Monthly Archives: May 2008

Are Social Networks for Everyone?

A friend of mine asked what I thought about lawyers using social media tools for communication and networking.  I wrote a long email back, and it became clear there was a blog post brewing, so here it is- my thoughts on the use of social media for professions, specifically law and medicine.

Lawyers And Doctors – Special Considerations

Lawyers have a duty of privacy and privilege.  So we can’t just let it all hang out there, so to speak.  We have  an aspect of confidentiality in our business relationships with clients.  So we have to be careful, because many communications, especially when they are written or recorded, may become “discoverable”- that is, subject to a court ordered disclosure for the purposes of a lawsuit.  This may make some kinds of social networks more difficult online for lawyers in particular.  While a non-recorded skype call or video chat would not be discoverable, since there is no recording, if you send an email, record a conversation or chat, that may indeed become a record or business record subject to discovery rules under certain scenarios.

Doctors, on the other hand, have duties of patient privacy.  While it is less likely that all the communication back and forth will lead to a law suit, what would happen if someone relies on your advice over twitter, for example, and ends up having serious medical consequences as a result?  Were you engaging in treatment over the internet?  Were you practicing medicine in another jurisdiction without a license?  What are the privacy issues about talking about someone’s condition online?  These are things to at least consider.

Communication & Business Generation

Lawyers tend to communicate with others for two purposes- one is client or potential client communication, and the other is work based- referral, negotiation, etc. I might want to get to know other attorneys online so when, as happened last week,  someone I know through a social network needed a lawyer in another State, I had someone I already had a relationship with to refer the case.   So work can be generated for attorneys through sites like twitter, but it is secondary to the majority of the content contributed and gleaned from that particular network, on most days.

Other social networks would seem better suited for certain types of contact.   MySpace, for example, strikes me as a site you might choose for trying to generate business (somewhat like ambulance chasing) rather than make professional connections; Facebook is not bad, but there’s not too much to really do there that’s sticky and interesting- if there were some forums to discuss issues openly, it might be more useful, but as it stands, it’s basically a placeholder for me.

Linked-in is the professional site, and where I might start to search for referral out to other attorneys, but it’s not where I would go necessarily to develop a client base. Find an expert witness, yes; find new clients and make rain, no.

For medicine, on line generation for business and patients is tricky.  Medicine is largely a local service, and delivered in person, so you are casting an international net with these social networks who may not ever be able to benefit from your services.  Most of the social networks like Twitter, Facebook, MySpace and the like are better ways to communicate than to solicit services.  It is probably a great way to find other doctors and commiserate rather than generate business.

Likewise, Law is like politics- it’s largely a local concern.  Communities are best built locally – only the big class action cases should consider using facebook or myspace…… I think there’s lots of room for lawyers to talk to each other anonymously through a site comparable to what medical residents use to share war stories- ScutMonkey.com.  This kind of group support network can spawn new ideas, help you look at a problem differently, and blow off steam as well.  However, like everywhere else, you have to be really careful, because the whole world can listen in on your conversations, and Google picks up names, so it becomes searchable as well.

Education

There are very successful sites like Web MD that dispense information to patients, so patient education can be done effectively over the net.  Find Law is a similar site for law information.  Lawyers could consider doing more client communication  and education through web based tools like newletters, PDF forms and the like.  All of this can help clients and patients feel more valued and a part of the on going practice than they might otherwise through phone calls and meetings .

So- Use ’em or No?

I think there’s lots of ways for lawyers and doctors to develop trust and relationships through things like twitter, which may become useful down the line, but it also pays to exercise caution using these tools.

But all of that aside, I think lawyers and doctors could be more open with each other. By talking they can learn and build relationships that could build referrals and business, by enhancing their trust relationships.  So many people are very naive about the law, contracts and the like, and building trust by just answering small questions on twitter or other social groups could generate tons of business- a client wants to know the person they are paying to handle their sensitive legal matters is trustworthy and they feel like they know them- it’s personal stuff to talk to someone about real estate, finances, estate plans, legal trouble, etc.

Similarly, being married to a doctor,  I prefer to feel the same sort of social bond with my doctors that  I like to feel with my lawyer(s) and legal friends- I want a more collegial relationship and a less paternal one.  We just have to separate out cooperation and competition, which is often hard in the legal profession, especially.

Professionals still need all the benefits provided by social networking, but this mode of communication poses risks as well.  If there could be some kind of insulated safe harbor of communication, it might actually allow people to be more open with each other, and there might be more movement in making law and medicine more human and transparent professions.

