Professionalism And Social Media- George Orwell 1984, Brian Zulberti 2020
Step One- Firing Back At The Haters
I’m finally responding to an article about me titled, “What is Professionalism Anyway?” published by attorney Alex Rowland disputing attorney and self-professed “ethicist” Jack Marshall’s take on professionalism in, “The Unprofessional Cause of Unprofessional Lawyer Brian Zulberti.” Considering professionalism and social media is a favorite topic of mine, and because it is my professionalism being called into question, I figured I’d join the conversation. I also figured it was time to assure my fans and supporters that I have not, nor am I, going anywhere. My social media campaign sent Marshall’s ethical spider-senses into overdrive, causing him to conclude that I am “unprofessional in manner,” “possess wretched judgment,” and to question “not merely my maturity, values and character, but my intelligence and sanity as well.” Well, damn.
Interestingly, Marshall implores all young lawyers to fight hard to “maintain their individuality” and prides himself on a lifetime of fearlessly marching to the beat of his own drum, “handicapping, or at least diverting” his legal career while hordes of people feverishly solemnly warned him that he was “committing scholastic and career suicide.” What, you may ask, was this daring trailblazer doing to champion individuality and challenge societal assumptions? Wait for it. He dared to take time during law school to produce Gilbert and Sullivan operettas with law student casts. What a rebel!
Marshall condescendingly adds that “we can all agree” his operatic trailblazing is “easier to defend” than someone allowing an underwear picture on Facebook. Marshall, allow me to clarify something. We cannot all agree to that. I have met many people from coast to coast that correctly believe that you producing your operettas and me posing naked have precisely the same relevance to the competent practice of law- none.
Enter my white knight- Alex Rowland. He deftly rode in and called Marshall out for egregiously misrepresenting, and then annihilating, my message and my character. Somehow, Marshall gleaned from my social media campaign that I think “professionalism, judgment and character are not properly relevant to the practice of law.” What the hell? Thankfully, Rowland took Marshall’s intellectually disingenuous argument and shredded it straight to oblivion, adding that I “was absolutely correct” in my message and agreeing that certain employer hiring practices involving the inspection of employee social media accounts should be “outlawed as hiring practices.”
However, my white knight took time off from touting me as a hero to call me- and this is in his own words- an uncool, shockingly inarticulate, tasteless, tactless, “incredibly awkward” idiot. Rowland seems to see me as a hero taking the forefront on a cutting-edge, relevant national issue while simultaneously making it clear that others can neither understand nor identify with me or the social media campaign I executed with prolific incompetence. When I heard about Rowland’s article, I immediately put down my mojito and rushed to the closest computer to call him an asshole on Twitter.
Correcting Misconceptions About “My Story”
Before I continue, some clarifications are necessary because Rowland’s explanation of my story was extremely confusing. When I announced my social media campaign, none of my actions could be described as a “gambit to find employment as a lawyer.” Obviously, when I was looking for work by mass emailing attorneys, I was looking for legal employment. But on July 24, 2020, Above the Law editor Staci Zaretsky published an article that changed my life forever.
Staci questioned my fitness to practice law because of content on my Facebook page- most notably a jokingly-taken underwear photograph with a caption indicating that I was looking for a job not as an escort, but as an attorney. Within a few weeks of the article’s publication, my story had been covered by over fifty major national media sources including Fox News’s Good Morning Philadelphia, USA Today, and the American Bar Association’s own online journal. My story had also been covered in over twenty foreign countries including, but not limited to, Australia, Brazil, Romania, Ghana, China, England, and North Korea. Alright, maybe I’m imagining the North Korean coverage. That may have been Dennis Rodman.
Granted, 90% of both my media coverage and the vocal opinions of hordes of worldwide, anonymous commenters were absolutely scathingly negative. But I appreciated the few journalists who saw the situation clearly. Believe me, because I speak from experience, no matter if you sit on the cutting edge of positive social change, where I sit today, or how confident you are, and I’ve always had more than my share of confidence, ruthless criticism by thousands of people can be extremely difficult to cope with.
