Professor Melissa Weresh
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 therefore deliberate.”
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 time.
“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 those clients.”
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 lawyers.
“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.