Blogging About Blogging

What Should I Blog About?

Once you have decided to start a law blog, the obvious next question is what do I blog about? If your purpose is to create a platform to express your ideas to the world, the answer is simple: blog about whatever is on your mind. On the other hand, if you are trying to build your online presence for your firm or solo practice, there are some basic formats that you can follow while you find your voice and gain your sea legs.

Blog About Recent Caselaw

Whether you are writing your own content or using a ghost writer, regularly blogging about new caselaw relevant to your practice areas should be one of the staples of your blogging material. The benefits include:

  • Staying abreast of recent developments and learning new law as it appears in appellate opinions.
  • Demonstrating your knowledge of new developments and nuances in the law related to your firm’s practice areas.
  • Keyword rich blog posts that flow naturally without sounding forced. If one of your goals is to rise in the search engines, blogging about caselaw can get you there with scholarly articles that do not turn off potential readers with blatant marketing.

On my own criminal defense blogs, at first I regularly blogged about caselaw because I did not want to miss anything. In trial, I would often refer to my own blog and pull cases on the fly as issues arose. Years later, I realized that some of the biggest cases we were retained on came from blog posts about caselaw whether directly or indirectly. It is not enough to simply brief a case in the blog post – talk about your opinion, how the ruling affects your practice, and what implications an appellate opinion may have for future cases.

Blog About the Daily Challenges in Your Law Practice

There are issues that arise on a regular basis in your law practice, and you have your own methods of navigating them. You can blog about those issues and your best practices in general terms while being careful to safeguard individual clients’ confidentiality. If you are a criminal defense lawyer, how do you approach the issue of handling preliminary hearings when police, prosecutors, and judges all insist that you waive the hearing? Are there systemic issues with Brady violations in your area and how does your office handle them? As a plaintiff’s attorney, what is your experience with defense counsel and how does your office handle common issues that arise?

The issues that arise most often and that you feel the most strongly about make some of the best topics, and you may be surprised to find that other attorneys and potential clients may be searching for keywords that appear naturally in these blog posts. Only you can say what these topics are based on your own experiences over time. Because the topic is based on your own experience and practices, you are the expert and this type of blog post should easily flow for you.

Other suggestions for topics:

  • Current events that are relevant to your practice area. News about local events, high-profile trials, or pending legislation can all spark ideas and provide blogging material relevant to your practice areas.
  • Topics chosen by other bloggers. You can be inspired by the commentary of other writers, respond to their opinions, and provide a link to their posts to start or join a conversation about important issues.
  • Question and answers. Write about the most common questions that current or prospective clients ask you and your staff, or answer the questions that brought people to your website. Either way, you have a topic that you know prospective clients are interested in and want to learn more about.
  • How-to guides. A short how-to guide about an area of law that you regularly handle can show your knowledge and expertise, provide a source for natural keyword placement in your article, and could become a resource that other legal professionals return to for guidance.
  • Blog about controversial issues. If you only blog about boring, vanilla topics, your blog may help potential clients find you through keyword searches, but you will probably not build a base of regular readers. If you want people to actually read your blog, write about something interesting that people care about and do not shy away from controversy.

Why Should I Have a Blog?

If you are just starting out with a new blog or considering it, there are a few questions you should be asking yourself before you begin. Why am I blogging? What should I blog about? Who is my audience? If you have the answers to these questions, you are ready to begin…

There are two main reasons that people start blogs: 1) I want a platform to share my opinions and commentary; and 2) I want to market and bring in more business. When blogs first appeared online, they were primarily a way for people to share their thoughts and even daily activities online (web-log). The format later developed into a marketing tool much to the dismay of the “real” bloggers. They are not mutually exclusive. If you think of it as a continuum, most attorney blogs fall somewhere inbetween the two extremes.

