Lots of people have been sending me an article on the front page of yesterday's Washington Post called "Harsh Words Die Hard on the Web: Law Students Feel Lasting Effects of Anonymous Attacks." The relevant bits:
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.
The discussion board in question is AutoAdmit.com, also known as xoxohth.com. A lot of what's there is indeed painful to read -- the immaturity, the viciousness, the stupidity, the patent falsehoods. It's frightening that these people are future members of the bar, and it's such a contrast to the MBA discussion boards, where the conversations are moderated (the "Rules of the Board") and remain much more civilized, professional, and on-topic. (On a related note: isn't it sad when discussion boards about Grey's Anatomy and American Idol are more civilized and thoughtfully moderated than AutoAdmit?)
I've had my own run-ins with law school discussion boards. I've seen people quote entirely fictitious conversations that they claimed to have had with me. And you can imagine my surprise when an admissions officer at a top law school (and friend) sent me a link to a thread discussing my appearance in X-rated terms. So I get where this law student is coming from, although the situation appears to be much more serious for her, because these numb-nuts are actually threatening her physical safety.
I've written before about the folly of posting things online that will come back to bite you when you're looking for a job, but what if other people are posting things that prospective employers will find? My first thought is that employers would be stupid to rely on what other people are saying or posting about someone, unless there's some reason to think their opinions are credible and they have the balls to identify themselves. As a society, we're still figuring out what the right recourse is. There are services like ReputationDefender. One can post rebuttals on discussion boards (I haven't been -- they just feed the beast) or take the matter up with the webmasters (that works with Wikipedia, but not with AutoAdmit). One could bring a defamation suit, although that can be a difficult way to go.
Do I think that the creepy and offensive discussions about this particular law student are actually hurting her on her job search? The article suggests that's the case, and she clearly thinks so. And maybe that's true. But don't assume that just because she got into Yale Law School that she's also great in law firm interviews. I once coached a Yale law student who came to me because he had a great record there but was striking out in his interviews and was having trouble lining up a summer associate job. That's the whole point of face-to-face interviews: to see if the person who looks so great on paper makes the same great impression in real life. Sometimes not.
I feel for this student, especially if there is in fact a causal link between what's being said about her online and her trouble securing callback interviews. We'll probably never know what the real reason is, but the story does demonstrate how vulnerable people are to online attacks over which they have no control and raises interesting questions about the moral responsibilities inherent in running discussion boards. It's easy to hide behind free speech, but just because something is legal doesn't make it right.