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March 07, 2007

Did online gossip sink law student's career?

The Washington Post has a story about a high-powered female law student whose career may have been torpedoed by online gossip:

She graduated Phi Beta Kappa, has published in top legal journals and completed internships at leading institutions in her field. So when the Yale law student interviewed with 16 firms for a job this summer, she was concerned that she had only four call-backs. She was stunned when she had zero offers.

Though it is difficult to prove a direct link, the woman thinks she is a victim of a new form of reputation-maligning: online postings with offensive content and personal attacks that can be stored forever and are easily accessible through a Google search. [WaPo]

The women may have been penalized for what other people said about them online. It's one thing to be held responsible for your own statements, especially if you publish them under your own name on your personal blog. If this woman's career was damaged by what other people said about her in chat rooms, it's simply outrageous.

The law-school board, one of several message boards on AutoAdmit, bills itself as "the most prestigious law school admissions discussion board in the world." It contains many useful insights on schools and firms. But there are also hundreds of chats posted by anonymous users that feature derisive statements about women, gays, blacks, Asians and Jews. In scores of messages, the users disparage individuals by name or other personally identifying information. Some of the messages included false claims about sexual activity and diseases. To the targets' dismay, the comments bubble up through the Internet into the public domain via Google's powerful search engine. [WaPo]

I'd sure like to think that top law firms aren't using online rape threats to penalize the victims:

The chats sometimes include photos taken from women's Facebook pages, and in the Yale student's case, one person threatened to sexually violate her. Another participant claimed to be the student, making it appear that she was taking part in the discussion. [WaPo]

This anecdote says a lot about the culture of AutoAdmit and the attitude of its founders, who go on to insist that female law students are inviting ridicule simply by maintaining innocent Flickr and Facebook profiles.

Another Yale law student learned a month ago that her photographs were posted in an AutoAdmit chat that included her name and graphic discussion about her breasts. She was also featured in a separate contest site -- with links posted on AutoAdmit chats -- to select the "hottest" female law student at "Top 14" law schools, which nearly crashed because of heavy traffic. Eventually her photos and comments about her and other contestants were posted on more than a dozen chat threads, many of which were accessible through Google searches.

"I felt completely objectified," that woman said. It was, she said, "as if they're stealing part of my character from me." The woman, a Fulbright scholar who graduated summa cum laude, said she now fears going to the gym because people on the site encouraged classmates to take cellphone pictures of her.

Ciolli persuaded the contest site owner to let him shut down the "Top 14" for privacy concerns, Cohen said. "I think we deserve a golden star for what we did," Cohen said. (Emphasis added.) [WaPo]

What's even more outrageous is that the site requires its own posters to use pseuds, but allows these pseudonymous posters to refer to others by name.

Cohen said he no longer keeps identifying information on users because he does not want to encourage lawsuits and drive traffic away. Asked why posters could not use their real names, he said, "People would not have as much fun, frankly, if they had to worry about employers pulling up information on them." [WaPo]

Ann Althouse is predictably unsympathetic to the plight of the woman whose breasts inspired malicious gossip and threats of stalking:

Too beautiful to appear in public? Too hot to be hired? Come on! What rational employer would deny you a job because idiots chatted about you on line in a way that made if obvious that the only thing you did was look good?

What rational employer would care what anonymous twerps on a message board said about a woman's body? No rational employer would.* However, as the entire history of civilization illustrates, people are sometimes, uh, less than rational when it comes to human sexuality and gossip pertaining thereto. If this story is any indication, law firms don't make their hiring decisions rationally.

Update: Jill of Feministe was harassed by the same cretinous crew at AutoAdmit.

Update II: Aeroman argues that discriminating against applicants based on online gossip is morally wrong, but not necessarily irrational from a firm's perspective. I'm not sure how many prospective clients would care that their attorney got ogled by sleazy law students online without her consent. Some probably would, but I don't think that kind of gossip would major stumbling block for most clients. It's not like the attorney did anything unprofessional. Anyone's picture can be the topic of conversation online these days.

