Ghostwriting for lawyers: No objection

October 31, 2018 • 5 minute read

When I mention my work as a legal ghostwriter, the reactions I get fall somewhere on a spectrum from bafflement to skepticism. Some are not sure what ghostwriting is. Others are not sure it’s on the up and up.

But the fact is, writing—like any other service, such as for your taxes or your plumbing—can been outsourced. It has been for centuries.

Notable examples abound in our nation’s history. George Washington, you may know, didn’t write his inaugural address on his own—his aide David Humphreys took a verbose first whack, then James Madison shepherded Washington to a more concise final cut. You may know, too, that President John F. Kennedy leaned heavily on his ghostwriter, Ted Sorensen, for his Pulitzer Prize–winning volume Profiles in Courage. And, of course, nearly everyone knows that our current president did not write his best-seller The Art of the Deal.

A boon for ghosting

This explosion of content today—fueled in part by business leaders who want to establish their credentials, contribute to a public debate or cultivate relationships with key constituents—has been a boon for ghostwriters. They are hired for everything from books to speeches to thought leadership to social media updates.

Despite this wide cultural acceptance of ghostwriting, lawyers still hesitate to engage ghostwriters. Lawyers are finicky about their prose, and for good reason. They traffic in complex ideas requiring precision and nuance. Outsourcing a writing assignment about, say, a court decision addressing pleading standards in securities class actions, may make a lawyer feel uneasy—like giving the keys to your new car to a 16-year-old. Yes, he may have a license, but can he be trusted?

Ethical concerns

Ethical concerns over lawyers using ghostwriters have been raised as well. Some have cited Rule 7.1 of the ABA’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct, which states:

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.

If a lawyer engages a ghostwriter, is she in danger of violating this rule? Some argue that if you as a lawyer are buying pre-fab blog content and slapping your name on it, that yes, you are making a “misleading communication” about yourself.

But this is not what I consider ghostwriting. To me, ghostwriting is a collaborative effort. A ghostwriter’s job is not to be the expert. Rather, it’s to interpret the expert’s thinking and convey that thinking in the expert’s voice. Under this arrangement, there can be no mistake about the intellectual owner of the work.

We ghostwriters provide the first draft, not unlike an associate working on a brief under the direction of a senior partner. The ghostwriter, like the associate, will no doubt come to the assignment with relevant knowledge and experience. But there should be no confusion around who is directing the shape of the piece and who will have the final say about its contents. That would be the person whose name will appear on the piece. To my mind, there is nothing deceptive about that.

More than just good writing

So, what makes a good ghostwriter?

Obviously, it’s someone who can write well. But that’s just the starting point. A good ghostwriter will need to build trust with his or her collaborator. A few key attributes are crucial.

Specialized. Like any journalist, a ghostwriter needs to have a beat or two that keeps her engaged and current on specific topics and industries. It’s not realistic to expect a ghostwriter to start from zero with each new assignment. Yes, a good writer should be able to write about anything—so goes the saying. But clients often need a quick turnaround. It helps if the ghostwriter can bring a good base of knowledge to help draw out the best material. It doesn’t mean she has to be an expert, but she should know enough to dive in quickly.

Deadline-driven. Before he became a famous author, Malcolm Gladwell worked at The Washington Post, where he learned about writing on deadline. As he explained recently on a podcast with Tim Ferriss, in a daily editorial environment “you can’t have writers’ block. I mean, you quite literally can’t. You’ll start the story at 10:30, and it’s due at 4:00 or 4:30 or whatever…. And if you went to your bosses, and you said, ‘I’m blocked on this story,’ they would look at you like you were insane.” Having the discipline and skill to put pen to paper is mandatory for a ghostwriter. Often people who need ghostwriters are not bad writers—they’re simply very busy and need someone to produce a draft that they can react to and polish. They’re counting on the ghostwriter to produce on time.

An excellent listener. As someone who has spent a lot of time in newsrooms, I’ve learned that the most effective interviewers are often those who don’t try to impress their subjects with what they know. They ask basic questions. They listen closely and perk up when they are surprised. Oftentimes an expert is unable to recognize the value of what she knows or has experienced, assuming that everyone else knows it. A good ghostwriter can encourage the expert to slow down and fully explain what may be surprising and insightful to others.

No ego. This should be obvious, but ghostwriters serve at the pleasure of their clients. They should not be shy about sharing their opinions, but they must be comfortable surrendering their egos to fulfill the vision of their clients. The thrill of a byline should be long gone for ghostwriters, who should be motivated by their clients’ satisfaction.

Andrew Longstreth helps professional services firms create engaging content. A former journalist, Andrew translates complex ideas into compelling and clear language. His extensive writing experience, which spans a wide range of topics, includes deeply researched thought leadership, op-eds and blog posts.  

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