Blog for Yourself

If you love writing and want to create a platform for yourself to express your opinions to the world, a blog is the perfect medium. I recommend giving it a try on your own if you are motivated and have the time. If you have the time to invest, you can research online and learn how to set up and host a wordpress blog. You don’t have to hire a company to do it for you and you don’t have to hire a ghost-writer to write the content. You can do this without spending a dime apart from your time investment. There are many different ways to go about doing this, but I recommend starting with wordpress.com where you can set up a free hosting account. If it goes well, you find you that you love blogging, and you are able to stick with it consistently, you can move your domain from wordpress to a private server.

I understand that not everyone has the time or motivation to learn about blogging and to write regular updates themselves. Obviously, if you choose to hire someone to ghostwrite your blog and maintain it for your firm, I approve and that is what I do. Nevertheless, if you are someone who loves to write and can spare the time, I recommend that you do it on your own and ignore the blather of the multitude of “marketing experts” who only want to sell you a product.

Blogging as a Marketing Tool

Most law firms use blogs as a marketing tool. The topics on these blogs tend to be more focused on specific practice areas to maximize the relevant keywords and search engine results. The goal shifts from 1) expressing my personal views to 2) driving traffic to the firm’s website. A well-written “real” blog can also drive traffic to your website through links from other blogs and social media; on the other hand, a well-written but purely marketing-oriented blog directly sends traffic to your site through regularly updated, relevant content that will appear in online searches. It is a fact that regularly updated, relevant content will increase your website’s exposure in online searches and the sites with the most well-written content are at the top of the search engines. More is better provided it is well written and professional.

The “call to action” is a sure sign of a marketing-oriented blog and is recommended by most marketing experts. It’s a trade-off between credibility as a blogger and effectiveness as a marketing tool. It may be effective when your target audience is solely prospective clients who find your website through online searches, but it is also a turn-off for other attorneys or anyone who is looking for interesting legitimate content to read.

If you have a lawblog or are considering starting one, contact Quality Legal Writing now to find out how we can help you increase your firm’s online exposure with quality, regularly updated original content.  (See… you didn’t really want to read that, did you?)

Website Professionals and Lawyer Ethics

Many attorneys use non-lawyer “website professionals” to host their websites, blogs, and to draft their content. I’m not here to detract from anyone’s expertise or to tear down any particular company, and it’s not my place to say whether someone is a “website professional.” If you are an attorney and you are marketing legal services, however, you need to consider that you will be judged by the content that your ghostwriter places on your websites. When you outsource your marketing, you outsource your ethics, and non-lawyers often do not understand or care about the ethics rules that govern lawyers.

A South Carolina ethics opinion from April of this year illustrates the most common ways you can go wrong by using a non-lawyer website professional to create the content for your website and social media.

Website Ethics Violations

The attorney in question received a public reprimand that will forever appear next to their name on the bar’s website and appear in online searches. Their non-lawyer website professional copied and pasted content from other attorney’s websites. Besides the obvious problem of owning a website that contains plagiarized content, the website included misleading information such as:

  • The website implied there were multiple lawyers in the law practice when there was only one.
  • The website claimed that the attorneys had “over 12 years of experience,” and “fifteen years of combined experience” when there was only one attorney who had only practiced law for eight years.
  • The website referred to the attorney as an expert when the attorney was not certified in any specialization.
  • The website advertised an area of practice in which the attorney had no experience and did not accept cases.

Social Media Ethics Violations

The attorney also hired a non-lawyer to make posts on Facebook related to the attorney’s practice but did not monitor the content of the posts which included:

  • Facebook posts that revealed client’s names and details of their cases without the clients’ permission.
  • Descriptions of the attorney’s legal services as the “best” which made unsubstantiated comparisons to other attorneys’ services.
  • Advertisements for special discounted rates for legal fees that did not disclose anticipated costs.

How do you avoid marketing-related ethical violations that could result in a public reprimand or worse? Hire a company that employs writers with law degrees and that focuses solely on attorney websites. They might cost more than your local Acme Website Company, but it is a fact that the structure and content of lawyer websites require a level of expertise that many website professionals do not have.

Regardless of who designs or hosts your website or blog, take control of the content. Ideally, you should draft the content yourself. If you do not have the time or motivation to draft the content yourself, ensure that the person drafting your content understands and cares about the ethics rules. Always review and revise your content before allowing it to go live keeping in mind the ethics rules and the quality of the content that your prospective clients will be reading on your websites.

