A true ghost story: The frightening cost of lawyers writing content

Let's talk about money. I know, it’s gauche, and as in aristocratic families, it’s a topic one is loath to raise in public, even in the genial forum of a blog post. But then, who wants to be the heir who learns too late that grandpa has squandered the family fortune on race horses and orange juice futures?

The pecuniary question at hand is just how much it costs for lawyers to draft articles for publication in the business and trade press. Publishing opportunities are an effective way for lawyers and firms to demonstrate expertise across the full spectrum of legal subject matter. There are multiple niche publications serving even the most obscure legal sectors, and they are all hungry for content.

These articles — which are useful in PR, marketing and business development — are excellent credentials that can also raise the profile of a specific lawyer, practice group or entire firm. But what is the cost-benefit ratio for each piece? How to best maximize efficiency? There are many variables, of course, but among the most significant is the use of a ghostwriter.

My colleague Andrew Longstreth wrote a blog piece on the practical and ethical considerations of legal ghostwriting last fall. My focus here is cost-effectiveness and impact, and there are many upsides to engaging a professional ghostwriter as a component of an integrated content marketing plan.

The real cost of legal ghostwriters

A 2018 survey by Major, Lindsey & Africa showed that the average hourly billing rate for partners at top US law firms is around $700. For elite firms, high performers and lucrative practice areas like complex litigation and corporate work it’s often multiples of that figure. But for the sake of illustration, let’s take $700 an hour as a baseline.

An experienced legal journalist writing a 1,200-word, magazine-style legal article will spend about 10 to 12 hours on research, interviews, writing and editing. This, mind you, is a professional writer who has spent at least a decade in the sector, knows the forms and conventions of journalistic writing and is working efficiently with a minimum of distraction.

If an average partner were able to write the same story, at the same level of editorial quality, in the same amount of time, it would cost the firm $7,000 or more in billable hours. In reality, it almost always takes longer. Lawyers have to write at off-hours, or in fits and starts amid their many other responsibilities, inevitably slowing down a process that can sometimes spread over the course of months.

Even if associates draft the story, the partner whose name is on the byline will spend time reviewing, giving notes or personally revising the piece. Associate billing rates vary widely. Senior associates at elite firms can bill as much as $800 an hour, while a mid-level at a regional firm might be $200 an hour or less. If we take half the average partner’s rate and say the associate bills at $350 an hour, then add cooks to the kitchen and layers to the process, the savings are not dramatic.

Lawyers do have knowledge on their side — as they understand the subject matter inside out — but most would be writing in an unfamiliar medium, and they may be unaware of the most compelling editorial angles. Legal writing is a craft all its own, one that does not bridge smoothly into media publication. This often necessitates extensive (and costly) rewrites to shoehorn the core information into the appropriate style.

There are some lawyers who are extremely gifted — and fast — writers, comfortable writing anything from an amicus brief to an epic poem in iambic pentameter. They are ideally suited to spearhead a content marketing campaign. The rest should consider a ghostwriter.

Superior content

Experienced legal reporters have great range. A good legal journalist can cover anything related to the sector: patent law, securities regulation, litigation management, diversity and gender equity issues, client–law firm dynamics, global corruption compliance, alternative fee arrangements — you name it.

They are also fast. It’s the job of a legal reporter to efficiently ask informed questions of smart practitioners and synthesize their responses for sophisticated audiences. They’re adept at getting to the heart of the matter quickly and teasing out the most powerful storylines. A ghostwriting reporter usually needs no more than 30 minutes of the bylined author’s time for a solid interview.

There’s also a lot of talent looking for work these days. The contraction of the traditional media sector over the past 20 years is old news, but the trend has accelerated since the 2007-09 recession, leaving many capable legal writers looking for new outlets for their skills. Good writers want to write more than anything else, and many have adapted to the new realities of the media world by shifting to ghostwriting.

Perhaps most importantly, it’s easy to plug a ghostwriter into an integrated content and PR plan. When the same writer works consistently with a firm over time, they not only become more efficient, they become a key player in implementing a firmwide media plan and creating content that not only stands on its own, but is optimized for consistent messaging and distribution through social media, dramatically increasing each article’s reach.

It’s always a leap for lawyers to hand their writing to someone else, but those who do tend to come back for more. They retain ultimate editorial control, and save both time and money. The $7,000 to $10,000+ the firm would spend to create an average article in-house can be bought for $2,500 to $4,000 depending on the complexity of the subject matter. The math speaks for itself.

Steven Andersen is Infinite Global’s Vice President for Content and Client Strategy, based in New York. A former business and legal journalist, he founded the firm’s Content Center in 2012. He can be reached at StevenA@infiniteglobal.com.

Want to learn more about how Infinite Global’s ghostwriters can support your law firm’s marketing efforts? Contact us today.

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