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Stained Reputation

The Wall Street Journal today had an article about the now famous email exchange I blogged about a few days ago where Dianna Abdala, a recent law school graduate turned down a job offer from an attorney, William Korman. The article discusses the fact that in some circumstances, people who are getting notorious reputations for being particularly rude or inappropriate aren’t suffering any career damage:

We all know what happens when someone commits a particularly embarrassing gaffe in a private email conversation: The message gets forwarded, with each recipient instructing the next to “read from the bottom up.” Indeed, this testy exchange skipped off servers as far away as China with a subject line attesting to its journey: “Subject: Fwd: FW: FW: Lawyers Behaving Badly.” People also added comments, such as “Great lesson here… on email and how to ruin your career.”

But not so fast. Certainly one could turn this into cautionary tale No. 1,346 about what not to commit to private email. But if you haven’t learned that lesson yet, you haven’t been paying attention — or, more likely, you don’t care that much. “I’m more worried about whether I’ve left my hair iron on than this little email exchange,” [the law school graduate] told me over the phone.

These days, résumé building can be less about preserving a reputation than about acquiring one in the first place. Just ask Omarosa Manigault-Stallworth, the “Apprentice” contestant who famously said, “I’m going to crush my competition, and I’m going to enjoy doing it.” She has parlayed her backstabbing into a television career and speaking engagements. “Who knew that being soo bad could be soo good$$!!,” the show’s Web site quotes her as saying.

“I wouldn’t jump to the conclusion that this kind of behavior is naturally rewarded,” cautions Paul Argenti, professor of corporate communication at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business. “But it does lead to success in some realms.” And those realms can include the legal profession, sales teams, trading floors, entrepreneurial endeavors — in other words, the corners of the business world where unmitigated gall can be more marketable than galling. “This could be great for [her] career if you think about it,” he says.

Is having one’s “unmitigated gall” displayed for the world to see a good thing? I sure hope not. While I certainly don’t like to see people live life with a scarlet letter, I don’t think they ought to be rewarded for being rude.

Of course, not all notorious reputations should be viewed as problematic. In my blog post, I mentioned perhaps the most famous email from the legal world to circulate throughout cyberspace — that of the Skadden Arps summer associate. He wrote:

Congrats on the CFA. I’m sure you’re about to make VP any day now.

I’m busy doing jack shit. Went to a nice 2hr sushi lunch today at Sushi Zen. Nice place. Spent the rest of the day typing emails and bullshitting with people. Unfortunately, I actually have work to do — I’m on some corp finance deal, under the global head of corp finance, which means I should really peruse these materials and not be a fuckup…

So yeah, Corporate Love hasn’t worn off yet… But just give me time..

That email was followed by this one:

I am writing you in regard to an e-mail you received from me earlier today. As I am aware that you opened the message, you probably saw that it was a personal communication that was inadvertently forwarded to the underwriting mailing list. Before it was retracted, it was received by approximately 40 people inside the Firm, about half of whom are partners.

I am thorougly and utterly ashamed and embarassed not only by my behavior, but by the implicit reflection such behavior could have on the Firm. . . .

Although I cannot change what you and the other recipients saw, I do reiterate my sincerest apologies. I do and will take full responsibility for my actions in this incident, and I will do everything I possibly can to correct my mistakes and, more importantly, ensure that this and things like it will not happen again.

The summer associate’s email has never struck me as particularly problematic — just humorous. The summer associate was just talking to a friend and accidentally emailed others in the firm. He was also speaking a bit of truth as well, since summer associate positions are often rather cushy jobs. The law firms are trying to recruit attorneys, so they create a summer experience full of fun and frolic. Then, when one goes there permanently, they work 24/7 and pay back for the summer in spades.

The WSJ article has an epilogue to the story:

Despite that episode, [the summer associate] got a full-time position at Skadden and still works there today, though he is less publicly communicative than before: “I really can’t comment on it in any way,” he said last week. Added Carol Sprague, director of attorney hiring at Skadden: “He recognized that he had made a mistake and then really worked hard all summer and proved that he was an intelligent, hard-working person.”

I’m happy for the Skadden associate. It is nice to know that Skadden was thoughtful enough to still hire him, even after the debacle. He’ll never live it down, of course, as he’s become part of the annals of law firm lore. But it is nice to know that he didn’t suffer severe career consequences. And I’m sure he’s no longer having long sushi lunches and doing “jack shit.”


Originally Posted at Concurring Opinions

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This post was authored by Professor Daniel J. Solove, who through TeachPrivacy develops computer-based privacy training, data security training, HIPAA training, and many other forms of awareness training on privacy and security topics. Professor Solove also posts at his blog at LinkedIn. His blog has more than 1 million followers.

Professor Solove is the organizer, along with Paul Schwartz, of the Privacy + Security Forum and International Privacy + Security Forum, annual events designed for seasoned professionals.

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