Ghost Blogger for Law Firm Blogs

Not everyone is familiar with the concept of the ghost blogger even though most blogs you see on law firm websites are ghost-written. Most attorneys do not have the time or inclination to write blog posts every day or week. Whether you are a solo practitioner, large firm, or marketing professional working for law firms, it is critical to understand why you need to have a blog and what an effective ghost blogger can do for your practice.

What Does a Ghost Blogger Do?

  • I write blog posts for your firm’s blog, based on ideas, news, cases, legislation, or current events that you suggest and approve for your website.
  • You review, edit, approve, and adopt the ideas as your own. If you do not adopt the ideas as your own or they do not capture the ideas that you wanted to express, you can either edit the blog post or send me a request to edit the post for you with details about what you would change. There is no charge for a reasonable number of edits, and there is no charge if you do not accept the article.
  • You are given all intellectual property rights to the content that you have paid for and published. There is no “canned” content and there will be no duplication of the content that is published on your site. All content is original and is written for you or your firm.
  • You are responsible for the content on your websites and must ensure that it complies with your state’s ethics rules. You must correct any statements that may be false or misleading. In my opinion, you do not have an ethical obligation to provide a disclaimer for a ghost-writer when the work is a collaboration and the final product is adopted as your own, but you must make the final call on this based on your interpretation of your state’s ethics rules and any formal opinions interpreting them.

Wait, Why do I Need a Blog Again?

Most attorneys and other business owners understand that a well-written, relevant, and regularly updated blog is essential if you want your business to be found online. If you are not on board, you are most likely losing business on a regular basis as potential clients find your competitor’s website first. Regularly updated content that is keyword-relevant to the information contained on your website improves your placement in Google and other search engines. Well-written and interesting content will bring people back once they’ve seen it, increase your chances of getting inbound links to each post on your site, and therefore improve your site’s ranking in the search engines.

QLW can find the topics, research, and write your blog posts for you in most practice areas. Every blog post is researched and written in a style that you are comfortable with. Every post is proofread for accuracy, grammar, punctuation, and readability. Every post is subtly optimized for the practice areas in which you need a boost. Every post is written by a former attorney who cares about the ethics rules, who has over ten years’ experience blogging and promoting his own practice, and who will deliver on time every time.

If you don’t have a blog yet, or if your blog posts are being written by a non-lawyer who is under-performing, call or email to see how I can help. For blog posts, you do not pay anything until you approve of the work product so there is no risk or obligation on your part.

Ethics and Ghost-Bloggers Part II

When I decided to start ghost-blogging for attorneys, the first thing I did was to research the ethics of ghost-blogging for attorneys. Anyone who has worked with me or followed my blogs while I was in practice knows that the Rules of Professional Responsibility have always been important to me and that it was often a topic that I wrote about. It is important to me that:

1) My conduct is not unethical, whether per the Rules or my own personal code of conduct; and

2) I am not assisting someone in conduct that is unethical and that would be a violation of the Rules.

What I found online was a controversy dating back to possibly 2008 or 2009 that was played out on several blogs over the years, mostly in 2010 and 2014. A cadre of respected bloggers somehow reached the conclusion that ghost-blogging is per-se unethical, misleading, fraudulent, and dishonest in violation of Rules 7.1 and 8.4. In fact, the only opinions stating that ghost-blogging is unethical are on blogs, by bloggers who write their own material.

In 2014 Kevin O’Keefe at Lex Blog announced that it was “nearing a consensus” that ghost-blogging is unethical.  This conclusion was apparently based on Twitter and Facebook conversations that he had been involved in:

Sorry lazy lawyers and marketing professionals selling ghostwritten blog posts. Lawyers and many other professionals are coming close to a consensus that ghost-blogging is unethical. The most recent discussion took place on Facebook and Twitter this week.

