Drake Law School Professor Melissa Heames Weresh is on a mission to
help law students and young lawyers behave professionally and with the
degree of formality expected in law practice.
Weresh has noticed a relationship between the type of electronic
communication students and young lawyers are accustomed to, and
unintended lapses in professionalism. She said law students need to be
aware that wall posts on social networking sites about personal
activities, and excessive use of texting and tweeting may be common
among peers, but may also frowned upon by the working world that they
hope to join.
You might think typical law students are sophisticated enough to
navigate virtual communication with tact and discretion. This is not
always the case, said Weresh, who adds that this is neither indicative
of character flaws or intentional disrespect, as many have lamented.
"Current students' life in and on the Internet has made them
accustomed to informal and largely unedited communication," Weresh
said. "When we communicate informally, and in a manner that is often
truncated, as in a wall post or tweet, we often fail to pay close
attention to concepts of professionalism that guided earlier
generations, whose written communication was typically more formal and
During recent months Weresh has been examining the impact social
networking sites and Twitter might have on a law student's early career
years. Weresh claims, "With Twitter's 140 character limitation,
communication is somewhat stunted. Because it is an informal method of
communicating, and somewhat like a wall post on a social networking
site, tweets can often reveal information that is perceived as
unprofessional -- too much sharing. On the other hand, because the
tweet is so limited, people may actually have to pay more attention to
what they are communicating. There have been suggestions that,
ironically, Twitter will make folks more aware of what they
communicate, and how they choose to communicate it."
In any event, Weresh said it is important to talk to students and
young lawyers about the potential for professional lapses in electronic
communication, especially because students view this a part of their
private, as opposed to professional life.
"Students have to be cognizant of what they communicate online. Bar
associations across the country are paying closer attention to postings
on social networking sites, and in some instances searching sites for
unprofessional conduct that might impact a student's character and
fitness for practice," she said.
Weresh explains that this issue is not limited to law students.
"For lawyers, restrictions on advertising and unauthorized practice
that present problems in the context of blogs may present similar
concerns for tweets. Also, because Twitter is a real-time exchange,
there may be issues relating to solicitation or the unintended creation
of a lawyer/client relationship. We are likely to see developments in
ethical issues as the law starts to catch up with technology."
According to Weresh, employers can also see extensive tweeting and
texting as a potential drain on one of a lawyer's most valuable
resources, time. Lawyers who don't employ significant technology in
practice are particularly likely to view these devices as a waste of
"But we have to remain open to exploring those generational
differences," said Weresh. "Clients come from different generations
too, and may have expectations about lawyers' availability and
sophistication with respect to communicating electronically. Lawyers
who are adept at using this technology are going to be appealing to
On Oct. 17 Weresh received the 2009 Warren E. Burger Writing
Competition Prize at the United States Supreme Court. The award
recognizes her essay on the professional identity development of novice
"The essay explores what sociologists have to say about
professional identity development," Weresh said, "and it also examines
differences between the current generations in law practice that can
influence or impede professional identity development. While those
differences do exist, and can lead to real or perceived lapses in
professionalism, there are several promising initiatives in legal
education and law practice that take advantage of the mechanisms
suggested by sociologists for fostering professional identity
development, while remaining cognizant of, and in some instances
capitalizing on, generational differences."
Weresh has made numerous presentations that explore exaggerated and
sometimes humorous examples of professional lapses. "Lawyers and law
students alike are often surprised by the behavior that leads to
problems. This is often because the professional lapses seem obvious in
retrospect, but sometimes it is because they are so unintended. It is
sobering to realize that a lack of deliberate attention can turn what
appeared to be an innocuous communication into a big problem."
Weresh and her colleague Lisa Penland developed one particular
workshop for law students that has the students work through a series
of exercises to determine where the line of professionalism is drawn.
Communicative devices characteristic of the Google generation --
e-mails, Tweets, instant messaging and Web sites such as MySpace and
Facebook -- are examined for professional lapses.
Weresh and Penland decided to organize the workshops after they
discovered law students had made inappropriate comments about faculty
members on Facebook. They learned about the comments from a local judge
who was researching law schools online with her daughter.
Weresh also writes a monthly column for The Iowa Lawyer that
explores ethics, professionalism and communication. She has columns
that examine e-mail, Twitter, and social networking sites.