Thursday, February 21, 2019
Lawyers engaging in law blog writing is so widespread that the ABA annually recognizes the best blogs. (The Appellate Advocacy Blog was delighted to join the list this year!) The writing done on these kinds of topical law blogs does not pose any ethical issue for authors - because these blogs are not advertisements. They do serve several purposes however: to feed the desire of the writer to write and explore ideas, to join the broader conversation in the legal community, and to inform readers who may be specialty practitioners or the general public. These lawyers, as writers, are not ghostwriters: they write their own content. Considering these purposes, there would be no point to that!
But there is lots of other writing about law going on that is ghostwritten and it is causing some to raise ethical concerns. Law firm and lawyer websites that exist to advertise legal services frequently buy legal content or employ ghostwriters to produce the information on their websites. This may consist of short informative articles about certain aspects of the law in which the firm or attorney practices. Sometimes lawyers sign their names to these types of articles giving the impression that they are also the writer. Some say this is adverting and as such it is misleading. Others say this is no different from a partner signing his name to a brief written by his associate. The ABA has not yet officially weighed in on the controversy.
Barbara S. Gillers, chair of the ABA Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility, in an email to the [ABA] Journal. “In my view, ghostwriting a blog post for a law firm is not by itself a problem so long as the lawyers for whom it’s been written approve it, adopt it as their own, and the content comports with the lawyer advertising rules. The fact that the post appears under the name of a person other than the original is not in and of itself improper.”
Under Rule 7.1 of the Model Rules of Professional Conduct, a lawyer must not mislead the public about his services.
Information About Legal Services
A lawyer shall not make a false or misleading communication about the lawyer 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.
The argument against ghostwriting for website content is that through the interaction with the content the potential client is developing a trust toward the lawyer. By allowing the client to assume the lawyer is the author of the content the client is mislead in some way. Does this violate Rule 7.1? Is this an omitted fact that is necessary for the client to judge whether the lawyer has mislead her on the services offered? I am not sure that it is.
A lawyer is not an island. In other words, in order to provide competent legal services, a lawyer almost always needs help - whether it be from the paralegal, the associate, the colleague, or someone writing content for the website. All of these individuals may contribute to a final writing product that a lawyer will present to the public, the court, or to other attorneys. In the case of submissions to the court or another attorney, no "byline" credit is necessarily given to those who have contributed. Website content is simply an extension of the lawyer's practice and it seems inconsistent to require a lawyer to acknowledge a ghostwriter in that context where he would not do the same in legal practice. So long as the lawyer has personally approved the content to be published under his name, it seems like a stretch to say this runs afoul of ethical rules on advertising.
Perhaps our readers have some other thoughts on this emerging ethical issue?