Besides the Twitter and Facebook conversations, O’Keefe cites an Ohio employment lawyer and blogger on the Ohio Legal Ethics Blog, who cites to Rules 7.1 and 8.4 and explains why she believes that ghost-blogging is unethical. This is typical of the blog posts/ conversations that turned up when I googled the issue – a blogger cites the text of Rules 7.1 and 8.4, then cites to another blogger who cites to the text of Rules 7.1 and 8.4, each with their opinion as to why ghost-blogging is unethical. What is missing is any real authority stating that ghost-blogging is unethical in violation of Rules 7.1 and 8.4 apart from the opinions of bloggers who don’t like the idea of ghost-written blogs.

I have not found any disciplinary or advisory ethics opinions in any state that say ghost-blogging for attorneys is unethical. And, given that ghost blogging for lawyers has been an off and on controversy for nearly a decade now, that is significant. I did find two opinions, one official and one unofficial, that come close. The first is a somewhat confusing “unofficial” ethics opinion, written not by a state bar committee but by a Virginia Bar Ethics Counsel for use at a conference lecture in Virginia. This was posted online in 2013 by a blogger on Ride the Lightning, a blog about digital forensics and information technology. The opinion, which is not based on a fact-specific hypothetical such as a bar opinion would have been, at best suggests that ghost-blogging for a lawyer by a non-lawyer would be unethical without a disclaimer, concluding:

Lawyers may understandably be too busy to create their own marketing ideas, statements and claims and certainly have good reasons to engage a marketing professional to assist them with web page and blog content. Provided there is honesty or transparency in the means by which this is done, there is nothing improper about using the work product of another.

The author is James McCauley, a self-proclaimed legal ethics guru who was also a blogger himself at the Ethics Guru Blog.

The only published opinion I have found that comes close is 2008 Formal Ethics Opinion 14 from North Carolina, which states that it is permissible to use briefs written by other attorneys, associates, or pulled from brief banks with or without attribution, but that it is not ethical to use “canned” newsletter content without attribution.

Given the feelings of many legit and respected old-school bloggers about the issue, you would think that lawyers have had grievances filed against them for using ghost-bloggers. Yet I have not found a single reported instance of using a ghost-writer as misconduct. I would also hope that one of the many attorney bloggers who were accusing others of misconduct has at least requested an advisory opinion from their state bar. Yet I have also not found any advisory opinions in any states, which means: 1) No one has ever asked a state bar for an advisory opinion; 2) People have requested advisory opinions and the ethics committees have declined to provide an opinion; or 3) People have requested advisory opinions and received an un-published advisory opinion that allowed the practice.

I have yet to see a rational argument for how a ghost-written blog, whether the ghost-writer is an attorney or non-attorney, violates Rules 7.1 or 8.4 simply because it is ghost-written. If you are aware of any formal published or unpublished ethics opinions or any disciplinary opinions dealing with ghost-written blogs anywhere in the country, please share them.

Is Ghost-Blogging Ethical?

Several legal bloggers that I have known or known of for a long time and whose opinions I respect have, at one time or another, written about their opinion that using a ghost writer for an attorney’s blog is unethical. The list includes Mark Bennett, Brian Tannebaum, and Scott Greenfield, all of whom have expressed their disdain for the ghost-written blog. I respect, appreciate, and disagree with their opinions.

A ghost-written blog post, written by a lawyer or non-lawyer, where the client collaborates, approves, and adopts the content, posted with or without attribution, does not violate the ethics rules in any state simply because it is ghost-written. It could, however, violate the ethics rules depending on the content of the blog post and whether the writing is reviewed and revised before publication. If the person who is writing content for your website or blog does not understand or does not care about the ethics rules, and you are not reviewing and revising the content before it is published, you are asking for trouble.

What are the Applicable Rules of Professional Conduct?

Most bloggers who raised this issue in 2010 and 2014 pointed to Rules 7.1 and 8.4 of the Rules of Professional Conduct. Bloggers cited other bloggers who also cited Rules 7.1 and 8.4 to support their conclusion that ghost-blogging for attorneys is per-se unethical. Attorney-bloggers who do not use ghost-bloggers came down on the side of condemning the practice, while mostly non-attorney ghost-bloggers and marketers came to its defense. What do the rules actually prohibit?

