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May 10, 2005

Blawgging Summer Jobs: Discuss

As spring transitions into summer, the time has come for most law students to prepare for their summer jobs. If you're a law student with a blog, you're probably wondering how much you'll be able to say about your job on your blog. No? Well, I am. And since my class in “professional responsibility” didn't address blogging at all (I can't imagine why), I'd love to hear from lawyers, other law students, professors, whomever, about the ethics and boundaries of blawgging a summer job.

As I see it there are at least two main levels of concern for the summer job blawgger. First, there's the concern about professional responsibility and confidentiality: How much can I say about what I'm doing without violating my professional duties? Generally, Model Rule 1.6 says that you can't “reveal information relating to the representation of a client unless the client gives informed consent, the disclosure is impliedly authorized in order to carry out the representation or the disclosure is permitted by” several different exceptions that probably won't apply to most law students in summer jobs. This obviously means you shouldn't blawg about anything you learned in confidence, but if what you say would not be “revealing” then it's ok, right? I take that to mean that if the information is otherwise publicly available, it's ok to blawg. Unfortunately, it turns out that often very little of what happens in a law office is otherwise publicly available.

The other main level of concern is more prudential: How will what I write reflect on me as a future lawyer and how will it affect my career chances in the future—either with my current summer employer, or with others who might find my blawg in the future? The answer to this seems to depend on the person and the type of work involved. If you're working in a “white shoe” firm somewhere, you probably want to say next to nothing about what you're doing. Nobody wants any light shed on those smoky backroom deals. (Joke!) If you're working in a political advocacy/policy position, you might be able to say a lot more about what you're doing because part of your job is to spread the word about your employer's agenda.

Since I'm working at a public defender's office again this summer, I'm specifically interested in hearing thoughts on what I can talk about in that context. I said almost nothing last year about the different cases I saw in court or worked on, but instead talked mostly about my own impressions of learning the basics of criminal defense. On the other hand, Public Defender Law Clerk has been writing more detailed anecdotes about the cases that run through the jurisdiction he/she is working in. Monica has also written some excellent and detailed posts about working in a PD's office (like this one, where she won a trial!). I don't think any of these posts cross any lines of confidentiality, but I could be wrong. Any other opinions out there?

Generally, it seems that if you're doing cases that play out in public proceedings, you can write about anything that anyone who might have happened to be in court would have learned or observed just by being there and paying attention. This means that it's harder to talk about cases pre-trial, but once there are proceedings in public, there is more that's safe to say. I guess for now the rule I'll be following when I start my job next week is that if I were a reporter on the criminal beat and I could have learned something in that capacity, then it's bloggable. That's still a little vague, but it seems like a good rule of thumb to follow for now.

Posted May 10, 2005 01:02 PM | 2L summer

Our hiring coordinator brought it up during training, actually. The rule was, as best as I could tell, was "Don't violate confidentiality or privilege." And that was pretty much it. I think it's tricky, but I think a good rule of thumb is to think, "Would I want opposing counsel to read this?" I think BlondeJustice has a good system - she can speak in generalities about the types of things she sees without ever actually ratting out her clients.

Posted by: Womanofthelaw at May 10, 2005 04:04 PM

I plan on naming everyone by name and talking about all my cases in detail. No. Not really. I plan to stick to stories about my exploits as a drunken tourist. Just like last summer.

Posted by: energy spatula at May 10, 2005 04:32 PM

I think I'm going to do this summer what I did last year, which is avoid the subject entirely, and if an interesting topic comes up, I'll mention the topic.

After taking PR, I'm even more convinced that's about the right way to go about it -- since confidentiality limits even mentioning hypotheticals that would let a third party figure out what was going on, and besides, I'd rather not lose out on a job in the future because a potential employer googled me, figured out my blog, and decided not to hire me because even though I followed confidentiality, I said "too much" for a publicity-adverse firm which didn't want its internal affairs aired publicly.

Posted by: Schteino at May 10, 2005 05:29 PM

My employers sort of solve the problem for me. My internship and the contract work I've been doing all semester are both public. Coincidentally, they're both with some aspect of the Department of Health. Nevertheless, my contract I've been working under specified confidentiality, and while I haven't seen my internship contract (they're scratching their heads on how to have both in place), I suspect it will have a similar confidentiality provision.

