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Are ghostwritten lawyer blogs unethical?

January 10, 2012

The ghostwriting of blogs is apparently becoming the rage for attorneys and law firms.

A law firm who our client development team spoke with yesterday afternoon knowing that LexBlog doesn’t author lawyer’s blogs asked if we had a recommendation for someone who could do so.

A lawyer with the firm said a marketing person told them the firm needed a Facebook page, a Google+ page, a Twitter account, and a blog. The marketing person said they could hire a ‘bunch of college students’ who would write the blog posts and post to the other social media media on a regular basis – in some cases, multiple times a day.

Put aside the ghostwriting of law blogs being shortsighted (you don’t farm out networking, relationship building, and the demonstration of your expertise), there’s a question whether it is ethical for an attorney to have someone else blog for the lawyer or their law firm.

Lawyer advertising is governed by each state, whether by the state’s supreme court or bar association. Rule 7.1 of the ABA’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct is typical of state’s restrictions on lawyer advertising.

A lawyer shall not make a false or misleading communication about the lawyer’s or the lawyer’s services. A communication is false or misleading if it contains a material misrepresentation of fact or law, or omits a fact necessary to make the statement considered as a whole not materially misleading.

Is an attorney’s failure to disclose that their blog posts are written by someone other than the attorney or law firm misleading? Is doing so omitting a fact (that you did not author the blog posts) so as to make what you are doing as a whole materially misleading?

I think a real case can be made that it is misleading and unethical.

When the question of whether ghost written blogs are unethical was raised by the ABA Journal a couple years ago, Attorney Josh King, VP, Business Development & General Counsel for Avvo, Inc. said “Ghost blogs are unethical if there’s no disclosure.”

Some lawyers argued that much of the work product law firms do is written by one lawyer, while attribution is given to a more senior lawyer. To which King responded:

Unlike a ghostwritten blog, a lawyer or law firm’s work product isn’t advertising.

Attorney advertising is subject to Rules of Professional Conduct, the most critical of which is that marketing communications can’t be deceptive.

Passing off someone else’s writing and ideas as one’s own, in a marketing vehicle designed to showcase an attorney’s engagement with and competence in a given area, is deceptive.

King was not along in his belief that ghost written blogs are unethical.

  • From well respected Houston Criminal Defense Attorney and blogger, Mark Bennett:
  • Claiming someone else’s words as your own (which is, by definition, what using a ghost is) in order to increase your own credibility (which is how the ghostblogger in question markets it) is deceptive.

    Some deception is countenanced in most areas of commerce (advertising often involves deception), but lawyers have ethical duties that nobody else has.

    Using a ghostblogger may not be illegal (that is, violative of rules carrying official sanctions) but it’s unethical.

  • From well respected Miami Criminal and Bar Grievance/Admission Attorney, Brian Tannebaum:

    Ghostblogging is nothing more than lying. I wrote about it on my blog. Lawyers today want a blog because it helps their Google placement. Lawyers like me and others who started blogging 5 years ago, blog to express our thoughts, not to get clients. As to courtroom lawyers not having time to blog – that’s an excuse that allows lawyers to have ghostbloggers and feel ethical about it. Lawyers who believe that ethics are satisfied by paying a ghostblogger to write for them, while the public thinks it’s the writing of the lawyer, should be disbarred and go sell used cars. I’m a trial lawyer, I find time to blog by waking up 15 minutes earlier. Not every blogger sits in Starbucks with free wifi all day.

No question the public can feel mislead by a ghostwritten blog. This from a consumer of legal services who responded to the ABA Journal’s question:

I’m not an attorney but I read blogs and I can assure you, if I read something, signed by someone, it better be from the mind of that person or you are seriously misleading me and perverting my journey. Undisclosed ghostwriting is nothing but consensual plagiarism and I have a right not to expose my self to that in personal favor of following someone who takes the time to actually think about what they write. ;)

Plagiarism, as defined in the 1995 Random House Compact Unabridged Dictionary, is the “use or close imitation of the language and thoughts of another author and the representation of them as one’s own original work. ..

Thomson Reuter’s FindLaw apparently knows ghostwritten lawyer blogs are unethical. As I shared yesterday FindLaw is selling ghostwritten blogs, paraphrasing news reports and legal updates, to law firms.

Rather than listing a lawyer or law firm’s name as the author of a blog post, FindLaw says the post is ‘On behalf of’ the name of the lawyer or firm.

Some law firms will list the author of their blog posts as the law firm. I don’t see anything misleading there, no matter who at the firm writes the blog posts. The blog posts may not be as effective for business development as blogs citing the individual attorney author, but it doesn’t look like an ethics issue.

In the long run, attorneys and law firms are going to benefit little, if any, from ghostwritten blogs. The vast majority of ghostwritten blogs paraphrase news and legal developments reported elsewhere.

Many of these ghostwritten blogs are going to damage the reputation of the attorney and firm. The exact audience you’re looking to reach – reporters, clients, prospective clients, and other bloggers who cite and share your offerings – will be turned off by such blogs that offer no value.

Bottom line, you’re skating on thin ice from an ethical standpoint when it comes to ghostwritten law blogs. I’ve seen attorneys run before their state supreme court or bar association on ethics complaints with less basis.

And in addition to other types of ethics complaints, this would be one that would draw a ton of publicity on and offline. Nothing gets more sensationalized when it comes to legal news today than lawyers and social media.

You may also discuss on the discussion forum at the LinkedIn Legal Blogging Group and on Google+.

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