It’s a small world (-wide Web)

This morning I saw a piece in the National Law Journal relating that 41% of law school admissions officers surveyed (128 of them, presumably from 128 different institutions, so a healthy 60+% of law schools) “said they had researched an applicant using a Web search engine.”Another 37% “said they had looked up an applicant on Facebook or another social networking site.”

Now, online discretion might not seem like natural discussion fodder for a person who has authored blog posts about going to Rick’s and Necto, but I spotted a particularly interesting tidbit in this article: reference to a distinct survey (both administered by Kaplan Test Prep), finding that 77% of October LSAT takers “objected to admissions officials considering their online personas.” It is somewhere in this metaphorical geographic vicinity that I locate the gaps in my comprehension of the Youth of Today.

I remember talking roughly a decade ago with a student who was complaining about this general phenomenon. She said that whatever she posted on the Web was not intended to be viewed by everyone, just certain someones. How was she supposed to have known that such-and-such objectionable person was reading her blog? “But,” I responded in baffled confusion, “it’s called the ‘World Wide Web.’ Isn’t that, like, adequate notice that the whole world can view it???” To the best of my recollection, she and I never did reach any kind of rapprochement. Now, I do more or less get the point; while some may argue that the Web is simply a giant, speedy version of a library that changed nothing fundamental, the fact is, no one used to routinely dash off to the library to research law school applicants. So the Web in fact changed everything, and in a way that will cause some people to get burned as we all evolve. But still. Come on. This outcome was not, as we like to say in the law, unforeseeable by a reasonable person.

Ten years have passed, and the communication gulf persists. Yet I would note that, when mentioning that I never look at Facebook and its ilk, I am frequently urged by the Youth of Today to do so; our own students, now that they’ve run the gauntlet, are eager for Admissions to vet would-be-future-alumni in exactly this way. So I would suggest that Kaplan go back to the 77% in another year and re-survey. They may object now, but they may become converts to the merits of cyber-sleuthing once that whole law school admissions thing works out.

In any event, I do think there is ground for at least some consensus even across the admissions divide, if terms are defined. While I’ve never looked at Facebook et al., I have certainly “researched an applicant using a Web search engine.” When I can’t figure out what an applicant’s employer does, I will look it up; ditto extracurriculars. My favorite example of the need for online elucidation is with regard to an organization called “The Moustache Society”; about the third or fourth time I saw this listed on a resume of someone from the same small Midwestern liberal arts college, I was compelled to research it. That’s how I discovered that it wasn’t a gathering of facial hair aficionados but was in fact a domestic violence charity. I’m pretty sure that subsequent applicants who are members of the Moustache Society should be glad that I resorted to Google in this instance. But that’s because this kind of research can’t hurt anyone; it is designed just to shed a little light, and since the alternative is for the admissions officer to think, “I don’t know what the hell any of this means,” and thus write the candidate off, it in fact is likely to provide a benefit.

But yes, I have also “researched an applicant using a Web search engine” (I just love that phrasing) with the end result that the applicant’s chances went down in flames. One example: A couple of years ago, an applicant described a medical device of her own invention, designed to help her little sister, who suffered from a chronic illness. I was blown away; the applicant said she was about 12 at the time of the invention, and this achievement struck me as evidence both of an amazing degree of empathy for the age, as well as a prodigious talent. But since I’m no engineer, I wanted to get a sense of the utility of the invention and the degree to which it was being used. So I did a little research. And that’s how I discovered, entirely unexpectedly, a number of articles making it clear that the candidate had not in fact been the inventor; her identically named mother had been. That candidate did not get admitted, and I would strongly disagree with anyone who said that my use of the Web in that instance was inappropriate.

I can think of other arguably reasonable ex parte uses of the Web. What about when applicants direct us to particular URLs, in which their achievements are extolled? Is it unreasonable for an admissions officer to then look for other online discussions, conceivably taking a less positive tack? Or what about an applicant who, in providing details of past criminal misconduct—as required on all law school applications—is so vague as to suggest to a reader a risk of deceptiveness? Is it inappropriate for an admissions office to then attempt to ferret out details online?

At the other end of the spectrum of reasonableness, to my mind, would be a reliance on the portrayal of an applicant by a third-party acquaintance. Visiting the Facebook page of an applicant’s pal and reading an account there of some shenanigans, and then using that information as dispositive, seems wholly unjustifiable and unfair. (This scenario reminds me of a well-intentioned, completely uninformed lecture my husband tried to give our children about their online personas early in their teen years. He began with, “Don’t ever post pictures of yourself with your name attached, doing stuff that’s illegal.” He became increasingly distressed as they educated him about the extent to which other people might be posting the pictures; he backpedaled into, “Don’t let pictures of yourself get taken,” and eventually concluded with, “Just don’t do anything bad.” Excellent advice.) I think of it in evidentiary terms; that kind of information simply isn’t reliable, and shouldn’t play any role in objective decision-making.

Perhaps the governing principle is control—for an admissions office to rely on information that has been posted by the applicant, or to use the Web to ascertain the veracity of a claim in the application, will typically lead to outcomes that are fundamentally within the applicant’s control. Don’t post crazy stuff; don’t lie in an application about your achievements or misdeeds. The danger, of course, is that once an admissions officer gets online, searching can quickly go off-course. I may think it is wholly unjustifiable and unfair to rely on certain online information, and yet, once I’ve seen it, it can’t be unseen. Admissions officers need to be cognizant of that risk, and need to attempt to avoid it.

While opinions are going to abound about appropriate line-drawing and practice in this realm, it is clear beyond cavil that it’s going to occur. So be careful out there.

-Dean Z. Senior Assistant Dean for Admissions, Financial Aid, and Career Planning