Posted by: Mackenzie at May 10, 2005 07:10 PM

As a writer and PD in NYC, I'm often tempted to write about my cases, particularly when one my clients has been blasted in the media. But I never do, and I think that just because a record may or may not be available publicly does not absolve you of your obligation to what's in the best of interest of your client, which, at least in criminal law, rarely involves media exposure. Two days before I argued an appeal in a case that received a lot of media attention, a columnist wrote a piece about the victim's family, still suffering all those years later. Judges read that paper. I thought about responding, as I was unconvinced of my client's guilt, but when my supervisor asked me what I hoped to accomplish by that, I could not think of an answer that was superior than letting it lie and arguing the facts in court.

Posted by: Chris at May 10, 2005 10:05 PM

I'll be doing the same thing I did last summer: blogging in extremely vague generalities or about random things that really have nothing to do with work. I think anything specific is probably a bad idea.

Posted by: DG at May 11, 2005 09:59 AM

I would be VERY, VERY careful about blogging your summer experience in any meaningful way. Obviously, steering clear of client confidences and matter-specific information is a given, but that's just a baseline. Speaking from experience on both sides at two large firms, hiring decisions can turn on the smallest things, and the single biggest candidate-killer out there is the "bad judgment" tag. If you show me that you're smart and hard-working, I can fix your analytical deficiencies or bad writing over time. If you show me you're able but lazy, I can help you improve your work ethic. If you show me bad judgment, I show you the door.

I'm sure there's lots of interesting stuff for you to blog about your experiences at the PD's office this summer. I'd be very careful about sharing any of it with your readers. Bits and bytes have a way of finding the wrong readers, and it's almost impossible to predict how everyone (read: someone important to your future as a lawyer) will react to even the most innocuous statements.

Sorry to come off as a wet blanket, but your permanent employment opportunities and "first impression" reputation within your market are too important to risk.

Posted by: Large Firm Partner at May 11, 2005 11:33 AM

I blogged my firm job last summer, sticking to generalities as much as possible and focusing the experience of the work rather than the content. I did post once or twice about something interesting I found in the course of research for a client, but calling people's attention to weird caselaw or statutes seems okay to me. I was very careful to avoid blogging about any of the people I worked for as well. I did receive an offer despite my department finding the blog partway through the summer, so apparently this course was acceptable.

Posted by: Amber at May 11, 2005 11:42 AM

Frankly, I wouldn't do it. First of all, regardless of whether a piece of client information is technically in the public record or not, you have to consider the privacy-by-obscurity factor: by blogging it, you're turning the information from "available, but not published" to "published" (and searchable on the net, where it will never go away). I don't know whether any court or bar has considered the matter, but my intuition is that this would be ethically more dubious, insofar as you're acting to increase the public distribution of information about clients that may be embarassing. Even if it's not a technical violation, you have to ask yourself: is it the right thing to do?

The second consideration, of course, is the fact that your employer may consider it a breach of trust. I think the only way you can get around that is simply to ask permission..

Posted by: Paul Gowder at May 11, 2005 11:50 AM

I would urge you to be mindful of the observation above - think about what it is you hope to accomplish.

As an obviously over-the-hill law prof of 35, I find online journals insufferably self-absorbed (though fascinating, I must admit). I am not familiar with your blog, but assume you've done this throughout law school. Go back and read your first-year posts. Did you really "get" the story you were retelling at the time? Or, did its true meaning only unfold with time for reflection?

If the latter is in anyway true, I really think it would be better to write for yourself as the summer proceeds, and organize your thoughts after the experience is over for publication. This is a general observation, but I think it particularly useful where you must ASSUME your blog and identity will be compromised (no offense, but as a law student, are you confident of your ability to shroud essential, though discreet facts from lawyers who have been practicing for 25 years?).

I'll readily admit my bias against blogging conversations or experiences involving people who did not expect disclosure. That is one for you to wrestle with. However, I'll tell you that if I were a senior attorney at your firm and I saw even one untoward comment about me from (I would say) "some stupid kid who's been here for 3 weeks!", well - it takes nothing, absolutely NOTHING, to deny an otherwise-capable student a permanent job.

