Insight:

Ghostwriting of Law Firm Blogs – Unethical? Maybe. Bad Marketing? Definitely.

Ghostwriting Law Firm blogs is bad business.

Recently, I’ve heard from more and more clients that they’ve been contacted by a website and digital services provider offering to not only build them a new website but to provide content for the blogs on their site. Now, I could write a whole article on their websites, pricing model, quality of usability and practice of “re-renting” websites (including the content), but that will need to wait for another day. What’s really on my mind is the trend towards the “ghostwriting” of lawyer blog posts that we’re starting to see here in Canada.

In this instance, “ghostwriting” is whereby a person who is not a lawyer at the firm (and often a non-lawyer) writes a blog post (or article) that is positioned to clients and prospects as written by a lawyer of the firm. I’m not talking about a situation where an associate drafts a first version of a piece that is them re-worked by a partner. That’s a great way to teach associates about both writing for business development purposes in addition to honing their research skills. I don’t even refer to the process of having a marketing team member review the post to ensure that there isn’t too much “legalese” and that the subject line will grab the attention of the target audience.

I’m referring to a situation where an outside provider is paid to write content which is positioned by the firm as being written by their lawyer or law firm. If you feel that blog posts are a representation of the lawyer and their knowledge, is such ghostwriting “misleading’ under the CBA Rules of Professional Conduct? Does it undermine a lawyers fundamental duty “to act with integrity” when marketing their services?

Such providers are often aware of the ethics concerns, (they’ve been raised time and again in the US, where they’ve been providing these services for a number of years), and some have now moved to positioning the blogs as posted “On behalf of (client lawyers)”. Does this go far enough to circumnavigate the ethical issue? I don’t know, but it makes me, as a career legal marketer, feel squeamish.

Putting the ethical issues aside though, I would argue that this approach to law firm blogs equates to bad marketing and business development. All you have to do is look at the ten reasons for a law firm or lawyer to start a blog to understand why.

Having someone else write your blogs could still assist with lead generation and SEO (often the top selling points of such ghostwriting providers). However, many of the other reasons for blogging get lost in this model especially conveying your brand spirit, profile raising, knowledge sharing, and thought leadership. How can any of these possibly be successful if the lawyer (or at least the law firm) is not researching and producing the content themselves?

To demonstrate the point, here’s an example of a blog post that was posted “On behalf of …” a lawyer in Ontario (Since other ghostwriters aren’t so obvious about their practice.)

Breaking it down, this is where I see there are immediate problems with the post:

  • It says “On behalf of …” – do prospects and clients believe that the lawyer wrote the piece himself but had someone (the website administrator?) post it to the site on his “behalf”? If so, is this misleading?
  • Read the post. What does a case in the UK have to do with Ontario law? Who knows, as the post doesn’t explain the specific relevance of the case or the similarities or differences between UK and Ontario law. It simply states “The wife of a U.K. hedge fund manager will not be allowed to introduce evidence regarding the value of her husband’s stake in the company, according to a recent court ruling. While this case isn’t being litigated in Canada, high-asset divorce scenarios like this one can happen anywhere, regardless of where a couple resides.” If I were a client, this would make me wonder why my lawyer couldn’t cite a case in Ontario (or at least Canada!), and then I’d find another lawyer.
  • I found a number of other law firms with close variations of the exact same post (citing the same case) that had been posted on their “behalf”. Of the firms, four were in Ontario (two in the same market) and one was in Alberta.

You may argue that it’s not too bad, considering how often law firms write about the same cases, but this is not the same. These posts are written about the same case by the same vendor, and in case you think I’ve just stumbled across one example, rest assured there are literally hundreds out there.

I came across another post from a Canadian law firm website that opens as follows. “NBA fans in Alberta might be interested to know that Paul George, a star player with the Indiana Pacers, is seeking a paternity test for a child he may share with a New York woman.” The case, filed in NY, in which an Indiana based NBA player is looking for the trial to be moved to Florida, may be interesting, is it truly relevant to Canadians? Could the lawyer (or his ghostwriter) not find an equally interesting case north of the border?

A variation on this post was posted “On behalf of” by the same vendor a whopping 39 times in the US and Canada according to Google. Examples of opening sentences include;

  • Fathers in Illinois could be interested in this story about a New York woman who claims that Paul George, who is an Indiana Pacers All-Star, is the father of her baby daughter born on May 1.
  • Texas basketball fans may have heard that Indiana Pacers All-Star Paul George is involved in a paternity suit with a New York woman.
  • Sports fans in Georgia may be interested to learn about a child custody dispute involving Indiana Pacers’ Paul George.

So much for demonstrating your firm brand and thought leadership!

My advice as a legal business developer is simply this; if you want to blog, then make sure it works for you and your marketing strategy. Instead of purchasing content that could actually hurt your practice, there are other tactics that can achieve your goals. A few ideas include the following:

  1. Team up with your colleagues and produce a firm or practice specific blog. If there are six of you in the group, you can each commit to four blogs a year – your blog would have a new post twice a month.
  2. Repurpose content that you’ve already created, such as client presentations, CLE sessions, internal knowledge sharing, client comment pieces, and even research for a file.
  3. Remember that you’re not producing a piece for the law review: a blog post can be as little as 300 impactful words if they convey your message and serve their purpose.
  4. It’s ok to blog about a topical case – just make sure it’s relevant to your audience and your market.

And if you still don’t feel that a blog can be a comfortable part of your marketing and business development strategy, then don’t blog. You just need to figure out what works for you.

This article was first published September 10th, 2014 on slaw.com.

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