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Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Did online gossip sink law student's career?:

» Hi, I'm Jill, and scummy law school sleazebags have gone after me, too. from Feministe
This article in the Washington Post and this post by Ann Althouse, both of which are about students on law school message boards posting pictures and nasty comments about female classmates, struck a nerve -- because I'm one of the women they're talking... [Read More]

» Asymmetrical Anonymity from L'Ombre de l'Olivier
Jill at Feministe and Makijthise draw attention to an article in the WaPo about how the internet has allowed celebrity gossip to spread to cover ordinary people. Well OK that isn't quite what it is saying but that is the basic fact. The article repor... [Read More]

» Internet Stalking Is Real from Pushing Rope
Jill at Feministe has experienced online harrassment from members of AutoAdmit.com. [Read More]

» Are Derogatory Posts on Anonymous Chat Sites Costing Law Students Jobs? from The Volokh Conspiracy
This recent recent Washington Post article focuses on the sad story of a Yale Law School student who believes that false derogator... [Read More]

Comments

If a website owner refuses to take action on a complaint that a visitor is impersonating someone else, filed by the person in question or a representative, the website owner should be liable.

While I think it is reprehensible if true, what evidence is there that anything posted about her was the reason she was not offered interviews or a job?

I'm a fresh law school graduate - well, ok, not so fresh anymore - and while I have been fortunate to have been employed for the several years since graduation, many many of my classmates were not so fortunate. The job market for attorneys in many areas is horrible.

So what I'd like to know is how she can possibly know if what was posted about her was a factor at all. There is nothing in the article to suggest any way she could know.

Ann Althouse: Obviously she must have done something wrong, or none of this would have happened; ergo ipso facto e pluribus centrum, she was asking for it.

How does Althouse even manage to tie her own shoes?

DBB: The article's reference to call-backs makes me think that the student did on-campus interviewing at Yale. In order to hit the 16 employer number from participants there, she almost certainly had to focus on one of, or some combination of, New York, San Francisco, Chicago, and D.C.

For any Yale student to do 16 interviews with no offers would be extremely rare. The legal market is tight in some places for everyone and for some people everywhere, but it's not too tight in those cities for YLS grads.

There could be other factors that would lead to that outcome, but there's no getting around the fact that it's odd.

I'd really like to see more information too. Yalies are always in a lot of demand. I've participated in both sides of the BigLaw hiring process, and I've seen some interesting stuff, but while I usually google people whose resumes cross my desk, I've never bothered reading deep into comment threads about them...and doubt more senior attorneys would do even that.

I dunno. I'm skeptical, although I could be convinced (incidentally, the article makes it sound like there are a lot of problems with the discussion board, and I'm not defending it in general--I just wonder about this as a hiring decision in her particular case.)

I keep thinking of a kid I interviewed a couple years back from a top five school. Good grades, excellent credentials, and reasonably personable. My firm is not the biggest or most prestigious in the world, so generally when somebody from a top five program deigns to interview with us, our default position is we'll hire them unless there's something severely wrong. In this case, though, there were a half dozen pretty obvious typos on his resume. Lawyers have to pay attention to details, and have to be good writers, and something about that was so jarring that I didn't recommend an offer; neither did either of the other attorneys who interviewed him.

You never know. Could be what she describes--and in fact I would hope, and imagine, she's talked to Yale's career office to make sure there are no obvious defects or problems on her resume. But just strikes me as very fishy. There are a couple other details, too--the line about publications is a little bit odd; somehow doesn't sound like a description of articles in law reviews, so I'm not sure what that's about...I don't know. As a broad comment about the perils of internettery, the article is no doubt absolutely correct. In her specific case, I'm not sold.

"She graduated Phi Beta Kappa, has published in top legal journals and completed internships at leading institutions in her field. So when the Yale law student interviewed with 16 firms for a job this summer, she was concerned that she had only four call-backs. She was stunned when she had zero offers."

I'm trying to unpack what strikes me as odd about this paragraph. First thing to know is that the typical route is as follows: at the end of the first year of law school, you get a summer job that you don't plan to come back to. Some kids clerk (a lot of judges have programs to accomodate that), some kids get internships at, e.g. nonprofits of one sort or another; some go to banks, and a few do get firm jobs, but generally not with firms they'll return to in the future. At the end of the first summer, the interview period for the next summer begins. I think Yale's is pretty early, but am not sure. Anyway, if you're interested in a law firm job for your second summer, you'll do a bunch of interviews in the first few weeks of your second year. Then you go work for that firm the following summer; as a general rule the expectation is that the firm you summer with will be the firm you go back to after graduation. The third summer is spent preparing for the bar. Then, that fall, you go to work, again, generally, with the firm you spent your second summer with.

