Are ghostwritten attorney blogs unethical?

Some definitely think so. But the discussion has been limited to the confines of the current ethics rules that could not have anticipated the current state of online marketing. Are ghostwritten blogs unethical? It shouldn’t matter, because that’s the wrong conversation to be having in 2014.

Ghostwriting opponents generally cite rule 7.1, because they feel the practice constitutes a misrepresentation of fact in attorney advertising. The argument is that the attorney is misleading visitors by providing that she wrote the blog post. Such a misrepresentation could, hypothetically, mislead potential clients into believing the attorney has particular knowledge, skill, humor, or whatever else might be conveyed by a blog post.

Counter arguments include the fact that the attorney is still signing off on the content, that attorneys don’t write their own briefs, that attorneys are too busy, and that it’s already common practice for attorneys to outsource website copy. But again, this is the wrong conversation to be having.

The arguments and counterarguments shouldn’t matter, because everyone involved is trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.

It’s no secret. Attorneys generally hire ghostwriters for a single purpose; they want more content to drive more business to their firm. If they want to blog for fun (and not for business), they will. And many attorneys do this successfully and have created many interesting blogs to follow.

But as long as online marketing success is measured by organic ranking, impressions, traffic, and conversions, attorneys will continue to play into what the search engines want. That happens to be a lot of quality, shareable content.

Now I know some will respond that attorneys can find time to blog, and this is true for a great number of attorneys who have built successful practices around content they wrote themselves. Unfortunately, every attorney isn’t in that position. What sacrifices have to be made? At what point will an attorney’s practice and/or quality of life suffer due to the increasing demands of online marketing?

This is not the first time that I’ve said the ABA and many state bars appear a little out-of-touch with the whole SEO, social media, and online marketing thing. I understand the rationale behind model rule 7.1, but it just doesn’t work like that anymore.

Before the internet, you had the phonebook. And if you were lucky, you had outdoor advertising or maybe even a TV ad. But mostly, you had the phonebook (and referrals). The phonebook is easy. Sure, you can pay a little more for a bigger ad or even take out a full-page ad, but the phonebook was still the phonebook. The playing field was controlled and stayed the same until the next phonebook.

Search engine marketing is active. It’s ongoing. If you don’t play, you lose. You don’t get to renew your ranking every year or pay for that single TV ad that runs for a decade. Law firms have to produce content; they have to engage their target audience. Attorneys must keep giving visitors a reason to visit their websites. And when you’re chasing a moving target where everyone is vying for #1, time off could be time lost to a competitor.

Discussions about ghostwriting and rule 7.1, while perfectly understandable, ignore the fact that these rules don’t take into account the reality of online attorney advertising. Yes, ghostwritten blogs posts are not written by the attorney. But forget the arguments and counterarguments, the rules have to adapt. The practice isn’t going anywhere, so it’s time to discuss how states can give realistic direction on ghostwriting.

The internet is a different arena with different rules, regardless of what ethics rules may or may not say. And ghostwriting is only one of many issues. The legal industry has to adapt.