I’m not totally sure about this, but I think Sharon Nelson may well be the first lawyer-blogger to serve as President of the Virginia State Bar.
The fact that Sharon is, herself, an avid lawyer-blogger led to an interesting development late last week when she sought an informal ethics opinion from VSB ethics counsel James McCauley on the topic of lawyer blogs, and specifically on the topic of lawyers who hire ghost writers for their blogs.
While this is the first I have heard of it, I am not surprised by the fact that there are marketing professionals writing posts for lawyer blogs. These days lawyers are inundated with a large number of services offered by “marketing professionals” who will handle basically any aspect of a law firm’s marketing for a fee. A couple of factors make blogging and internet marketing in general a hot area for these legal marketing professionals, not the least of which is that many people currently practicing law are not all that familiar with the technological aspects of internet-marketing and blogging specifically. When you consider that those same lawyers are also very busy and the incontrovertible fact that crafting quality content for a blog is time consuming, you have a real market for “ghosting” a legal blog.
It bears repeating that this was only an informal opinion offered by Mr. McCauley — as the Virginia Lawyers Weekly blog emphasized, McCauley’s informal note is simply his personal opinion to Ms. Nelson and does not represent the view of the VSB or its Standing Committee on Legal Ethics. Still, it is well-reasoned and it bears mentioning that Mr. McCauley reaches the same conclusion as others to consider the question in a more formal context.
The informal consensus is that it is ethically problematic for a lawyer to hire a ghost-blogger or purchase canned blog posts from a ghost writer. While other professionals — such as doctors, dentists, architects, and so forth — may be able to hire a ghost to write their blogs, lawyers trying this end-run face problems that other professionals do not. Namely, Rules of Professional Conduct 7.1 (which prohibits false or misleading statements about a lawyer’s services, among other things) and 8.4(c) (which prohibits conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation which reflects adversely on the lawyer’s fitness to practice law).
For what its worth, as a lawyer-blogger I wholeheartedly agree with the informal opinion offered to Ms. Nelson by Mr. McCauley. Some of the more persuasive parts of Mr. McCauley’s email are as follows:
“Essentially, holding out another’s work product as one’s own is deceptive.”
“Lawyers often use blogs to discuss recent developments in the law and breaking news in their area of practice. Some lawyers use blogs to provide legal information to clients, former clients, potential clients and members of the general public that might be interested in the lawyer’s area of practice. Lawyers that outsource this work to a non-lawyer and do not review their work before it is posted also do a grave disservice to the members of the public that may visit the lawyer’s blog.”
“Passing off someone else’s writing or ideas as one’s own, in a marketing vehicle designed to induce potential clients to hire the lawyer is not only unethical, but a bad way to initiate a professional relationship that is supposed to be built on trust.”
So I agree that it is unethical for a lawyer to hire a ghost to write his or her blog posts — but I also think it doesn’t make sense from a business point of view, and here is why.
Aside from the ethics angle, a lawyer who hires an outside ghost to draft his or her blog posts is headed in the wrong direction from the start. As I said recently when I gave a lunchtime talk at the “Hanging a Shingle” seminar, this is an intellectual profession, and that means that you — and your specialized knowledge, and your mental impressions, your ideas, and your approach to the practice of law — are the product. Under no set of circumstances should you think of your blog as a product itself — the blog is nothing more than a means of communicating about your product, which is you and your ideas.
And, if a wannabe lawyer-blogger is only in it for the clients, he or she is missing some of the biggest benefits of blogging. Among those would be the opportunity to stay on top of your practice area. Generating regular quality content requires you to think about things you might not have otherwise thought about, and requires you to read up on areas of your niche that you otherwise might not have read up on. As an offshoot of this, blogging — when done properly — presents the opportunity to reach out and share information about your practice with other lawyers. I have met lawyers that I would not otherwise have met and made friends that I would not otherwise have made through this blog.
And if your hope is to make contacts with other lawyer-bloggers, you had best put time and effort into your posts; this loops back in to the “staying on top of your game” benefit of blogging mentioned above. A real lawyer-blogger can smell a canned post from a mile away, and we will not be impressed.
I am quite certain that an outsourced lawyer blog is a blog that will fail quickly. Someone who is outsourcing their blogging efforts is someone who is not really interested in sharing their ideas, and they might not even have any ideas worth sharing. Someone who is outsourcing their blog is someone looking for immediate return on their money, and they are destined to be disappointed when their blog doesn’t deliver clients. When their blog fails, it won’t be any skin off of their nose, they will just move on to the latest marketing strategy offered to them by the legal marketing gurus who charge a small fortune; meanwhile, my fellow lawyer-bloggers and I will keep at it.