Rule 7.1 (using the ABA’s Model Rules, which are identical or similar to most if not all states), “communications regarding a lawyer’s services,” states that:

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 relevant portion of Rule 8.4, “misconduct,” states that:

It is professional misconduct for a lawyer to:

. . . (c) engage in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation . . .

How do Rules 7.1 and 8.4 Apply to Ghost-Bloggers?

The content that an attorney puts on their website, blog, or any publication must not be a false or misleading communication about the lawyer or the lawyer’s services. It must not contain a material misrepresentation of fact or law. A lawyer must not engage in dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation. Furthermore, Rules 7.1 and 8.4 must be read in conjunction with the other Rules, including Rule 5.3, “responsibilities regarding non-lawyer assistance:”

With respect to a nonlawyer employed or retained by or associated with a lawyer:

. . . b) a lawyer having direct supervisory authority over the nonlawyer shall make reasonable efforts to ensure that the person’s conduct is compatible with the professional obligations of the lawyer; and

(c) a lawyer shall be responsible for conduct of such a person that would be a violation of the Rules of Professional Conduct if engaged in by a lawyer if:

(1) the lawyer orders or, with the knowledge of the specific conduct, ratifies the conduct involved; or

(2) the lawyer is a partner or has comparable managerial authority in the law firm in which the person is employed, or has direct supervisory authority over the person, and knows of the conduct at a time when its consequences can be avoided or mitigated but fails to take reasonable remedial action.

This means that if content published by an attorney violates Rules 7.1, 8.4, or any other ethics rule, it does not matter who wrote the content – the attorney is responsible. For this reason alone, an attorney who uses a ghost-blogger needs to be involved in the process with input into the content of blog posts and needs to review, edit, and approve blog posts before they are published.

Lawyers constantly use content that is written by third parties, with and without attribution. Judges employ their law clerks or the attorneys involved in a case to draft orders and other documents, which the judge then signs without attribution. A judge does read, review, revise, and adopt the language of the order as his or her own when they sign it. Lawyers routinely have other lawyers or non-lawyers draft pleadings for them before signing the pleading without attribution. They also read, review, revise, and adopt the language of the pleadings before signing and filing them. Lawyers use ghost-writers to write books that they then publish without attribution. Lawyers have their office staff draft letters and send emails on their behalf without attribution. Lawyers have companies draft the content for their websites and publish them on their behalf without attribution. I could go on.

If an attorney uses a ghost-writer (law clerk, paralegal) to perform any of the above functions and then files a pleading or publishes a document without reviewing it first, they are obviously subjecting themselves to potential ethical issues. The use of a ghost-writer does not violate any ethics rule although the content that is published might. The same applies to ghost-written blog posts – if anyone says otherwise, ask them to show you an ethics advisory or disciplinary opinion from any state in the U.S. that directly supports their position. Considering that this has been a hotly debated issue (non-issue?) among bloggers for over ten years now, the silence from every state’s bar speaks volumes.

 

Introduction

My name is Bobby Frederick. I am a former attorney and I closed my law practice in September of 2015. As an attorney, I owned my own office with several paralegals, investigators, and associate attorneys. I practiced mostly criminal defense with some police misconduct cases and maintained a busy trial practice for over ten years. I’ve included a more in-depth profile on the QLW site here.

I have no interest in practicing law anymore. I moved to the N.C. mountains with my family and at the moment I am enjoying the space, the peace, and the slow pace of not being a trial lawyer with an office to manage. Since my “retirement,” I have begun ghost-writing for attorneys, including website content, briefs, and blog posts. I have also made myself available for trial prep workshops using psychodramatic techniques, which has been an invaluable resource for some of the attorneys I have worked with.

If you or your firm needs to generate quality content for your website or blog, needs a website or blog, or needs reliable legal research done, send me an email with details and I will help if I can. If you have any questions or concerns about myself or QLW, please let me know.