Outsourcing” means paying someone else to do part of your job. Eric Turkewitz coined the expression “outsourcing marketing = outsourcing ethics.” While that is true, it does not include a value judgment, and lawyers routinely trust third parties with tasks that could land us in ethical hot water, from communications to file storage and destruction to marketing.

I don’t think outsourcing, insourcing, or other kinds of -sourcing are an inherently bad idea. What is a bad idea is hiring anyone to do anything without due diligence.

Take responsibility

Everything someone does for you is your responsibility. That is the corollary to Turkewitz’s equation. If someone performs a task for you, and it goes wrong, it is probably going to be your fault.

If you are uncomfortable with that, do it yourself. Run your own file and email servers, clean your own office, answer your own phones, and do your own legal work. Or pick the tasks you feel you can trust someone else to perform, and do the rest yourself. I don’t mean to sound like it is more trouble than it is worth; most solos, myself included, do everything we can for ourselves. That should be your default, not hiring someone to perform everything that doesn’t not explicitly require your attention. If you only do things you actually have to do, you will be little better than a robo-signer.

So how do you know you can trust someone else to perform a task? Here are a few things I think you ought to do, at a minimum.

Define the job

Make sure you know what you are hiring someone to do. This seems relatively simple when it comes to something like phone or email service, but it quickly gets complicated when it comes to marketing tasks like search-engine optimization. It is important to define the job not in a buzzword-y, sales-copy kind of way, but in a way you can understand. That’s why Turkewitz focused on marketing. It is a task many lawyers want nothing to do with, and are happy to hand off to someone who promises great results.

After all, “boost my SEO” is not the job you are hiring a marketer to perform. That is the result you want — which is important to define, as well — not the job. The job might be “direct Google juice to my website with a link building campaign” or “rewrite my website to optimize it for the keywords personal injury lawyer and auto accident.”

Those are a little more helpful, but they don’t tell the complete story, either. As part of defining the job, you need to understand how the person or company you hire is going to go about performing the job. You need to understand the methods, as much as you can.

Understand the methods and implications of those methods

Let’s keep going with legal marketing, because it is probably where most lawyers just write a check and then check out of the process. There are a number of different ways a marketer could work on SEO for you. They could do legitimate things like work with you to help search engines understand what is on your law firm website by editing your website’s content. Or they could buy text links on other websites that point to your website (this is probably bad SEO, regardless of ethics, but it is a common practice). Or they might write blog posts unrelated to law practice in order to get keyword-optimized links back to your website from other blogs (also probably not good SEO practice). Or they might engage in spammy commenting in order to build links, and so on.

Some of these methods could be unethical, period, some may depend on where you practice, and some may just be a bad idea. For example, if someone decides to rewrite your website content, it may end up being misleading, even if it looks great to Google. Or it may not include required disclaimers. Link-buying or spamming guest blogging may actually harm your search presence, get you made fun of by bloggers (potentially with higher-profile websites) who dislike such practices, or even have the opposite effect for SEO purposes.

In order to know whether the proposed methods are a problem, you have to know what they are and understand how they work. You also have to know the relevant rules of ethics, have a rudimentary understanding of SEO best practices, and at least a passing familiarity with what the internet finds ridicule-worthy.

Sound like a lot of trouble? Fine. Don’t do it. Because you are ultimately responsible, you need to understand what will be done in your name.

Take responsibility

Remember that Turkewitz is right. If you hire someone who employs unethical means to do the job, you don’t get to plead ignorance. And even if that works with the ethics board, it may not work with your clients, referral sources, or other bloggers whose ridiculing posts may soon overwhelm your own SEO efforts.

In the end, I don’t think outsourcing is inherently bad. I am perfectly comfortable using cloud services to manage my email and files, hiring a cleaning service to keep my office looking good, a shredding service to destroy sensitive files, and the idea of working with a carefully-selected marketing consultant doesn’t really freak me out.

Then again, I am savvy enough to do my own SEO, if I wanted to take the time, and I am a decent blogger. I can even design my own websites. And, of course, for some of the most-effective marketing, I cannot hire someone, like networking and teaching. So I do my own marketing, because I don’t think it would save me much time to hire someone else, especially if you take into account the time it would take to supervise a marketing consultant.

The bottom line is that if you need help, whether it is with marketing tasks, keeping track of your schedule, or answering your phones, you must take the time to fully understand what you are asking and what you are getting. Besides, if you don’t understand what you are doing, how will you know if it is worth your while, even if it doesn’t land you in ethical hot water?