Big Law’s TikTok stars support the industry’s new social media norms

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Looking for TikTok content creator, cookbook author and food blogger Joanne Molinaro? Try to reach out to their publicists. She booked around the clock.

Media appearances like recent spots on CBS News and NBC Chicago aren’t the only things that preoccupy the internet personality known as “Korean Vegans”. She is also a partner and litigator at Foley & Lardner, one of the 50 largest law firms in the country.

“The Korean vegan will always take a back seat to my customers,” she told Bloomberg Law.

Molinaro is one of at least four big law attorneys working as internet stars on TikTok, a social media platform that hosts more than 100 million US users who create and share short videos.

Some lawyers from Kirkland & Ellis, Morrison & Foerster, and other major law firms explore their interests outside of the legal profession, while others demystify the world of Big Law in the app. Supporting their heavyweight businesses can signal a cultural shift in the midst of a talent scramble in a traditionally no-nonsense industry.

“Law firms have recognized that the younger generation is different, and different is not bad,” said Jan Jacobowitz, a legal ethics consultant who has written about the impact of millennials on the legal profession.

Pandemic Pastime

TikTok was a source of consolation for some big law attorneys as well as many others during the first few months of the pandemic. The application was the most downloaded in 2020.

The diverse content of the platform kept Cecellia Xie, an employee at Morrison & Foerster, happy when she hid in hard-hit New York City. Lockdown commands ruined her personal birthday plans in April 2020, so the self-proclaimed extrovert celebrated with her first TikTok post instead.

The video, which made fun of the varied realities of “work from home” by lawyers and marketers, was an instant hit, drawing more than 900,000 views.

“I was amazed at how the algorithm worked and how discoverable the app was in terms of distributing my content,” said Xie.

The fun pastime became a glimpse into Xie’s New York legal life as she debunked the myths of law school and the legal profession. Your site has had over 270,000 followers.

“People want to know what the truth is and what is good and bad about the legal profession,” she said.

Food for thought

Molinaro, a Chicago bankruptcy attorney who also downloaded the app in quarantine, began her TikTok journey with similar lifestyle videos from lawyers and a shot of commentary on the Trump presidency and mass denial of the pandemic. She wanted to explore an area outside of her food blog, which by then had been a four year endeavor.

“It was an opportunity to show another side of me,” she said.

She couldn’t stay away from TikTok’s food community, whose members inspired her to create video recipes within the app’s 60-second film limit.

Each video is accompanied by stories from the childhood daughter and family of Korean immigrants who are meant to instill compassion for the immigrant experience in response to the Trump administration’s policy changes, she told Salon last year. She now shares these stories with around 2 million followers.

Molinaro’s videos sometimes give life advice as she sits at a table preparing a meal. Her contribution to managing a breakup is currently her most popular, with 9.7 million views.

Social media personalities like Chrissy Teigen and Yashar Ali have circulated Molinaro’s videos. She has also appeared on the Food Network and Al Jazeera English to share her recipes and talk about the identity-building power of immigrant eating.

Beyond the law

Chukwufumnanya “Fumnanya” Ekhator, an employee of a large Pennsylvania company whose name she would not give, was an internet creative before she came to TikTok.

The seven-year-old YouTube veteran’s channel offers makeup tutorials, dating guides, and legal advice, among other things. Your TikTok, created in late 2019, continues many of these topics.

Ekhator’s videos in the app have evolved like many of their Big Law peers, moving from law school jokes to social justice advocates amid last year’s protests. Now she focuses on lifestyle tips, relationship advice, and mental wellbeing.

The daughter of Nigerian immigrants hopes her videos will transform their 100,000 followers’ perceptions of what a big law attorney can look like. She was more than a Penn law graduate or a young entry-level professional with a global leader, she said.

“I’ve never seen a lawyer with whom I could identify. So for me, it’s almost about that notion of professionalism, or that notion of how a lawyer behaves or sounds, doesn’t limit my online personality, ”she said.

“If you look at this profession and you don’t see yourself reflected in the people you look up to, here is someone you may have in common with.”

Sam Santopoalo, a Kirkland & Ellis employee who also has a large TikTok following, did not respond to a follow-up interview request.

“Ongoing Dialog”

The three lawyers say their law firms see these platforms as a sphere of self-expression outside of the workplace.

“They really helped me do my own thing, be my own person, and get me to my own social media account,” Xie said.

Ekhator says a partner in her law firm got upset when she asked the 2020 law graduate about her YouTube channel and her dealings with internet trolls last year. Another partner asked her for advice on filming and editing while she was making a video for the company.

She owes this online freedom to the active transparency and communication with the company management as well as the PR and marketing teams, say the women.

Molinaro said she agreed to delete a TikTok video defending her work ethic after criticism from a fellow lawyer.

“There was a constant dialogue between me and the company’s PR manager,” she said.

The women say clear social media guidelines, like omitting affiliation with a company online, keep them in check. Most political comments are acceptable if only shared as your own opinion, Xie said.

Molinaro says she got approval before writing an Atlantic commentary criticizing lawyers for bringing Trump’s election fraud allegations, an experience she recounts in another TikTok post.

“Everything was always decided in advance, where I kept communicating with the company’s PR to make sure they were okay with everything I was doing,” Molinaro said of the Atlantic op-ed.

Evolving standards

Corporations’ indulgence for lawyers’ social media personalities could be thanks to millennials’ influence on the legal business, said Jacobowitz, the legal ethics advisor.

In a 2016 paper, she observed a cultural conflict between three generations of lawyers – baby boomers, Generation X, and millennials. Jacobowitz examined conflicts between age groups in their views on professionalism, work-life balance and digital communication.

Today she sees an increased cultural competence between the generations: “The company management has recognized that the better way to address these differences is to accept them, to understand them and to develop guidelines that everyone can live with.”

However, recruiters warn that cultural change has not reached the entire industry and, in some cases, may be short-lived.

Companies are desperate to recruit and retain employees as the pandemic subsides and customer demand rises by giving away big bonuses and increasing starting salaries to more than $ 200,000 a year.

“There is a shortage of staff, so some of these judgments may be withheld on social media,” said Kay Hoppe, a Chicago-based veteran attorney.

Jacobowitz said employees need to measure corporate culture if they want social media freedom.

“In this environment, you just have to find a place where you can do what you want and at the same time comply with general legal ethical rules,” she says.

—With assistance from Molly Ward



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