Posted by: Adam at May 11, 2005 11:57 AM

I agree with LFP; it's not worth it. Your first obligation is to your employer, not your blog readers.

Posted by: Adam (ALOTT5MA) at May 11, 2005 12:20 PM

PR, like all things taught in law school, is the ideal. As any card-carrying member of the bar will tell you, "law school" is actually "law in a vacuum." In the time since, I have learned that the rabid hypotheticals of PR and the MPRE are useless, since most lawyers with a real fear of law suit or grievance don't allow themselves to even ponder, much less walk, the fine lines considered in PR. This is a great time to learn the fine art of creating your own bright line rules of professional behavior. For instance, you can attempt to determine whether it's really a conflict of interest for you to take the custody case of the second cousin of the child for whom you are presently acting as a guardian ad litem, or you can just refer the second cousin to the attorney down the street (who will probably send you a possible conflict in return later.) You have now successfully avoided the appearance of impropriety, whether or not you had to. So, here is my personal bright line for attorney blogging: DON'T BLOG ABOUT WORK. PERIOD. Talking about current litigation/client issues before a public audience always raises the specter of impact on that present litigation or issue, which MIGHT hurt a client. Talking about current work situations before a public audience MIGHT hurt your present working relationships or your future contacts. I appreciate all the other options presented here (like speaking generally, etc.), but nothing is worth the risk of damage to a client ever, or to your career before it starts. (Many of the attorneys with great blogs work for themselves, and don't have a boss to risk angering with comments about their work environment.)

Posted by: Kris at May 11, 2005 01:24 PM

My advice? Guard your anonymity. I do employment law, and I write an anonymous blog about big firm life in Manhattan. Yes, I recognize the irony. A mention in led to thousands of angry lawyers calling for my head on a conference room table because I dared to mock firm life. Summers are far more vulnerable than I (and I come into work every day wondering if I'll get canned). But I say write about the ridiculousness of being a summer associate, and screw them if they have a problem with it. Just don't tell anyone in your summer class about it.

Posted by: Opinionista at May 11, 2005 02:11 PM

I agree with the people saying, "Don't do it." It's not worth it. This is a first-impression thing; and the best thing to do is not blog at all about your work. It will be very tempting, especially if you're doing things you find interesting, but do NOT give in.

Don't try to be technical re: rules; your professional responsibility class should have taught you not just the rules, but also that common sense can go a long way. Common sense is that employers, especially large ones, don't want employees making public everything that goes on behind the scenes.

If you do blog about work, do NOT name the name of your employer, do NOT mention the names of people you work with, clients, or anything that can identify the entity or its members or clients.

If you find interesting areas of law through your work, I think general discussion of those principles on your blog is fine, but just don't mention that you stumbled on to the issue via work, don't use ANY facts that you're working with, and just be really, really careful. Once you practice for a while you'll have a better sense of what you can/can't get away with, but you're just starting out now and there's no telling how loose lips of a clerk might influence a case -- the judge, the opposing counsel, the client, they could all potentially see your blog too, don't forget.

Posted by: Jennifer at May 11, 2005 02:28 PM

On both an ethical and a pragmatic level, I strongly recommend that you blog nothing about a case unless the attorney responsible for it says it's OK.

Something that may be legally public knowledge might not be known by many people. Your blog might end up being the only record of a fact that hurts your client (or, more accurately, your PD's client). You may also give insight to the prosecutor that the prosecutor did not have.

On a pragmatic level, attorneys are control freaks (I know, I am one). I'd be absolutely furious with a clerk who spoke or wrote publicly about one of my client's cases without my OK, and I'd do my best to make sure that person was never hired. I'd also scrutinize the blog for any arguably improper disclosures. If I found any, I'd ask my supreme court not to let the student sit for the bar exam.

Blogging could hurt clients in ways you might not think of. A smart reporter might pick up on your blog and write a story about a case that otherwise would not have been written. Media stories are almost never good for defendants. The publicity itself could embarrass your client. Further, it could push the prosecutor to fight about something that he or she otherwise would have let drop.