So two things stick out to me here: 1) she's completed multiple internships "in her field." Assuming the internships are related to the legal work she wants to do, that presumably means she did two internships in her first summer; unusual, but not unheard of. But it's kind of odd to describe someone who has finished the first year of law school as having "a field." That could mean she's exclusively interested in one practice area--e.g. environmental or tax or something--which always has a significant impact on the interviewing process. It would be interesting to know what that field was, and whether she selected firms with that in mind. The narrower or more technical the field, of course, the less interested firms will be in hiring you based on your first year of law school.

The second issue, the publications thing, is also odd, although not for the reason I mentioned in my last comment. On rereading, that does sound like a description of law reviews...but it's extremely unusual, if not impossible, for a 1L to publish multiple notes. I just don't see how that's possible. Usually takes at least 3 months between a review's acceptance of a note and its publication, and that's obviously not counting the eternity it takes to write the stupid things. 1Ls have a lot to do, and no time to publish. It's not encouraged, and it's hard for me to imagine how it would work. So to me it seems like either she was publishing in top legal journals prior to beginning law school (which, huh?) or she's approaching the interview process in a nontraditional way--she's a 3L looking for a job because she didn't like her 2L summer job, maybe (those jobs are much, much harder to get) or she's some sort of nontraditional candidate (night school? don't think YLS has one, but could be wrong. Foreign/LLM? Maybe...) in which case, again, the standard law school hiring cycles wouldn't apply.

I've rambled on for way too long. My point is just that it seems that there are more details here than the reporter knew to get.

one last (quick, I promise) note: 4 callbacks for 16 interviews is a low rate, but not terribly low. But there's no way substantial googling was done before deciding whether to issue callbacks. That's a pretty informal decision, usually made pretty much on the fly on the day of the on-campus interviews.

I'm not convinced that the behavior would be irrational, but I'm convinced it would be wrong.

Sorry about all the self-linking of late, but I felt well-situated to address this.

The gossip is despicable, but not being able to find work is ordinary.

Yale? Law School? Magna cum laude?

So what? Since when do highly-qualified candidates have right to a gig?

point of fact: trial attorneys need to be as good at what & how they say things without a book in their hand as they are at copying writ from a manuscript.

perfect writing skillz are not needed to understand the law at the fundamental level and present a very cogent and persuasive argument.

all the legal & client industry specialized training in the world can't help a poorly conceived and badly produced argument during a trial or contract negotiation sequence.

education & assimilation into a career choice by a branded degree program is often the easiest trap for self-gratification of self-awareness. think of it as a self-exercise in vanity all in the name of money and power and perceived self-status.

what would herod do?

what would socrates do?

what would your employer's health insurance company's coverage do?

they didn't have a proper Yale degree, but chances are, if you are in the western world, they did more to shape your opinion of today's world than your college professor and your work or religious associates.

that's my opinion of higher education and censorship and law and all that stuff.

sorry for being such a dimwit. i can't help my educational status...only government loans can help at this point...but i have ruined that option, too.

oh woe is my ed.

Dear Lindsay and Majikthise readers,

It's true, as many of you have written, that we rarely know with certainty why a specific candidate was denied a job. However, employers are increasingly using internet searches as screening mechanisms. A 2006 survey conducted by Execunet.com showed that over 75% of recruiters search online for information about candidates, and about 35% have rejected candidates based on the results of those searches. As Dan commented, when faced with a choice between multiple, capable candidates, why would an employer choose the person with controversial Internet record?

ReputationDefender is working to help private individuals, including some of the women dragged into the AutoAdmit "contest," protect their online reputations from unfair and unsolicited attacks. We recently launched a campaign to change the sexually harassing culture of AutoAdmit through a petition that asks the discussion forum to establish a clear and easy mechanism for resolution of these sorts of complaints and disputes. For more information about our campaign and how you can help by signing our petition, please see http://reputationdefender.com/campaign_home.php.

Thanks,

RDBlogger
reputationdefender.com

Oh my, her response is priceless:

check out how she re-defames me over the old Clinton blogger lunch incident.

Needless to say, there's no explanation for how she's being "defamed," or how her broad inferences of character drawn from somebody wearing a sweater can be reconciled with her argument that nobody could be so irrational as to let superficial trivial affect people's judgments, or how "loose talk" (i.e. criticizing somebody's public arguments) is much worse than taking photos of people in private spaces in threatening to insult them. Classic.

