Blogging has the potential of being a great networking and outreach tool for attorneys. Communicating information to potential clients, finding referral sources, and website SEO are possible benefits of legal blogging. However, when attorneys post articles to their websites, it is their job to ensure they are not crossing an ethical boundary. Certain risks go hand in hand with attorney blogs. I’m going to touch on seven of them.
The primary purpose of a legal blog should be to share information with the public. Finding clients and referrals sources should be secondary to sharing legal knowledge, legal news and data. If a firm or attorney endorses their skills and results on their blog, especially if it’s often or the sole focus of the blog, it could be regarded as advertising. Any blog with the possibility of being considered as such is subject to the bar association’s ethical rules of conduct regarding advertising. Also, if there is a “contact” call to action within a blog, it’s best to follow the ethical rules of advertising.
There is a fine line between opinion and defamation. Be careful about sharing opinions about others. It’s best not to engage in personal attacks of other attorneys, judges, experts, clients, and the like. Yes, of course you are allowed your First Amendment Right of free speech, but if you’re going to write about a person, ensure you are writing facts and not falsehoods. Refrain from posting anything that would be injurious to another individual’s or organization’s reputation.
- Blogging About Clients
If you want to blog about a client or their case, always get written permission. Informed consent is imperative. Out of courtesy to the client, allow them to read a copy for approval before posting. A client may find some content too sensitive or personal to post. It’s probably best not to use a client’s name, even with permission. Also ensure posts do not violate the duty of confidentiality and/or loyalty. If the case has been resolved and has a confidentiality clause, make certain none of the restricted information makes its way into the blog.
- 3rd Party Comments
The anonymity individuals have on the internet make it easier to post hateful and injurious comments. If comments are allowed on a legal blog, they should always be moderated. Comments that could be deemed as offensive, attacking, or which are disparaging or libelous should not be posted.
- Legal advice or attorney/client relationship
Always consider if your posts could be misconstrued as legal advice to readers or if any information you give to readers could be considered as the establishment of an attorney/client relationship. Since electronic communications can be used to form an attorney/client relationship, steps should be taken to ensure your blog isn’t misinterpreted. A good way to do this is to post a disclaimer. Make sure it states that the blog should not be construed as legal advice and that there is no professional relationship between reader and blog writer.
Opinions differ regarding ghostwriting on legal blogs. Some attorneys condemn the practice as misleading to readers. On the other hand, many attorneys use ghostwriters and don’t think it’s unethical at all since most attorneys don’t write most of their own legal pleadings, letters, and similar items. If attorneys are using ghostwriters, one way to stay on the side of ethics is to be transparent by using a byline for the post writer. Wording such as, “writing on behalf of…” is another option. If there are a number of contributing writers, another possibility is to state the blog is penned by the firm as a whole. The important thing is to not deceive readers.
- Copyrighted materials
Make sure if you’re using someone else’s copyrighted materials that either they are part of the public domain, permission is obtained, or in the case of stock images, legal licensing is purchased. Writers, artists and stock photo companies are very protective of their rights. There are many websites that have images without charge or for purchase, that are free attribution. Site such as Flickr, allows you to use images as long as the owner/artist gets attribution. Don’t find yourself on the wrong side of an intellectual property lawsuit.
Blogging and social media is still a fairly new marketing strategy for attorneys. It’s best to apply ethical rules regarding advertising and client privacy and confidentiality to legal blogs. Also, use words carefully when blogging as not to come across as attacking, libelous, misleading or offensive. Ensure the language used cannot be misconstrued, used as legal advice or, from a reader’s standpoint, viewed as an attorney/client relationship. Ask questions. If you’re unsure, it’s best to contact your state bar association for clarification. It’s better to air on the side of caution than to risk disbarment or the reputation of your firm.