May Law Blogs Be Ghostwritten?

Controversy has developed in the US about whether it is appropriate for law blogs to be ghostwritten. The ABA Journal has an article on the topic, and many comments that are about evenly divided pro and con.

Some would distinguish between a law firm blog, which sounds more like other publicity material that the firm may generate, and individual blogs that appear to – and thus arguably should – be the product of the individual personally.

Would it matter in either case if the ghostwriting were disclosed? Would disclosure matter if the firm or lawyer in whose name the blog is published did a final review of the content before posting?

Are any Canadian law blogs ghostwritten? Would it be OK if they were? I presume that a ghostwritten blog would not be eligible for a Clawbie!

Retweet information »

Comments

  1. I’ve discussed this informally with a few members of the blogging bar when the issue first arose.

    My take is that it all depends on the type of content. If it’s just general law-related news stories, or links to emerging judgments, I don’t really see a problem with it. In fact I’d go further and argue that for SEO purposes firm websites should be actively soliciting this type of content, even if developed in-house. I have no problem with communications or marketing staff developing general content for a firm website.

    Some colleagues have suggested that if the content is used to project a type of expertise or insight of an individual into an area of law, it’s probably not the same. Ghost-blogging case commentary just doesn’t go over as well.

    I think there might be something to the distinction worth exploring.

  2. Omar, I agree only in part. I don’t think of news stories and links and so forth as “blogging” — they’re examples of commodity content that don’t reflect the blogger specifically. If a blogger simply provides a link to a story, she’s doing so in her “curating” capacity, which is an editorial function — recommending what the reader should go read. That tells you something about the blogger, in terms of what she thinks is relevant to her readership, but it’s not “blogging,” which to my mind is text published with the implicit promise that this is the blogger’s own voice.

    If I were advising someone in this situation, I’d say that links and news stories and such should be provided in a sidebar separate from the main text of the blog, and there should be an advisory that the links are provided by both the blogger and her team. But anything published in the main text of the blog, under the blogger’s name, can’t be ghostwritten — it amounts to a fraud on the reader, who believe he’s reading what this specific person thinks. A blog is powerful precisely because it’s personal, direct and heartfelt, and tells you something about the writer. Having someone pretend to be the blogger defeats the whole purpose behind the exercise; it amounts to a betrayal of trust between writer and reader, and lawyers cannot afford to risk their trustworthiness like that.

    Same applies, to my mind, to Twitter. If you want someone to issue updates for you, have them Twitter under your firm’s name. But if it’s your photo and your name, it had better be you cranking out those 140 characters.

  3. I’d want to think about this some more before landing on one side or the other. In favour of ghost blogging — or, better put, perhaps, against the contras — I’d think about speeches, and how frequently this most personal mode of delivery is used to speak another’s lines. (Consider the recent incident of the speech that Justice Charron was to have given, which was written by a former clerk.)

    Maybe ghost writing in speeches bugs some people, but I suspect we simply accept that it happens and aren’t too fussed about it. The notion here would be that the front person — speaker, blogger — owns the words, stands by their import, etc. On the other side is the ethical crime of plagiarism, which bothers us not simply because of the theft involved but because of the imposture that Jordan refers to. And then I’d have to figure out how anonymous blogging fits into this ethic; the reader may be warned if the anonymity is obvious, but maybe not if the blog is pseudonymous (oh those Greeks!).

    As for Twitter, Jordan may want to scold the Dalai Lama, who is now tweeting as Dalai Lama @DalaiLama but who is probably not cranking out the tweets personally. Though I could be wrong. And, anyway, he’s not a lawyer AFAIK.

  4. I can’t imagine a ghostwritten blog winning a Clawbie, but then again, could I tell the difference? I’m pretty sure I could, but I’m also sure this is going to get increasingly difficult in the future.

    At present day, I think creating an authentic web personality (web, twitter, etc… the tools obviously change) is a tall order for a ghost blogger. Frankly, I haven’t seen it done well or in a believable way to date. Which leaves me with those blogs that regurgitate (unoriginal) content – generating little to no links, not delivering on the SEO front, and eventually forcing the lawyer to pull out their funding. It also screams of spam, which gets into the intellectual honesty, professional optics & general ethics of the question.

    For the record, Stem has never ghostwritten a lawyer blog. We have found stories, helped set up RSS feed collections to support that creativity, and even gone as far as drafting factual summaries. But manufacturing opinion, at least from my perspective, doesn’t fly.

    And while we’re holding the legal world honest, I’m also not crazy about senior lawyers who have their junior associates write academic papers, only to alter authorship prior to publication. Plagiarism comes in many forms, with blogging being only the latest delivery vehicle.

  5. Steve, Your last point is far more proliferative than you can imagine, and is not limited to law firms. I’ve even seen it for major legal publications, with articling students doing the bulk of the actual research and writing. Not sure I would go as far as calling it plagiarism, but for some people it’s hardly a job worth aspiring for, especially if they have their own history of publications.