Along with gratitude, I also respect the intellectual ability of these few journalists who saw this couldn’t be farther from a story about a naked young attorney embarrassing himself. This, rather, is the latest example of society silently tolerating a loss of individualism. The right to come home after work, throw your briefcase in the corner, and enjoy some basic judgment-free time “off the clock,” has been slowly but systematically annihilated. The American professional has to behave twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, and 365 days a year as if she were in a job interview. Yet somehow some people still see this as a fluff story, a joke, or a punch line instead of one of the most serious social issues of our time.
Although Rowland claims I can’t champion this cause “eloquently, succinctly, or without nudity,” I’m going to give it another stab. In his classic book 1984, George Orwell wrote about a futuristic society of government surveillance where individualism and independent thinking were persecuted. Citizens lived under constant surveillance, often subjected to telescreens monitoring their private lives. If the government disliked what they said, or did, on their private time, they were “vaporized.” Terrified of hidden eyes deeming their private lives inappropriate or undesirable, citizens such as protagonist Winston Smith were forced into leading boring, austere existences. Winston confined himself to a one-room apartment on a subsistence diet of black bread and synthetic meals.
Orwell feared that dissolution of the lines between public and private lives would cause citizens to fear their lives would be destroyed by any careless word, but I doubt he ever considered we’d do to ourselves what he feared from the government. We don’t have Orwellian telescreens among us, but we have cameras, picture phones, and recording devices. We love forum posting and instant messaging, Tweeting and audio recording, Instagramming and sharing anything that interests us, or embarrasses someone else, with the world. There are no thinkpol monitoring these communications from the Minilov, but there are pretentious employers watching from corporate penthouses everywhere from Los Angeles to New York City. I realize we aren’t being declared “unpersons,” vaporized, or having our existences historically purged, but every day we suffer real, devastating consequences. If you don’t believe me, ask the thousands of Americans who have had their livelihoods and dreams snuffed out because an unfortunate picture snuck onto someone’s social media account.
I used to be baffled at the reactions I got from different demographics. For instance, I should draw my greatest support from doctors, lawyers, educators, and other professionals because these are the demographics held to the highest arbitrary standard of behavior in their social lives. They spend the most time, in true Orwellian style, worried about strict adherence to the set of vague, un-defined expectations society has placed on them, expectations justified under a backward notion of professionalism. But it seems the more arbitrary expectations on a class of individuals, the more they rally against my message and embrace the same definition of professionalism that leaves them confined to their own boring, austere existences.
However, I soon realized the major difference between Orwell’s Winston Smith and the millions of professional “Winston Smiths” I see walking downtown every day wearing the same conservative suits, donning the same haircuts, and carrying that same black leather briefcase that every lawyer must find under his pillow the day he accepts a legal job. The difference, simply, is that while Orwell’s Winston Smith lived his boring, austere existence on a subsistence diet in a one room apartment, our professional Winston Smiths usually engage in their boring, austere existences in comfort and with a high degree of financial and job security- provided, of course, they always strictly adhere to professional expectations. After all, it becomes easier to sell your soul to the devil when the devil increases his monetary offer.
It was after I filmed the above impromptu clip that I realized the above truth. About a half an hour later, I was engaged in conversation by the perturbed attorneys at that table. Understanding that they had no reasonable legal expectation of privacy in that public venue, they asked me as a personal favor to refrain from posting the video.I asked them why they were getting upset that I was going to post a video of them simply having a grand old time, in a completely lawful manner (so long as they had designated drivers), they informed me that, while I was absolutely correct in my social media campaign, it wasn’t a battle that they could afford to fight because they wanted to keep their jobs and reputations.
How said that these well respected attorneys, whose voices joined to mine would bring us one step closer to social progress, would rather hide from the Big Brothers/senior partners at their law firms than take the risks necessary to make their jobs worth protecting in the first place.
