Conferences / Symposia, Media and Journalism, NALP, National Association for Law Placement (NALP)

NALP 2010: Dealing with Above the Law Online Media

We’re on to day 3 of the NALP conference. With all the racial tensions going on back home, day 3 has been a pleasant reminder that once properly tanned, everybody basically looks the same. Of course, there is a downside: I can no longer figure out which panelists may be genetically predisposed to say something intelligent.

Absent these helpful signals, I could only guess at which Friday morning panel to go to. I decided to hit Navigating Online Rumor Mills and Maintaining a Positive Image for Law Firms/Schools. Being a walking rumor mill myself, I figured it was worthwhile to learn how I should be handled.

For our partner readers, the panel produced some good advice. For our commenters, all I can say is that firms and law schools fear you guys. It’s not us, it’s you…

The three panelists:

– Marguerite E. Durston: Administrator, Attorney Recruitment, Quarles & Brady

– Kelly Obenauer, Assistant Director of Recruitment & Marketing, Northwestern Law

– T.J. Duane: Co-founder of Lateral Link and Founder of HL Central

I don’t know when it became clear that by “online rumor mill” they meant Above the Law. Maybe it was when Duane pointed at me; maybe it was when everybody started looking at me like I had three heads and vampire fangs. Regardless, I felt like quite the interloper.

T.J. Duane mentioned that HL Central, a student-run website that provides resources to the HLS community, conducted a survey of Harvard Law Students to figure out where they get information about firms. Not surprisingly, 70% of respondents said they get their information online. And many of those respondents specifically noted Above the Law.

Thanks for reading. :-)

But more importantly, the HL Central study showed that students don’t go to any one site or resource to get all of their information. And they don’t take any one source as “gospel.” Instead, students will believe information that is repeated again and again across different sources. If there’s an Above the Law post, that’s one thing. But if there’s a post, and then a friend says “yeah, when I worked there, something similar happened,” and then there’s a confirming thread on a message board — well, then that information will stick.

So when firms are trying to manage their online image, it’s important for them to disseminate their information using all available outlets. Obenauer put it like this:

One of the keys is to have multiple touches. They’re not going to believe any one thing. Make sure you have at least one summer that year from that school. They trust their fellow students, for better or for worse. Make sure your website is updated with alumni listings [because students would rather talk to alumni from their school than not]. Try to develop a relationship with Career Services [so CS offices echo whatever it is you want to say].

The advice strikes me as spot-on. I like multiple touches.

HL Central also polled students on how they wanted the firms to respond when stories about the firm appear in the press. The lesson — as I’m sure partners who read us already understand — is that when we call, somebody should try to get back to us. Duane listed the top-level statistics:

Over 80% of respondents said they check Above the Law for information…

93% of students said that a negative rumor about a law firm posted on Above the Law was something that they were very likely, likely, or somewhat likely to believe it…

So how should firms respond?

57% reported that failure to respond to ATL makes people think the story is probably true.

61% said that [an official] “no comment” from the firm is the response that would most negatively affect their impression of the firm…

Law students — all they really want is for you to be straight with them.

Amen, brother Duane. You know what else makes law students think that a story is true? The fact that it’s true.

Look, we tell firm leaders this all the time: ignoring Above the Law and other legal blogs doesn’t make us go away. Transparency, even when it’s about something “bad,” is always good.

Of course, when I think about the content on Above the Law, I think of posts written by me, Kash, or Lat. But when law firm and law school professionals think of ATL, they think of the editors and the commenters. And it turns out that people who deal with law students for a living are very, very afraid of the commenters.

When the panel opened up to questions and comments from the audience, many of their issues really involve how to handle some of the stuff that would almost never end up in a post, but often winds up in the comments. That’s actually been a theme all week when recruiters or law school officials come up to me down here:

“Who are the commenters?”
“Where do they come from?”
“Why do people believe them?”
“How can they be stopped?”

When I get these questions, I just shrug my shoulders. I mean, do you think I know? I have no idea why a person with no knowledge would say something patently false about a firm that he/she doesn’t even work for. I have no idea why a person who actually does work for the firm in question would believe it. What can you do, it’s the internet.

The only useful advice is, again, for firms and schools to be transparent. They need to be aware of online information sources and correct factual inaccuracies where they occur.

Kelly Obenauer noted that some firms and law schools have online media staff (or work-study interns) dedicated to tracking message boards, posting comments, and making sure the institution’s reputation is protected. We at ATL know for a fact that some firms have people whose job it is to comment on Above the Law when there is a post about the firm. A firm recruiter in the audience also admitted that they pay somebody to monitor message boards.

At the end of the day, the truth will out. My one contribution to the discussion was to say that readers of online sources are — for the most part — incredibly sophisticated. They can spot “spin,” “BS,” and most “trolling.” A 3L isn’t going to believe a comment on ATL posted by a firm plant when they’ve got friends and past summer associates telling them the real story.

If a law firm leaves an information vacuum, someone will fill it. So get your information out, and get it out early. Truth is the only antidote available to law firms.

(hidden for your protection)

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