Lawyers Online: the Merits of Taking Calculated Risks

We’ve all felt our hands tied by convention, our ambitions clipped by risks known and unknown.

I bet you don’t have to be in the legal profession to see how many of the below issues relate to your own situation.

This weekend at the San Francisco Bar Association, I spoke at an innovative new conference from The Girls’ Guide to Law School (GGLS) and Amicus Tutoring. Catapult2013 aims to empower law students and young lawyers to take control of their careers and think creatively about the future.

Lawyers being creative and thinking outside the box? That’s a huge breath of fresh air for a traditionally conventional field. Catapult pointed to many of the larger shifts in life and work that we’ve been talking about here at GlobalNiche. A patent attorney at Google even offered my GlobalNiche partner Tara’s expatriate life motto: “Grow where you’re planted.”

Much of this new territory may apply to you too. As a Catapult participant tweeted “You are moving towards a future that you are creating.”

We heard that lawyers are all entrepreneurs now. 68% will be self-employed by 2019 said Susan Cartier Liebel of Solo Practice University.

A zigzag career path can be the secret to finding out what you want and need to be fulfilled, suggested a panel. “It takes courage to do the unconventional, right thing for you,” said one former partner of a white-shoe Wall Street firm.

I was scheduled to speak in a breakout session about using social media to brand yourself. But what we covered was echoed throughout the day. The good advice dispensed also applies to how you can approach your online presence and what you can aim to achieve with it.

Where do you want to go? What tools and techniques do you need to get there?

Social media is simply a set of tools you can use to suit your needs. Other answers centered on some of our favorite tactics. Authentic community building by pursuing your interests, sharing your thinking and activities, participating and engaging.

One person said, “Think about expanding your influence beyond the job you do today — develop a network for where you are going.” Build it before you need it.

As you can imagine in a roomful of lawyers, there was also a lot of talk about risk.

In panel after panel, veterans of big law and attorneys of all stripes reported that as much as awareness of — and aversion to — risk is a hallmark of the lawyerly life, they’ve discovered that listening to your own intuition to do what makes you happy demands that you take calculated chances with your career and lifestyle.

Then there’s this central paradox a whole field of risk-averse, prolific content generators face.

Lawyers online: so much to share, so many reasons not to.

Or, perhaps there’s a calculated way to share, a customizable rule of thumb that can meet the needs and comfort level of each individual.

In my online branding workshop, lawyers from non-profit organizations wanted to know about promoting their organization and their own distinct brand at the same time.

Criminal defense attorneys explained that they’ve made a point not to have an online presence due to their type of work, while others said they have clients who did stupid things online and it bit them so they’ve avoided it as well.

People wondered what the benefits and pitfalls on being visible might be, and still others had books and products and companies they wanted to promote.

One person mentioned that online connections seem insubstantial compared to the strong bonds offline he already enjoys — but also feels like he’s missing out on the power to consolidate his personal and pro self to get more business.

Others wanted to develop a new side. “I want to figure out how to be known online as more than a lawyer,” said one woman.

I didn’t have the opportunity to share all my reactions during the workshop so here are a few.

The best time to build your network to promote your work is three years ago. The next-best time to build your network is today.

If you want to be known beyond your law profession, start publicly pursuing your non-law interests.

If you want to mesh your personal and pro pursuits, the online world is ideal for a renaissance soul to operate in many worlds at once especially with the rise of the “expert generalist”. It’s what we mean when we suggest you create a personal culture with your online presence.

Also, virtual connections are not automatically less substantial than actual ones. Catapult’s organizer Alison Monahan of GGLS reminded me that we met in a LinkedIn discussion two years ago as our activities converged in a TEDxBayArea event. Where you meet someone is not an indication of the depth of your connection, nor the strength or length of your bond. Online, relevance is a stronger bond than proximity.

Online abstinence doesn’t seem tenable in the face of the web’s exponentially increasing value and relevance.

No doubt about it, there are special risks associated with being a lawyer online. But in many respects they are the same risks for any professional. Perhaps instead of avoiding a digital footprint entirely you would be better served to create one in small steps that meet your stringent requirements.

“What you should be afraid of as a law student online is being unprofessional, exposing your biases, showing you don’t know how to handle yourself,” said my fellow workshop speaker Titilayo Tinubu, who helps law students manage their Google reputations. “Don’t hide from your employers. Hone your personal stories and pursue authentic relationships.”

The organizer of Catapult said the trigger to launch her own legal industry event was sitting in the audience listening to a panel of lawyers disparaging social media while their argument was taken apart in a backchannel discussion about that panel on Twitter — a relevant, real-time debate the panelists couldn’t see, didn’t know existed, and didn’t believe mattered. They were wrong.

Have a resonant idea rooted in your own experience, vision and goals? Content that supports it? An online presence to distribute it?

Here’s an anecdote about the power the web can hold for an attorney. Alison Monahan of GGLS told us how she posted at her new site some helpful, resource-filled content she’d planned to make into a book based on her bruising experience with law school and big law and her ideas about how it all could be different and better. She optimized the new site for search terms legal clerks might be looking for online, and published the site just as the clerking season started. Then she went “off the grid” on a Mexican vacation for a week. When she returned, her email box was full of messages from students pouring out their life stories. Almost overnight, she’d struck a nerve by being findable and useful on her topic.

EXPLORE WHAT YOU CAN DO ONLINE, WITH OTHER LEGAL PROS If you’re a law student or a young lawyer interested to explore and calculate in the company of your peers what you can do to develop your career by incrementally building your online presence, we’ve got something for you. Ask to join this Google+ community for participants of Catapult and people who would have been in the right room had they attended.

Anastasia Ashman is a visionary for the robust, directed online presence we can use to reach our offline goals. A Californian with 15 years abroad in 3 countries, she combines her global perspective with a pro background in NY & LA media & entertainment as cofounder of, a digital literacy startup training women everywhere in digital literacy through content strategy & web platform building.



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