The days of pure reverence for these professions have passed, and it may be time to consider making the information more available.  After all, if you are confident in your abilities to practice your profession, it is unlikely telling someone how to do a hysterectomy will make their ability to do it themselves any easier.  Likewise, showing someone a contract won’t make it any easier for them to draft it themselves, consider all the possible pitfalls, and extricate themselves from disaster later on.

We still need expert prectioners in every field, because despite the DIY culture, we all simply don’t have the time, bandwidth, education or experience to do it all ourselves all the time.  Let’s just make the determination of quality easier to measure- that seems to be in everyone’s best interest.

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The Book Fair Miracle

For the second year in a row, I have helped organize and worked all last week at the Book Fair at our local elementary school. We use a local vendor, rather than Scholastic, and the Fair always has amazing books I’ve never seen before. This is not a fund raiser for the school- we pass on the discounts to the children and families. I love seeing children come in, having emptied their piggy banks, to buy their books- one girl gave me close to $20 in change yesterday to buy a stack of books, and she seemed so proud and happy. The PTO makes sure every child can buy a book, even if they have not brought their own money, making it inclusive as well.

One of the most interesting things is that we have a shortage/overage list. This means if a child is within a dollar of their budget, and is a few cents short, the PTO will cover the cost. Many times, the Moms volunteering will pay the extra few cents themselves. We also put a spot on the forms that go home that allow the families to donate any change to the Book Fair. Some people do, some people do not. Miraculously, every day, when counting up the receipts, the shortage is always much less than the overage. The money always works out. Even though we have the security of knowing that the PTO would cover any of these small shortages, we always end up in the black by a decent margin.

What I love most about this is what it says about community. We could look at something like the book fair as a mere week long store set up in the little gym. Maybe it has educational value by teaching children a bit about money and budgets, but it is largely a small book store. But the way the moms come together to volunteer; the way the donation/shortage money always works out; the joy on the face of the kids; the books bought for the teacher’s wish lists all make it to the classrooms; all of this is part of what drives home the point that our school is a great community. It is a place of joy and learning, of giving and caring, and even when we have small complaints or concerns, the spirit of togetherness and the joy in making sure each child has at least one book of their own to take home- that really makes me proud to be involved with this event each and every year.

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The Cost/Benefit Ratio of Staying At Home

Julien Smith has a great video posted on his blog, featuring a lecture by Elizabeth Warren ,a law professor at Harvard Law School, discussing the gradual erosion of the American Middle Class over time. The most important points she makes (to me) are the financial costs and safety net costs families face as a two income family.

When there are two wage earners in the home (mom and dad), the first dollar of that second income is taxed at the higher rate in our graduated rate system. That means if Spouse A earns $65,000 a year, the tax of each additional income dollar brought in by Spouse B bears a 25% tax rate; if that amount brings taxable family income over $128,500, each additional dollar above that will be taxed at 28%, and over $195,850, 33% of each dollar. So for every dollar the second wage earner brings in, the tax rate is higher for them than if they were single.

When the second spouse goes to work, you then have to take into account child care expenses. Assuming there are young children in the household, tuition for preschool alone, and quality day care can be expensive. A few years ago, we paid $7,000 a year for preschool; I cannot imagine that it is any cheaper now. If two kids are in school, that’s $14,000 off the top. So the second wage earner is required to earn over $14,000 just to break even, not to mention all the costs attendant with working, such as commuting costs, eating out more often, dry cleaning, cell phones, etc. So from the very beginning, the second worker is required to have more than a minimum wage job just to cover costs.

Next, when a family has two incomes, they depend on both of those incomes to make ends meet. They don;t have any backup. If someone gets laid off, if a child or family member gets sick, with a partner at home, there’s someone to take care of that person. If no one is at home, one spouse has to leave work to care for the sick person; often it’s mom, and if the illness is serious, she stays out of work until basically she loses her job. Then the family is down an income, and ends become increasingly hard to meet. Enter the mortgage crisis, and escalating housing costs, and you see why so many families are in trouble. When families are more spread out than ever before geographically, there’s not even an option for another relative to step in and help. Our family has developed an extended network of neighbors to help sometimes when these circumstances come up, but this feels like a stop-gap and inadequate solution to a long term problem.

Families are becoming more and more like little fragile island ecosystems, and all it takes in one big storm to sink the whole boat.

I think everyone has to look not only at whether Moms should stay at home with kids, not only as a lifestyle choice, but as an economic choice that has a long term impact on the family and it’s ability to scale during times of trouble as well as in times of plenty. It’s not just a political choice- it’s an economic choice that has real long term impact not only on each individual family unit but culturally.