If you must blog about your job, have it checked by the attorneys responsible for the case BEFORE you put it on the internet.

Posted by: Assistant Public Defender at May 11, 2005 02:28 PM

If your number one goal is to get hired, don't write anything in the blog that you would be embarrassed to say in front of the hiring partner - or your grandmother. It's about that simple.

Posted by: BigFirmAss-ociate at May 11, 2005 02:39 PM

The EFF has a guide to blogging at How to Blog Safely (About Work or Anything Else)

I think their points 3 and 4 are interesting to think about. When you say blog, do you mean post in public (here?) or on a livejournal sort of thing?

Posted by: Adam Shostack at May 11, 2005 03:31 PM

I have to say that I agree it's probably a bad idea to blog about anything law related. You may comment on a case entirely unrelated to the work you do at your job, and later be involved with the case on appeal. Even with Supreme Court opinions you have to be careful. What happens when you comment negatively on a recent opinion and then later have to rely on that precedent in a brief. If I were opposing counsel, I would definitely site this fact.

As for me. I am in the same dilemma. My plan? Since most of my blog is not law-related I am abstaining from legal commentary altogether and focusing on Art, Literature and Film reviews...

Posted by: Death at May 11, 2005 04:09 PM

I think all of these comments are useful. I'm curious, though, as to why a lawyer would cite a law student's blog opinion re:law in a brief regarding Supreme Court precedent?

Posted by: Anonymous at May 11, 2005 06:22 PM

Why would it come up? Impeachment value. "Plaintiff relies on State v. Jones. However, as plaintiff's own counsel has acknowledged in other contexts, see, that opinion is authority is a complete misreading of the statute . . ."

Not something I would ever want to see. Particularly as a junior associate, when a partner storms into my office and yells "what the hell is this?!"

Posted by: k at May 11, 2005 07:15 PM

Don't do it. I stopped blogging after I was asked about my blog in an interview for a summer clerkship that (shockingly) I did not get.

It is not worth the trouble. Just do a cost-benefit analysis. Is posting about your job worth risking losing your job? I suspect that it isn't.

Posted by: Brian at May 11, 2005 11:46 PM

I would be very careful. Brian, above, asks the right question:

Is posting about your job worth risking losing your job?

I think the answer is decidedly "no".

Personally, I blogged a few times about my summer experience, but nothing in depth. (I.e., "going to lunch a lot is cool" and "I got to go to court today which was cool" and "hey they made me an offer, cool" and "I use the word 'cool' a lot. cool").

I just don't think it's worth it. But, as another commenter said, there ain't nuthin' wrong with asking.

Posted by: Mr. Poon at May 12, 2005 11:03 AM

Bad idea..... We spent many giddy hours looking at the blogs and websites maintained by our summer associates last year. In at least one case it made the decision not to extend an offer a very easy one.

Posted by: Anonymous at May 12, 2005 04:24 PM

I think that my position on client confidentiality is pretty clear from reading my blog. I have tons of juicy stories, but fortunately or un-, my loyalty to my clients and my job is much stronger. If I do mention something about work, it's heavily disguised and vague. Whether or not something is public record is unimportant to me.

Like someone else commented, there was a major incident last summer in my office when a summer intern's blog was discovered. The intern had written about specific cases, specific clients, even specific priviliged conversations in a fairly high-profile case. Obviously, you know better than that.

Finally, I'd like to say, that whether or not you blog about your experience, I think it'd be a great idea to keep some type of personal journal about your feelings and what you learn. A few years down the road when you're having an "I feel like a shitty lawyer" day you can look back and see how much you've learned, and on the very rare ocassion that you have a "God, why did I want this job so badly, today it sucks so bad" you can relive a little bit of the feelings that went into it.

Good luck and of course we'll want to read about whatever you're willing to write about.

Posted by: blondie at May 16, 2005 12:16 AM

Yeah, i tend to go along with the "only write what you want the person that will hire you to read" rule. but truthfully, i think a lot of these comments are geared toward firm jobs rather than PDs or PI jobs.

Posted by: monica at May 16, 2005 01:29 PM

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