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The tyranny of a lawyer’s personal brand

The tyranny of a lawyer’s personal brand

Lawyer's personal brand

With the growth and accessibility of social media platforms it’s easier than ever to grow a personal brand, and for many professions in today’s digital world this online presence is increasingly becoming more important, writes Giri Sivaraman.

The notion of building your personal brand has been around since the 1930s. Social media allows personal brand building on steroids, and then some. Arguably its greatest proponent in the modern era is US president Donald Trump. But don’t let that put you off.

While feeding the social media beast can be a relentless task, if you get it right it can be a highly effective way to make new contacts and to raise awareness of your work and interests.

For many people seeking professional services, including legal advice, the decision-making process often involves some degree of window shopping. And in today’s world, social media presence – and through this, the opinions, values and career choices that you present online – is increasingly playing a role.

The perception or emotion that online interaction creates can be very powerful as a marketing tool. But for professionals, and for lawyers in particular, it’s important to be mindful of the potential costs if it all goes wrong.

The stakes can be high in growing your personal brand, as the more profile you acquire online, the more scrutiny you are likely to face. As I have seen for many of my clients, a strong personal and online brand they’ve worked hard to cultivate can also often quickly land them in hot water if they air comments or views that are ill-considered, or detrimental to the views or reputation of their employer. The greater the reach on social media, the greater also the potential damage from a misstep.

Having acted for clients against allegations of misconduct for their use of social media, I’m also acutely aware that employers seem more likely to take action against employees for doing things that once would have been considered in the private space.

This growing issue has been confirmed by a number of recent high profile state and federal cases. It is an area where I expect we will continue to see issues arising where the lines blur between the personal and the professional, and employers sometimes overreach because of the terror of brand damage.

For lawyers in particular though, there are further considerations to be mindful of. As we all know and have had repeatedly drummed into us in ethics training, lawyers are held to very high professional standard across a number of fronts. We have an obligation in any effort to grow our personal brand to ensure that the rule of law is upheld, that courts are not misled, that justice is not perverted.

In a general way, independent of any cases we run, we have to ensure that the profession is not brought into disrepute. If this is not managed properly, the consequences can be significant. Recently in the UK, under similar professional regulations, a barrister was disbarred in part because of comments made on Twitter. Hence the stakes for lawyers using social media, in what’s considered an unacceptable way, are higher than other professions. Not only can we be penalised by our employer, we can jeopardise our ability to practise at all.

As an obvious go-to for other professionals seeking advice when tensions do arise between the personal and the professional, it will also be increasingly important that as lawyers we stay at the forefront of understanding where those lines are, so we can continue to assist others to also strike that right balance. But on a broader level, lawyers have a rich tradition of speaking up on important issues, and we are often at the vanguard of serious human and other rights activism, even if it doesn’t directly affect us.

In ensuring we meet our ethical and professional obligations, it is important that we don’t also have the unintended consequence of diminishing our contribution as lawyers to significant social and political issues.

Giri Sivaraman leads the employment law team at Maurice Blackburn lawyers for Queensland and the Northern Territory. He has represented a number of employees subject to action by their employers for supposed inappropriate social media usage. He is a frequent social commentator and has been published by Fairfax, the Courier Mail, the New Daily, New Matilda and Crikey. 

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