Internet Marketers and Other Scoundrels

I wrote a couple of posts over at Social Media Tyro about the ethics of ghostblawging (something I’d scribbled about here before). One ghostblawger’s response raised broader issues that fit better here at Defending People.

In an email, Jenni Buchanan of LegalGhostblogger.com invited private discussion of the ethics of ghostblogging, and asked that I remove my link to her testimonial page:

[P]rofessional responsibility is not something I take lightly, and I feel it is my professional responsibility to be the “front man” in this debate, and bear the brunt of this particular criticism.

There are entire industries that depend on the ignorance of their potential clientele: the CPN industry, the personal-sovereignty industry, the A/C-duct-cleaning industry, the brake-repair industry, the extended-warranty industry, to name but a few.

Online legal marketing is (in large part) the same sort of industry. FindLaw gets $6,000 (for the first year) for an 8-page website (Turkewitz, FindLaw—How to Leave and Save Your Reputation [and Money]). Disbarred lawyers set up shop as social media experts while the last shreds of their licenses are still swirling the drain (Cuban, Anti-Socializing the Legal Profession). And Jenni Buchanan helps people “enhance their credibility” by representing her writing as their own:

Merenda ghostblogger testimonial

Like those who sell Credit Privacy Numbers or unneeded brake repairs, the social media snake-oil salesmen of the world don’t want their potential customers to look too closely at what is behind the curtain. The more knowledgeable a lawyer is, the less likely she is to give them money. So they try to keep the discussion private, bemoaning the lack of civility when tough questions are publicly asked.

But public discourse makes good policy, and a well-educated consumer is better served. If a lawyer’s use of a ghostblogger were somehow ethical (it isn’t), public discussion would reveal it; otherwise, that using a ghostblawger is deceptive should be considered by anyone in a position to do so.

7 Comments

  1. I’ve been lurking lightly through this discussion here and there across various blawgs and Twitter. We usually agree on many things. And while I share your sneer on a lot of the web marketing crapfest, this one seems somewhat grayer to me.

    How is the ghostblawger different from the law firm’s PR service that writes its newsletter of old? And as someone (Antonin?) pointed out, how is it different from the senior partner taking credit for the article written by the bright young law student? Or the multi-million dollar verdict in which the young lawyer who did the lion’s share of the work disappears from case reports and media coverage (me in the 1980s)?

    Maybe the difference is about review and editorial control. Maybe as to work authored or undertaken by the young lawyers (article/big verdict), it’s professional prerogatives, and that’s different in kind?

    Don’t get me wrong. The ridicule is well-deserved. It’s hard to take seriously any twit lawyer who believes that the Google and social media is the road to fame and riches. Still, I imagine you and others who actually practice law, represent people, and try cases get the same pissed off feeling I do when I see an inept or inexperienced lawyer advertising on TV or the internet for cases that they can’t competently handle.

    I suppose it comes down to specifics?

    1. It may not be different than the newsletter of old. If the writing is represented as the firm’s work, it needs to be the firm’s work, or it’s deceptive. I don’t believe this idea is new with the advent of the Internet.

      If the ghostblogger were a junior associate who also wrote briefs and drafted motions, that wouldn’t be as deceptive—the clients, choosing the lawyer based in part on her thought processes as evinced by “her” (written by the associate) blog, would actually be getting what they thought they were getting (though not exactly the way they thought).

  2. Mark Merenda mixed up in yet another ethics scandal? What a surprise. I wonder if it’s part of his curriculum at Solo Practice University.

  3. If Jenni Buchanan wants to protect her clients from whatever harmful effects your link may have, she has one option that doesn’t require a favor from you: She can remove the testimonials from the page.

  4. Why do we really care? You know it bothers me Mark, but what are the reasons? It may be different for each of us. Why does it bother us? I think it is taking advantage of a person that needs help. Some lawyers actually believe the words they spew out

  5. The real estate industry has the same problem. There are tons of companies that work the same way as Findlaw that sell pre written content that realtors put on their blogs to make them look like experts. One of the other problems is that even if you are paying for custom written content your still going to end up with bits and pieces (whole paragraphs) that have already been published on other blogs. Google’s crawlers can detect duplicate content and will penalize and drop you in the rankings defeating the whole purpose.

    I can’t believe Findllaw charges upwards of $6,000 per year for websites. I recently built a site for a law firm for less than half of that and it ranks better than most findlaw blogs.

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