Young Professional Perspective – Thoughts on How Our Professional Lives and Looks Are Affected By Social Media

Young Professional Perspective - Thoughts on How Our Professional Lives and Looks Are Affected By Social MediaThis week we welcome back guest writer Shirlene Brown to talk about your social media and your professional image.

When you enter law school and later when you get sworn in as an attorney, you take an oath of professionalism. This oath even covers situations not relating to the practice of law or situations outside of the lawyer’s traditional duties. In general, lawyers are expected to look, act, and be professional. However, the oath doesn’t necessarily mean you need to dress professionally 24/7 or cannot have a personal life outside of your professional career. Not only are people looking at you and how you present yourself in person, they are also looking at your social media. In the last few decades, the rise of online platforms and social media has allowed people to connect and share posts with people from all walks of life. With this comes an “online presence” and questions surrounding professionalism online. How does social media affect an attorney’s or law student’s professional life? Do you need to keep your personal life completely off social media? What can you do to “be professional” but also “be yourself”? Today I am trying to tackle these very complicated but sensitive topics.

Recent Buzz in the Medical Field

The topic of professionalism recently arose in the medical field when the Journal of Vascular Surgery published an article titled “Prevalence of unprofessional social media content among young vascular surgeons.” Some hot topics that were discussed in this paper dealt young female surgeons who had posted bathing suit pictures or young surgeons who had posted pictures with alcohol or at other social events. This created a lot of backlash and the paper has since been retracted. I was also shocked that such a paper could be published, essentially shaming people for having lives outside of their profession, which has nothing to do with their ability to successfully do their jobs. As I thought about this article, I also reflected on the legal field and my personal experience regarding this matter.

Personal Story

Growing up, I was a very tall, well-endowed female. Although I would always try to dress and look appropriate, there were numerous occasions where teachers would tell me I needed a higher-cut shirt (when I was wearing a t-shirt) or my pants looked like I was wearing floods (I couldn’t find a “long” size of jeans), or my dress was too short (the dress I could afford from the women’s section at Kohls went slightly above my knee). And while I am not trying to make excuses, this is just the body I was given, and I grew up very working-class so I couldn’t just buy a new wardrobe all the time. Also, I always tried to make a conscious effort to look presentable. This continued when I got to college and then law school. Now, I consider myself someone who does dress professionally and tries to make a good impression. While I am not perfect, I have definitely felt the pressure to censor what I say and post online, which at times has prevented me from sharing parts of my life with my loved ones because I needed to “look professional.” Young women seem to be under greater scrutiny when it comes to certain social media content in the professional world. (This doesn’t mean that men and non-binary people do not have their share of difficulty, however, I can only personally speak from the female perspective on this matter). Thinking back on it, I would feel uncomfortable posting a picture in a swimsuit because “what if future employers saw my post.” 

Why Does it Even Matter?

Social media is a tool. Many law students, law firms, and attorneys use social media as a way to network and build their career. (Also, if you need assistance setting up your social media for success and start building your network, the Law School Toolbox has some great resources). Thus, your online presence is tied into your professional career. Additionally, when you are going through character and fitness to become an attorney or applying for a job, an online check might be run to see if there are any “red flags” or inappropriate content. Unfortunately, sometimes this is a “make or break” situation for candidates. I am not saying that this is necessarily fair, however, it is the reality of the circumstances.

Filtering Yourself

Personally, I don’t find it completely offensive to filter yourself. In person and around close friends, I can swear or express some of my opinions very openly. However, on social media, I try to think through a post before I hit submit. I try not to swear as much or make extremely outrageous comments. However, that does not mean I do not stand up for what I believe is right in a respectful way. It also does not mean I do not share the personal aspects of my life. I usually think about what social media site that I am using, what my privacy settings are, and what kind of audience I have. What I post on LinkedIn is much different than what I tweet about on Twitter 

Social Media: It Can be BOTH Professional and Personal

Social media should not be a “one or the other” thing. You should still be able to have an online presence outside of your professional role. However, you should also be aware that people outside of your social network may be looking at your profiles and relating what you say or do to your career. I want to be clear, you are not unprofessional because you post a picture of yourself in a bathing suit or you have an online presence. It is okay to have social media and share parts of your personal life. I think it is very upsetting that people go through such anxiety about the possibility of repercussions for what they post online when the topic is not a controversial subject or when they engage in a respectful manner. Hopefully one day, the world will be a little less scrutinizing on everything that everyone posts or says. Until then, be cautious, be kind, and don’t be afraid to post that #LawBikini pic if it feels right.


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About Shirlene Brown

Shirlene Armstrong is a first-generation student in her last year at Wayne State University Law School in Detroit, Michigan. At Wayne, Shirlene has been involved with numerous organizations and clubs, including mock trial, LexisNexis, the Women's Law Caucus, and the Journal of Law and Society. Shirlene enjoys mentoring others and sharing what she has learned on her legal journey and continues to work hard in accomplishing her dreams.

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