Beware the keyboard counselor

George Zimmerman2006 was a banner year for social media. Facebook opened to the public, and Twitter launched the micro-blogging trend. Seven years and more than 1.5 billion users later, social media has revolutionized not just the tech industry, but also our entire lives. There’s only one problem:

Apparently, every social media account also comes with a shiny new law degree.

If you’ve spent any time on Facebook or Twitter over the past month, you have undoubtedly encountered the deluge of news reports, opinions, and predictions about George Zimmerman’s murder trial. Thanks to social media, people the world over could comment on everything from Don West’s knock-knock joke in the defense’s opening statement to John Guy’s emotional appeal in the prosecution’s closing argument and have been debating the verdict non-stop since Saturday.

The prevalence of this behavior should cause some concern from a professional standpoint. Even though social media has fostered an unprecedented amount of connection between people, it also lets people, whether intentionally or not, to spread information that is incorrect, misrepresented or even outright lies. During the Zimmerman trial, for example, millions took to social media to complain that the prosecution wasn’t introducing evidence of Zimmerman’s alleged violent history or to criticize the judge’s decision to keep Trayvon Martin’s text messages out of evidence.

On their own, these issues would not be significant. However, when people send these messages out into the echo chamber of social media, they see just how many others share the same opinion and can easily dismiss or ignore the other side. This only serves to reinforce the confidence in their belief, even if it’s incorrect.

I point this out because I want you all to be prepared for the possibility that social media could make it more difficult to prepare and try a case in the future. Clients may be less willing to negotiate with the other side if they see all the Facebook groups supporting their cause. Witnesses may wind up changing their stories if they find it evokes a better response on Twitter. Future jurors’ opinions may be swayed if they agree with a mistaken social media post that has gone viral.

The good news is that the legal system has encountered similar issues before, and that it has adapted to nullify their courtroom impact. Since the debut of “CSI” and similar television shows, prosecutors across the country have reported a so-called “CSI effect,” wherein juries have been expecting the same clear-cut, flashy forensic science that these shows portray. Many attorneys countered this by having their expert witnesses directly address those evidentiary concerns or by using relevant questions to screen out potentially susceptible jurors during the voir dire process.

Syndicated TV courtroom shows like “Judge Judy” and “The People’s Court” have also been targeted for misleading people about what exactly the role of a judge is in an actual courtroom. In fact, a 2002 juror survey revealed that frequent viewers of these programs expect a real judge to actively question the participants in the proceedings, to hold personal opinions regarding the outcome of a case, and to make those opinions known to the jury. Courts have tried to remedy this by revising jury instructions to clarify how juries are and are not to interpret a judge’s actions.

Now, I certainly wouldn’t be the first person to describe the impact that social media can have on our day-to-day lives, but I hope I’ve been able to touch upon the impact that it can have specifically on the legal profession and on our judicial system.

Sobering thought

telephoneA friend told me recently about a pretty disturbing thing that’s been happening at their law firm.

My friend works in a small firm – a few lawyers, couple of paralegals and staff. They have a law clerk from an unnamed school working for them a few days a week.

Every couple of weeks when they get to work and check phone messages, there is a voicemail from some giggling, clearly drunk law students. These people apparently go to school with the law clerk and have called several times, after several cocktails, to rant about what a “loser” this guy is. I won’t go into detail, but there have been some not-so-great things left on this answering machine.

You might ask, upon reading this, the same question I asked: WHO ARE THESE PEOPLE?!?!?

As a young lawyer who graduated from law school not too long ago, I can unfortunately answer the question: I know these people. Looking back at the students in my graduating class and the class years around me, I know exactly the type of people who would do such a thing.

And it bothers me.

I think about how these people will act once they “get out into the real world” (which they are in anyway during law school) and know that I wouldn’t trust them with a client’s well-being. This type of conduct should really trouble lawyers and hiring managers as they bring students in from law school that might not be mature enough to sit one-on-one with a client, represent the firm to other professionals, or handle sensitive matters.

So I have to ask – what, if anything, should or can we do about this? I know my friend’s firm, if they can figure out who these law students are, will likely write a letter to the State Bar under the assumption that the students will someday be applying for entrance. Maybe in Maryland, but maybe not – so should they have to write, then, to all 50 states?

My friend suggested instituting an interview process for incoming law students. Most other professional schools – medical, dental, dental hygiene, physician assistant – hold interviews as a prerequisite for admission. But what might that look like for law school and what questions might be asked to effectively weed out individuals with the potential to give the profession a bad image? How might hiring managers at firms adjust to account for this possibility? I’m not saying this is going to be the case every time, the majority, or even a large minority of the time – but it’s clearly out there.

I don’t know, maybe this is something that only bothers me. But, since I have an outlet to ask some other young lawyers reading this blog, please share some thoughts in the comment section.

Going back to school after graduation

Rodney Dangerfield Back to SchoolI have always thought that it would be great to work for a college or university. College was such a great time in my life and I felt like I had so many opportunities at my fingertips. So I’d jump on the opportunity to go back to college, especially if I could get paid for it.

My law school experience was a little different but still wonderful. I remember feeling that the professors I had and employees at the law school were very passionate about their work.

I saw this Above the Law article the other day about law schools that hire their own graduates as a way to give jobs to some of who would otherwise be unemployed. The author points out that the law schools that have the highest employment rates after graduation are often the ones that are hiring there own graduates in the greatest numbers but argues this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Employment at a law school (mainly through a fellowship) can lead to employment in other areas of law down the road, the article states.

