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Law Firms Checking Web Sites When Hiring

As most lawyers realize, a poor reference from a former employer or failure to garner an offer from the firm where they worked as a summer associate can place a damper on the search for permanent employment. Yet even in those difficult situations, job candidates retain some control. If they don't like a particular reference, they can remove that person from their contact list. And lack of a job offer can be smoothed over with a positive reference from someone at the firm, as well as an explanation of why a candidate didn't fit in.

But imagine a situation where a negative reputation preceded you on an interview -- and you didn't know anything about it. That is, apparently, what has happened to at least one unfortunate law student described in the opening paragraphs of this article, Harsh Words Die Hard on the Web: Law Stuents Feel Lasting Effects of Anonymous Attacks, Washington Post (3/7/07):

She graduated Phi Beta Kappa, has published in top legal journals and completed internships at leading institutions in her field. So when the Yale law student interviewed with 16 firms for a job this summer, she was concerned that she had only four call-backs. She was stunned when she had zero offers.  Though it is difficult to prove a direct link, the woman thinks she is a victim of a new form of reputation-maligning: online postings with offensive content and personal attacks that can be stored forever and are easily accessible through a Google search.

According to the article, the woman quoted above, as well as two others, learned that they were the subject of derogatory chats on a messageboard on AutoAdmit, which bills itself as "the most prestigious college discussion board in the world." (As an aside, I visited the site, and I'm assuming that the adjective "prestigious" describes the colleges discussed and not the level of discourse at the chatboard, which I found barely literate.) The article describes that many of the chatboard's users anonymously post disparage individuals by name or "personally identifying information," which then makes its way onto the wider Internet through Google's search engines. Subsequently, many employers, including law firms, which frequently perform due diligence searches on job applicants, discover this information. And many rely on it in making job decisions. From the article:

According to a December survey by the Ponemon Institute, a privacy research organization, roughly half of U.S. hiring officials use the Internet in vetting job applications. About one-third of the searches yielded content used to deny a job, the survey said. The legal hiring market is very competitive. What could tip the balance is the appearance that a candidate is a lightning rod for controversy, said Mark Rasch, a Washington lawyer and consultant who specializes in Internet issues.

The site's founder defends the site as a forum for free speech. And officials at University of Pennsylvania, where one of the site founders is a student, say that they have no legal grounds to act against the site, because it is not operated with school resources. 

So what's the remedy here?  Many quoted in the article, including Kurt Opsahl, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, cautioned that anonymous cyberwriters can be sued for defamation. But it seems unlikely that a law school graduate searching for a job and laden with student loan debt would have the resources to mount such a campaign. And Opsahl also noted that the Internet provides a level playing field, allowing those who've been harmed by negative speech to defend their reputations. 

Though I don't excuse the  mean-spirited commentary that pervades the AudioAdmit chatboard, the cowards who post aren't entirely to blame for the impact of their words. Remember the old playground chant "sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me"? In this case, the names do hurt, because law firms and employers are relying on these remarks to make job decisions, which, in my view, is a foolish way to run a business. Moreover, when firms or employers don't bring these comments to the attention of candidates and disclose that they based job decisions on anonymous, negative commentary, they're acting just as cowardly as the perpetrators of these remarks.

At this point, it seems that a job candidate's only recourse is to "self-Google" and discover negative comments and bring them to an employer's attention on an interview. If a firm accepts anonymous gossip as truth over a first-hand disavowal and rejects a  candidate, then quite frankly, that firm isn't a place worth working.

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on March 7, 2007 at 04:18 PM | Permalink | Comments (6)

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