Friday, November 25, 2011

92nd Installment. Ethics of Ghost Blogging

Should the state bars regulate law blogs as advertisements? You might think that advocates of blog regulation would classify blogging as a form of advertising, but they don’t urge this classification, one reason being that the main target of their regulatory ambitions is the authorship of blog postings, whereas nobody contends law firms must write their own ads.

The criticisms of ghost blogging conceive of a law blog as showcasing the attorney’s knowledge, the reverse of the concerns about ads. The ABA Model Code of Professional Responsibility EC 2-10 directs attorneys to avoid “undue emphasis upon style and advertising stratagems which serve to hinder rather than to facilitate intelligent selection of counsel,” but as described by ghost-blogging opponents, blogging is an advertising stratagem involving a sophisticated form of bragging. “Our knowledge is our stock in trade. If you believe that I know more because you read it on my blog and I, in fact, did not write that blog, I am deceiving you.” (Legal Ethics Forum, Comment by Charles M. Rowland II.)

The fear ghost blogging’s opponents harbor is that attorneys lacking knowledge of an area of law will deceive clients about their lawyerly competence. While various obvious measures could prevent such deceit, to see this as a significant threat is to misapprehend the state of the legal market. There simply aren’t many, if any, professional bloggers with the legal knowledge that would impress clients, yet with the willingness to work for the pittance a law firm pays a blogger.

Deceit about authorship is obviously unethical, and whether any instance of ghost blogging is deceitful is a question of fact; this much is platitudinous. The interesting question is why the ghost-blogging opponents worry about what’s so unlikely: what do they really fear? Not that bloggers will embellish the limited skills of some attorneys, but that attorneys who blog—as ghost-blogging’s opponents often do—won’t receive the recognition due them. They don’t want clients saying, “That sounds good, but everyone knows an attorney never authors his own blog.” They don’t want their blogs discounted as signals of their competence. Although law-competent ghost blogging is a chimera, a cynical public is receptive to that meme.

Regulatory support for authentic attorney blogging is a good idea, since allowing the public to rely on a signed blog as a sort of work sample would be a positive development for the profession. But the profession must confront two problems. The first concerns the definition of advertising, which the Model Code doesn’t define and the California Rules of Professional Conduct defines as communication “primarily directed to seeking professional employment primarily for pecuniary gain transmitted to the general public ….” (Rule 1-400(F)(12).) Under this definition, a blog is probably an advertisement, and law-bloggers’ subtle sales pitch is, strictly speaking, illegal—due to its being a style-based advertising strategy—under the Model Code's persuasive authority.

Until the legitimacy of blogs is officially recognized, the law menaces blogging attorneys. Ghost-blogging opponent and prominent member of the “respondents’ bar” David Cameron Carr states, “So far California's discipline system is focusing its limited resources on more egregious misrepresentations than ghost blogging.” Measures that would favorably shape the profession are never a high state-bar priority, and ghost-blogging issues are bound to be especially low priority, since ambiguity enhances the state-bar’s power.

The second problem the profession must confront is the over-reaching of blogging attorneys, who are too ready to overkill by banning ghost blogging, deceptive or not, to improve their competitive position.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Interlude 23. War criminal Jay Bybee purchased exoneration

The two lawyers who legally justified water-boarding—denying its character as torture—were John Yoo and his Department of Justice supervisor, Jay Bybee. Yoo subsequently landed a plum job as law professor at the University of California, Berkeley; Bybee, an even more plum one, life appointment as judge on the United States Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The attention of kanBARoo court previously focused on Yoo, who, as the direct perpetrator, was if not more culpable at least more obviously so. But Bybee’s recent mandatory disclosure that he received $3.2 million in legal services, contributed gratuitously by the giant international law firm Latham & Watkins, raises new issues.

The official ethicists find this huge gift troubling but hard to criticize. The obvious worry is that it will bias Bybee to favor parties Latham represents, but Bybee, so far, has reportedly recused himself from cases contested through the giant-firm’s offices. Neither the firm, in offering the gift, nor Bybee, in accepting it, broke any official ethical rule.

But the ethicists’ perception of Bybee as innocent speaks primarily to the ethical-rules’ bias and ethicists’ gullibility. A giant law firm is, in practice, a corporate entity, serving the financial interests of its owners, the equity partners. The forum of its intervention being an ethics investigation, Latham’s efforts lacked the public-relations appeal of a highly visible case. What’s in it for Latham & Watkins?

Bybee may have recused himself, but he still has not conducted himself as proper ethical rules would require, as he failed to commit himself to any definite continuation of his self-recusal policy. By not recusing himself permanently from cases involving Latham & Watkins, he tacitly threatens any party litigating against a Latham client with the possibility that Judge Bybee will have stopped recusing himself by the time its case is appealed. His temporizing stance subtly alters the balance of power in favor of Latham clients, a bias that—when iterated many times over—may substantially benefit Latham & Watkins. Any rational settlement negotiator for an opposing party will need to take into account the possibility that this case will be heard on appeal after Bybee has stopped recusing himself.