Accounting firms and jurors have something in common. Judges are now instructing jurors not to go on the Internet to research any aspect of the case. This direction is made necessary because many deliberating jurors, when they go home at night, are improperly looking up on the Internet definitions of legal terms, reading the text of the applicable law, researching cases, and searching for information about parties to the case. This urge to go on the Internet is quite natural and expected, but can result in a mistrial. With so much information easily accessible, it is an almost automatic reaction to go to the Internet when a question pops up in one’s head.

It’s no different with regard to accounting firms. Job applicants, as well as possible clients, go to a firm’s Web site, and also conduct searches to find out as much they can about a firm. Similarly, firms seek out information about job applicants, especially from social networking and alumni sites. And to find more on possible clients, firms gravitate to sites that specialize in compiling financial information on companies.

Firms are also keeping tabs on Internet mentions of their most significant clients and their chief competitors. E-mail alerts are being constructed so they get immediate notification of items of possible interest. These alerts also to tell firms when there is a development in a practice area that has particular relevance to them.

This just scratches the surface, but as is the case with some jurors, the Internet is becoming second nature to many accounting firms. And like the jurors, there might be some dangers, though they’re not quite as obvious. For example, an accounting firm might find out via the Internet some personal information about an applicant, such as sexual preference, note it, and not hire the applicant.  Assuming state law prohibits sexual preference from being considered when making a staffing decision, the firm’s actions might have opened itself up to a lawsuit.

Invitation to those in the community: Please e-mail me at any other ways that you or your firm uses the Internet. I will print a number of the responses, with attribution, at the end of my column, next week.

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