawyers must bear in mind when communicating online.

Of greater concern than the viral spreading of an email is likely to be the impression an individual’s various social networking website profiles leave. The Guardian this week ran an article about employers checking up on job applicants, and cited a survey by the website CareerBuilder in which 45 per cent of employers admitted to researching candidates on social networking sites. Many times during the two years or so that I have been on Twitter, I have had conversations about the rights and wrongs of law firms checking up on the online activities of candidates or employees. These discussions have frequently been with educational expert, Jon Harman, who heads the College of Law’s multimedia unit. It is Jon’s belief that employers have no right to undertake ’cyber-surveillance’ on candidates or employees. He has said to me many times that he would not wish to work for an organisation that would choose to use such a method during its recruitment process, and would not consider putting an employee or prospective employee’s name into a search engine.

This is a noble ideal. Law firms have also taken this view: the Social Media page of Pinsent Masons’ Graduate Recruitment website contains the following statement:

Oh, and by the way, just in case you’re worried, no we’re not going to go snooping around for information about you online. For one thing, it’s a completely unreliable way to decide whether to hire someone. And for another, it’s really none of our business what you did last weekend. So we don’t. Ever.

(Other employers, though, may not be so fastidious. Better be safe than sorry!)

I can understand law firms such as Pinsent Masons wanting to take this approach. I admire it, and I think that students would appreciate it. But other firms, as they say, conduct these searches.

Pragmatically speaking, I think it is entirely fair for a law firm, or any company, to search online for its employees or potential employees. Were I in their shoes, I would be tempted to do it, just so that I was aware of what a client might be confronted with if they searched for a particular individual. One can only imagine the discussion between a client who idly Googled the name of a trainee they’d been in contact with during work on a big deal, only to come across something they were less than keen on being associated with.

The ideal situation is probably one in which none of us has our freedom eroded online (within legal limits, of course), no searching goes on by employers or clients, and no brand is damaged by the activities of any one individual. Advertisers will tell you, though, that brands simply don’t work like that. Many people might have heard the name of the US firm in the story I referred to at the start of this piece for the very first time last month – are they likely to think of the firm’s proud history the next time they hear its name, or about an email sent by a trainee to a friend?

I have previously posted on my personal blogabout the fallacy that jobs can be gained through social media alone. It appears, though, that jobs can certainly be lost through an internet presence that isn’t to an employer’s liking.

Wanting firms to dial down their online surveillance is, as I said, a noble ideal. But in reality, those of us who are aiming to make our way in the legal profession need to be aware of the trails we may leave.

Ashley Connick is an LPC Student. He will be joining an international law firm in August 2012.