I am all for law school graduates going to work at their law schools and think it would be great to work for a law school, particularly the one I graduated from. After graduation, I was aware of the practice of law schools hiring their own graduates to boost employment statistics, so to speak, but I never really saw it as that. I saw it more as a way to get further experience in a certain area of law (which helps with the whole ”you need experience in order to get experience” employment hurdle), a way to work with law students, or just generally an interesting job to have. In order to fulfill certain legal goals or to have a certain type of role in the legal field (such as working with students), a position at a law school is ideal.

But I understand the other side. A job at the school you just graduated from (particularly immediately after graduation) might feel a little anti-climactic to some people. I also understand that some people will feel it’s important to get some experience in the “real world” before taking a position at a university or law school.

What do you think? Could you ever see yourself working for your law school in the future?

Carrying extra pens

Fountain pensI had a professor in law school who, at the end of the semester, gave our section a short speech. I will paraphrase here:

I know that most of you have taken this class seriously and are taking law school seriously. I want to encourage you to continue to do that…because after you graduate and pass the bar and are working out there in the world as attorneys, people will come to you with their lives in a shambles. They will come to you seeking assistance and guidance and counsel. You will be in a unique position to help them. Please do.

It was clear from the delivery, halting and with her voice quaking a bit at times, that this was something she had thought about a great deal. It helped, of course, that she was an exceptional professor. Still, as we left the classroom afterward, there were students giggling a bit about her speech.

Having once been a teacher, I was not among them. I always wondered — and worked hard at — what I should say to my students on their last day in my class. It usually amounted to something like, “It’s been fun, gentlemen. Don’t be strangers. See you around.” Not nearly as good as I usually anticipated and not nearly as meaningful as the speech from my professor. Yet I console myself with the fact that my students were all teenagers who were either moving up a grade or champing at the bit to get out of high school.

My professor’s words were brought home fairly recently at a time when I failed to live up to the ideal she outlined. I was sitting on a bench outside the courtroom on a landlord-tenant docket talking to tenants and otherwise hurrying along to get finished with my cases so that I could get back to the office. I was not at my most attentive.

Continue reading

The pros and cons of loan assistance repayment programs

I avoid thinking about my law school loans because I immediately get depressed. There is no way I could afford to live and pay off my loans on a monthly basis without the help of loan assistance repayment programs (LARP). One of the benefits of working for a nonprofit is being able to apply for a LARP to offset my salary. I’ve been fortunate enough to receive several different LARP awards but, as I learned the hard way, there are some disadvantages.

Maryland’s Janet L. Hoffman Loan Assistance Repayment Program is one I’ve received in the past. Applicants must be Maryland residents and provide public service in state or local government or a nonprofit that assists underserved or low-income residents. Along with some other qualifications, there is a salary limit. An applicant can receive up to $10,000 for three years toward paying off their student loans  ($30,000 is a lot of money, especially since I work for a nonprofit!).

The downside to this program is that the award is considered a taxable grant. I had to weigh the advantages of paying down the interest and principal on my student loan versus having $10,000 added to my income at the end of the year and getting dinged for it on my income taxes. The benefit of paying down my loan was totally worth having to pay the taxes, of course. However, I wasn’t expecting how one lump payment would affect my eligibility for the federal loan forgiveness program.

The loan forgiveness program requires borrowers to make 120 qualifying payments toward their federal loans. After the borrower makes all of the qualifying payments, then the remaining balance of the loan is forgiven. I found out the hard way what is considered a “qualifying payment” — that the borrower has to actually be billed and make a payment on time.

So when I sent the $10,000 check as my payment, it was considered one qualifying payment, meaning I can’t make another qualifying payment until I’m sent a bill, which won’t happen until the end of 2013. Basically, my 10 years toward being debt free has been suspended until I receive another monthly bill for my loans. I can always make additional payments, but that will push my next bill out even further.

Basically, my ultimate goal of paying off my loans faster and taking advantage of the loan forgiveness program didn’t work out the way that I thought it would. I don’t regret taking advantage of the Janet L. Hoffman LARP. It’s just going to take me a little longer than expected to become debt free.

The loss of a superhero

It’s not my week to write, but I feel I have to write. This week, this community lost an inspiration and a bright light.

I vividly remember the first time that I met the Honorable S. Ann Brobst. It was the summer after my first year of law school and I had secured an internship with the State’s Attorney’s Office for Baltimore County, working in the felony screening unit under Dean Stocksdale. Dean was great about introducing me to everyone in the office, including the big wigs, like Judge Brobst. At that time, she was a prosecutor.

It’s funny how some moments stay with you. Meeting Judge Brobst was one of those moments. We were walking by her office, near a set of file cabinets. As we approached Judge Brobst, Dean explained that I was interning with their office for the summer.

She was bubbly and bright. She welcomed me to the office with a warm smile. She told me to let her know if I needed anything or wanted to join her in court. She was casual and somewhat maternal.

It felt like she was almost excited for me- this intern whom she’d never met. It was as if she were saying beneath that warm smile, “Welcome to the profession. We’re happy to have you!”

After that initial meeting, Judge Brobst made it a point to stop and say hello to me if we happened to cross paths. She knew me by name. In that large, buzzing office, my very first office job, it was so nice to be recognized by name by a person or two. I will never forget and will always be grateful for how she treated me.

Weeks later, I realized that that bright, personable woman was trying high profile murder cases and was among the most respected and revered prosecutors in Maryland. I was in shock. How could that be the same person who welcomed me to the office?

Continue reading