As a mom of two boys, I have decided that having it all is possible, only if you don’t want it all at the same time. You can have a career and kids, but both being maximally successful may not happen concurrently. The division of limited attention and resources is becoming more serious than ever before, and we all have to make the best choices we can, but with zero safety nets and backup, we are playing a risky game.

The question is, how do we change the dynamic?   How do we make sure families can survive the bumps that life throws us without disintegrating,?  How do we create the “village” that helps sustain families through tough times when blood relatives are not nearby? How can women keep a finger in the career track, yet raise children without feeling like an anachronism? Is being at home a cop-out for professional women, or a luxury?

There are so many questions faced by the “new family” vs “old family” models that  go beyond the family itself.  Traditional volunteer jobs, formerly populated by at home moms are now becoming almost the sole province of retirees.  It seems like the volunteer jobs (around my area, at least) are no longer populated with moms whose kids are in schools, but older men and women who are looking for something to do and give back to the community after retirement.  Can we depend on this group to run all of the volunteer efforts at hospitals, churches,  the United Way, schools and other institutions that have historically relied on volunteer labor?  Sure, the baby boom generation may be aging, but sooner or later, this volunteer labor pool will dry up completely, and then how will businesses and civic organizations manage?

Working part time and on project-based work, both paid and volunteer, has let me try to balance both issues, personally, but  this isn’t always available for everyone.

Is it up to the paid and volunteer workplace to create more flex work to allow women (primarily) to be both parents and workers?    Can we make all of this work when time and money are in tighter supply than ever?

What do you think?

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The Guide on The Side- Knowledge Evangelists

At a session at Podcamp NYC on Education and the Web, Chris Hambly spoke about teachers becoming “Guides on the Side” rather than simply talking heads in the front of a room. This neatly summed up something I have been thinking about for some time, which is how we integrate concepts like project-based learning into k-12 classrooms in a meaningful way.

I remember tons of times as a student, both in high school and in college, where the sharing of knowledge did not seem to be the main objective in the classroom. Many times, in fact, there seemed to be a goal of hiding or obfuscating the actual knowledge for reasons I cannot fully grasp. I’ve heard stories from colleagues who do training in the public school system of closets full of brand new textbooks that administrators and teachers won’t let students use, for fear that they’ll damage the book. Yet the books do no student any good at all, sitting unused on a shelf, unopened and unexplored.

How can we get teachers away from the concept of being Gatekeepers to Knowledge but instead to be Knowledge Evangelists?

This is a central question when we look at education reform. Are teachers in the classroom facilitating learning, or trying to create filters and obstacle courses to separate students out across the bell-shaped curve? Do we really want all students to succeed, or is the acquisition of knowledge actually some type of competition where some students will win and others must lose? Why must school be a zero-sum game? Why can’t there be a long-tail for education the same was there is a long tail for commerce- where everyone may not be a superstar, but the majority of people do quite well and succeed as their talent and interests allow?

I really want to know why we look at learning and “getting it” as some magic secret formula, requiring an initiation rite before you can qualify to enter the hallowed halls?

Of course, there are many excellent teachers, and I have had my share of truly gifted teachers, who are excited about the topic they teach and infect students with this same enthusiasm. It’s not uncommon for an undergraduate to enter school, thinking they may want a business degree, for example, but the sociology or anthropology course they took by one of these wild-eyed Knowledge Evangelists totally changed the direction of their lives. That one course, that one unexpected subject and gifted teacher turns on the light in the brain of a student and the world can change in an instant- that is the magic of teaching.

Unfortunately, too many teachers seem beaten down by repetition, administration, and the business aspects of teaching, rather than the joy of being on-stage with a captive audience you can excite and bend to your will. I never liked the teacher who approached their course as if to say “I am smarter than you and let me prove it” or those who came in as if to say “I will separate the wheat from the chaffe here, and whether you will succeed or fail in life will be determined by whether or not you are able to please me.” Yes, this is painting with a broad brush to be sure, but haven’t we all had at least one of these teachers over the years, whether in formal education, or even in a job environment?

I don’t think we can make meaningful change in education without convincing teachers that sharing knowledge and making people excited about it is key.  This is also central to preventing teacher burn-out (happening at record rates here in the US).

Where do we start to make this real, however, than just more hot air?  Being an evangelist for educational change is fine, but if we can’t get people to carry the message and transmit it into meaningful change in the classroom, it’s all just more hot air.  So you have any ideas for concrete steps we can make toward this change?  Or is it really all about the talk, since the fundamental issue here is a cultural change, a non-economic cost attitudinal change?  How can we spread the message and help it take root?

Please share your thoughts here!

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