Assault them, I mean...

It's utterly rational if you hold the assumptions that someone like Althouse does, which is that women who get gossiped about/raped/harassed did something to deserve it. If you have that assumption, you absolutely would not want to hire someone who has ever been harassed because she exudes some sort of deserving-it-ness that you don't want to be associated with.

If you properly understand that any woman can be a target, that it's almost completely random, and often the only factor that really makes one woman more likely than others to be a target is she is bright and therefore threatens sexist men, then you wouldn't hold it against her.

In my world, that a woman is the constant target of harassment by anxious men is a point in her favor. She must be a standout person in order to make sexists far and wide fear her.

I have a more than slightly queasy feeling after having visited Althouse's site to read the comments. The post was bad enough, but the "community" of AA's commenters is a raging cesspool of resentment, misogyny, and sophistry (yes, I know "raging cesspool" is a strange metaphor, but I think it fits). Even the spectacle of her "logic" in dealing with Sadly,No and those horrible, horrible parody posters doesn't make it any more bearable. Yeccch, yecch, and more yecch.

"As Dan commented, when faced with a choice between multiple, capable candidates, why would an employer choose the person with controversial Internet record?"

just for the record, a) it's dan, and b) I didn't say that, or anything like that, or mean that, and don't endorse that.

Jesus. How is that site legal?

She's a ONE L people. You do know that its not at all uncommon for ONE L's, even at Yale, not to get hired by firms, right?

"Though it is difficult to prove a direct link, the woman thinks she is a victim..."

Here's a thought: Even though it's difficult, why doesn't the Washington Post do it anyway before wasting everyone's time on a speculative romp through the heather?

Sorry to hear about her bad experience on the Internet (which the Post has only now figured out is a sewer), but until the "reporter" does some better legwork, I think it's more reasonable to assume she flubbed her interviews.

I think it's reasonable to reserve judgment and hope like hell that hiring partners at law firms have enough sense to disregard a sewer like AutoAdmit. Nobody's making any specific allegations. On the other hand, as Jill of Feministe can attest, there's a vicious and misogynistic culture at AAdmit and they've apparently got a very high Google page ranking. Jill said in her Feministe post (link above) that everything she'd ever written on Feministe showed up below the craziness written about her picture on AA.

If you're not a woman, and/or not accustomed to being the object of public sexual appraisal by men, you may not realize the stigma that attaches to simply being discussed in that light, especially when the discussants are presumed to be members of an in-group (in this case, law students). So, if these types of slag-fests are showing up on page one of Google and referencing female law students by name, you can bet that someone, somewhere is paying the price in terms of their career. Maybe it's only a slight decrement, maybe it only happens to a few people, but you can bet there's an impact somewhere.

I think the WaPo is doing its job by telling the story of the routine character assassination of individual female law students (with names and pictures) by their male classmates on law-themed boards that are frequented by a lot influential members of their chosen profession.

reputation defender has expertise in further dragging their clients name through the mud.

check this site out for details
http://reputationdestroyer.googlepages.com/

Gee, Autoadmit deity, that sure is interesting. Why did you sign my email address as your own?

Name: autoadmit deity Email: frege@mac.com URL: http://reputationdestroyer.googlepages.com/ IP: 75.22.228.192 Comment: -------- reputation defender has expertise in further dragging their clients name through the mud.

check this site out for details
http://reputationdestroyer.googlepages.com/

That's my real email, and it's no secret. I imagine you clicked on the "email me" button on the top left of this screen like everybody else.

In fairness, maybe you're just a hapless fuckup who accidentally signed my address when you meant your own.

How can I get in touch with you, AAD? I'm assuming you're not scared to tell me your real name.

Yours,

Lindsay Elizabeth Beyerstein

observe reputation defender's handiwork by clicking my name

if you'd like to know my name, you're welcome to subpoena my ISP

if you'd like to know my name, you're welcome to subpoena my ISP

Spoken like a real toughguy, AAD.

Why would I spend time or money to find out who you are if you're not willing to tell me for free?

I have a young daughter. The ubiquity of electronic communications and photography/video freaks me out. Things were bad enough in the '80s when I was in high school. I can only imagine how vicious things are these days. Stories like these just freak me out.

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