Social Media Can Lead to Broader, More Inclusive Profession
The Bencher—May/June 2022
By Raffi Melkonian, Esquire
Social media frequently comes under fire, often for good reason. A review of recent news articles uncovers pieces asking about “the negative effect of social media on society and individuals,” bemoaning the consequences on the attention span of both adults and children and suggesting that social media leads to worse mental health outcomes for everyone.
There’s something to those worries. The past decade has seen a large-scale experiment in the use of mass interactive communications, with some surprising and worrying results. Less appreciated, however, is that social media can break down barriers and flatten hierarchies in ways that can help inclusion efforts in elite circles.
This general phenomenon holds true in the legal field. Law faces tremendous challenges in terms of inclusion, especially at its highest levels. For example, while the percentage of women in law school now often exceeds 50%, some of the most desirable practice areas remain dominated by men. The statistics for U.S. Supreme Court oral arguments are instructive. In term after term, women are found to make up fewer than 20% of oral advocates before the high court. Remove the government lawyers and the numbers drop into the single-digits. I recently conducted an informal review of oral arguments in one of the federal courts of appeals, and although the statistics were a little better, women were still deeply underrepresented at oral argument.
Much the same is true in the broader world of appellate practice. This too is a highly desirable field that has proven resistant to entry by underrepresented minorities. Although there are many causes for these disparities, at least one is that students of color, women, and first-generation law students do not know how to get these jobs or even that they exist.
Social media can dramatically close this gap, offering new lawyers a way to meet and engage with professionals in fields they aspire to—or do not even know they might like to do. The Appellate Project is a remarkable example of this. In 2019, founder Juvaria Khan, Esquire, created an organization to help law students of color enter the appellate profession. One of the project’s earliest efforts was to create a mentorship program to match aspiring appellate lawyers with professionals already in the field. The word went out on social media, including in the #AppellateTwitter community (the hashtag where appellate lawyers congregate on Twitter), that the opportunity for such mentoring existed. Soon, the mentorship program was oversubscribed. Appellate lawyers (and many other lawyers) came out in force to support and mentor new lawyers to enter the appellate field. It’s hard to imagine those kinds of resources being available for students even just a few years ago. And that sort of formal mentorship is not the only option available. On Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and even TikTok, lawyers engage with other lawyers to provide career guidance that would have been unthinkable even 10 years ago.
The “How I Lawyer” podcast, hosted by Georgetown University Law Center Professor Jonah Perlin, is another example of how social media can bring people into the profession. By interviewing lawyers in all kinds of fields—corporate practice, public defense, energy law, cybersecurity—Perlin puts before junior lawyers options they might not even have known they had. Law is broader and offers more options than many people can imagine! Even experienced lawyers have remarked upon hearing his program that they did not know a particular practice area existed. One wonders how many lawyers might have taken different paths in their career had they known the full scope of options in law and whether they might have been happier and more fulfilled in their work as a result.
To be sure, this flattening effect has negative effects as well. The role of true expertise can be obscured by someone with the loudest social media voice. And lawyers can easily fall into ethical traps by posting inappropriate things on social media—lawyers who are at the beginning of their careers perhaps face the greatest dangers in this regard, in that they lack either the leverage to survive missteps or the judgment to avoid them. Those negative consequences must be considered. But even so, the benefits to lawyer development and outreach are so substantial that these dangers should not prevent lawyers from using the newest tools for the benefit of junior lawyers and law students. Done properly, with respect for our professional colleagues and for new lawyers, social media can broaden our profession to the benefit of all lawyers and clients.
Raffi Melkonian, Esquire, is an appellate partner at the Houston law firm of Wright, Close & Barger LLP. He litigates appeals in the state and federal courts of Texas and around the United States. Melkonian is Master of the Bench member of the Garland R. Walker American Inn of Court.