  6. Does anyone remember Milli Vanilli?

    Ghostblawging (a term I believe coined by Scott Greenfield at Simple Justice and Mark W. Bennett at Defending People) is the natural evolution of Web 2.0 snake oil salesmen promising SEO fueled riches with nary a thought or effort. A Google search of “ghostblogging services” results in 15,800 hits, a number which is sure to increase exponentially. Here is an excerpt from one of the generic ghostblogging marketing services:

    “We’ll let you in on the secret of how many of the top blogs and some busy executives keep their blogs up-to-date by ghost blogging.”

    Substitute “busy executives” with “busy lawyers” and “Presto” you have the makings of a Blawgergeist service.

    With respect to Simon Fodden’s analogy to speech writing, the fundamental difference is the medium not the message. We visually witness the Chief Justice speaking the words, irrespective of whether these words are the product of her own ratiocination. Conversely, a law firm’s or lawyer’s blawg is more akin to the written speech itself. In any case, as Steve Matthews points out, creating an authentic web personality is a “tall order for a ghost blogger.”

    Then again, Web 3.0 or 4.0 ad infinitum may simply be a “race to the bottom” where, as one so-called “best-selling author” recently suggests “Plagiarism is the New Authenticity”

    From an ethical standpoint, ghostblawging is plainly on the wrong side of the moral equation. Just imagine a disgruntled junior associate, having ghostwritten all of the blawg content for a recognized “specialist” in a particular area of law. Then the junior associate is fired and, lo and behold, he or she blows the whistle in the media or, heaven forfend, on his or her own personal blog, Facebook or Twitter.

    The slope is not only slippery—the way down is precipitous. First blawgscraping, then ghostblawging. What next, TrialGhosting? I, for one, would love to see an opponent show up in court with a bag over his or her head and address the court: “May it please the court, Your Honour, I am the “Unknown Lawyer, but you can call me Casper”.

    AIP

  7. In the early blawging days – say 2006 – we blawgers used to navel gaze a lot, asking ourselves (frequently) such questions as “what is a blawg?”. The answer was usually “an authentic personal voice”. Ghost blawging is completely inconsistent with that.

    Blogs – the medium – can be used to publish all manner of content, for all manner of purposes and can be produced by all manner of monkeys, but if you’re talking about real blawgs, then you shouldn’t have to ask the question.

  8. So Antonin are you saying, with regards to Ghostblawging, that we should Blame it on the Rain?

    ….. couldn’t resist

  9. Mark, you can also “Blame it on the Cloud Computing”, but that’s another debate for another rainy day…

  10. This discussion helps to reinforce that the blogosphere is becoming an important source of information and discourse. Could you imagine having this vigorous a debate on the topic two years ago?

    Does ghostblawgging then lead to new info-literacy challenges? (I’d guess not, given that we all acknowledge that ghost writing has gone on in other formats). Or does the Web 2.0 culture create new expectations of this type of communication?

  11. I tend to agree with Wendy. Ghostwriting in any form was once a big, dark secret. No author wanted to be exposed as a fraud, or worse, a no-talent. We are light years beyond those days.
    It is generally believed that celebrities don’t actually do their own tweeting. Gurus in most industries don’t write the total content for every new book on which they slap their names. Attorneys are not personally burning the midnight oil penning the many hundreds of marketing books, ebooks, and free reports available throughout the web. The proliferation of virtual assistants, freelance writers and copywriters, technical writers and writers who specialise in law or medicine have made it more than possible for attorneys to enjoy all the perks and benefits of a blog or other marketing materials, overseeing and approving the final versions of every draft, without doing the bulk of the physical labor.
    Is it unethical for the attorney’s name to appear on a blog post as the writer, when a hired hand did the actual work?
    I don’t know-
    Is it unethical for the President to claim ownership of the speeches he gives, and to get credit for those words ad infinitum, even though it’s common knowledge he didn’t write those words?

    C’mon. We’re talking about a blog here- 300-350 words that use topics of interest to draw local attention to a law practice. Nothing more, nothing less. I don’t see the problem.

    Perhaps that’s because I write blogs all day long for doctors, lawyers and other professionals in these fields, and it’s worked out just fine.

  12. I do think the Web 2.0 culture creates an expectation of direct communication from the person in the spirit of transparency and openness it engenders. We are looking for that person’s personality and thinking, not something constructed as their personality. It is one thing to have speechwriters for a formal speech to ensure things are worded properly and effectively. It is another thing to have someone else write your informal casual musings on a blog.

    Victoria, I think it has worked out fine because no one has noticed so far. Do you get much back-and-forth discussion, or are you mostly pushing out a message? I suspect that would make a big difference. How do you handle questions/comments on the blogs?