When touring through blue-collar areas, my campaign was often taken as a statement of the obvious. On countless occasions I’ve heard a variation of the following common-sense argument, “I would never want to work for any company that doesn’t accept me for exactly who I am when off the clock. As long as I bust my ass all week long, the weekend is my time.” However, when speaking to professionals or lecturing to students in law school seminars, my message is often dismissed instantly by the shameful sentiment that, as professionals, we need to accept the world we live in. We didn’t create the expectations, but we need to adhere to them if we want our paychecks and standard of life. The duty simply falls on us to hide behavior that could professionally damage us. After all, if I wanted to party or publicly pose nude, I was always free to get a job as a bartender, right? Rowland’s response to this sentiment was right on point when he said“It’s thus an entirely arbitrary social norm to say that the duty falls on the individual to hide behavior that would only ruffle feathers in a Jane Austen novel, rather than to say that it’s the employer’s duty to abstain from digging it up.”
Many say I’m foolish for picking a fight that I cannot win. I’ve been told, as if I wasn’t aware, that by challenging social norms I was shooting myself in the foot and potentially rendering myself unemployable. The situation is ironic because the sort of arbitrary professionalism Marshall espouses has taken hold to the extent that while many, many professionals out there agree, they cannot publicly support me because merely likening one’s name to my cause has itself become unprofessional and risky. I am left with closet-sympathizers, still living their boring, austere lives, but doing so in designer suits and with overflowing college funds for their children. These children will graduate into a world with the potential to be more interconnected than ours, rife with opportunities to hasten social progress through exchanging diverse beliefs, but those that want the same comforts their parents enjoyed will be stripped of their individualism and stuffed into even tighter, less-forgiving professional molds.
Rowland says that he would “rather not wait for someone to come along and state it better.” Well, he won’t have to. As a public figure, I’m aiming higher than a position in a law firm. Last year, my campaign grew over the course of the summer, crested during fall, and wound down just before the holidays. I was featured across the globe, solicited considerable donations from supporters, and launched a website that had nearly a hundred thousand hits in just two months- a remarkable feat. Unfortunately, a legal dispute with a former staff member resulted in the loss of my domain name and considerable content. Despite undeniable successes, Rowland was absolutely correct when pointing out that breaking new ground, breaking the mold, and being a visionary all require the dexterity to “accept, dodge, and challenge social norms with surgical precision.” Because I lacked that precision, I lost a golden opportunity to grab onto a veritable tidal wave of publicity and did both myself and the cause a terrible disservice.
There were many reasons I bungled the 2020 social media campaign. I never anticipated or prepared for the instantaneous rise from (arguably) normal Delaware lawyer to controversial internet sensation. Once business picked up, I was literally bouncing from interview to interview, feature to feature, speaking obligation to speaking obligation, and state to state while simultaneously trying to orchestrate the construction of a top-tier website and manage a staff of employees that grew way too large for proper management. Giving interviews while trying to get to the food service car on Amtrak leads to disorganized articulation of thought. Pounding out a philosophical manifesto while sitting at the airport between red-eye flights leads to typographical errors, grammatical mistakes, and boatloads of scathing criticism by the always-on-duty spelling and grammar police.
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Even more embarrassingly, I wasted too much time last year having fun to properly execute this historical endeavor. I was having the time of my life with the whole thing, hardly the “surgical precision” Rowland spoke of. I actually prematurely ended an interview with a reporter, who had driven down from New York City, representing a little show called “This Morning,” on a little network called “CBS,” with a few (million) viewers, because I promised my friends I’d meet them out for pitcher night. Needless to say, the interview did not dominate the morning news and was relegated to affiliate stations in the Midwest. While this exposure was responsible for about 86% of my current moose and coyote support, the human demographic would have better fit my marketing plan.
I had a blast, but this year work comes first.
While learning from the past is essential, dwelling on it is a fool’s exercise. I’ve spent all winter planning my 2020 comeback, launching a new, self-designed website that, while meager today, will grow in design and content, and fully committing to making this movement my life’s work. I may have taken a couple steps back, but only to allow me to leap forward into 2020. I assure all my fans and supporters, my critics, and Rowland himself that this year, every action I take, interview I give, or article I write, will be done with “surgical precision.” This issue is too important for less.
We all know that social media can get you fired, but in many cases it shouldn’t be able to. 2020 will be another year where I challenge (a) the practice of employers searching social media, (b) those who use the concept of professionalism to impose a 24 hour a day, 7 day a week job interview, and the preposterous belief that employees are the when they aren’t working.
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