The Ethics of Ghostwriting for Pro Se Litigants

Unbundling makes legal services more accessible to populations that might not otherwise fit the traditional mold of full-service legal representation. One of the most common forms of unbundled legal services is the practice of ghostwriting motions, pleadings, and other documents for use by pro se parties in litigation.

As the number of pro se litigants continues to grow, ghostwriting can address part of the need for accessible limited-scope legal services. But ghostwriting also presents some ethical issues.

In 2007, the ABA Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility issued a formal opinion opening the door to ghostwriting pursuant to Rule 1.2(c) of the Model Rules of Professional Conduct. This includes drafting written submissions without disclosing it to the court. Since then, many states and local jurisdictions have followed suit. Some jurisdictions have rejected the ABA’s stance, and others have yet even to address ghostwriting.

Bar associations and courts across the country have reached conflicting conclusions on disclosure requirements for ghostwriting, ranging from no disclosure of the ghostwriter’s assistance or identity to disclosure of the ghostwriter’s full contact information and a signature. Bar associations requiring extensive disclosure have decided the accountability of “fly-by-night” ghostwriters outweighs the desire for anonymity due to the preferences of pro se litigants or of ghostwriters who do not want to have their identity attached to a document when there is no guarantee how the litigant will actually use it in court.

Falling in between the two extremes, some states require some designation that the document was prepared with the assistance of a lawyer or only require disclosure of the identity of a ghostwriter who provides “substantial assistance.” Under the “substantial assistance” approach, lawyers may provide pro se litigants a minimal level of help without disclosure. Because jurisdictions differ on what type of assistance triggers the duty to disclose, discerning the obligations associated with ghostwriting necessitates a close reading of a jurisdiction’s rules.

Signers Beware

In a handful of states, merely helping fill out a form requires disclosure of the supposed ghostwriter’s name. Some states reason that ghostwritten filings must identify the lawyer to avoid misleading the court, whereas others decided that ghostwritten legal documents do not require a signature or any indication of the lawyer’s identity at all. Instead, these states generally still require some label indicating that the document was prepared with the assistance of a lawyer. The requirement that a filing include the label “prepared by a lawyer” may seem insignificant, but forgetting that designation can result in substantial consequences—including suspension.

Still other states caution of the dangers of including too much of the lawyers’ information in a filing, reasoning that it may create the appearance of representation beyond the scope of the document or imply the lawyer is guaranteeing that the filing is well-grounded in fact and law.  Procedural rules generally apply only if a lawyer implicitly guarantees the content of the ghostwritten filing by signing it, unless local or jurisdictional rules state otherwise.

Other applicable ethical rules, statutes, court orders, and other sources of law (or even as a prerequisite for the pro se litigant to recover attorney’s fees covering the cost of ghostwriting in some states) may nevertheless compel disclosure. Various federal courts may—and often do—have markedly different rules governing ghostwriting than the state courts. Bar associations generally encourage ghostwriters to consider any authority directly governing the allowance of ghostwriting that may limit or even forbid the practice in some circumstances.

Grievances with Ghostwriting

Opponents of ghostwriting note that a litigant using a ghostwriter may unfairly benefit from the court’s leniency that often comes with pro se pleadings. Those critics argue that pro se litigants with ghostwritten filings would unfairly benefit from “special treatment” by judges.On the other side, critics claim that the ghostwriting may backfire if a pro se litigant is unable to explain the contents of the ghostwritten document.

The ABA rejected the notion that ghostwriting would give pro se litigants both the assistance of counsel and greater latitude from the judge than a lawyer’s filing would receive, noting that if the lawyer provided competent assistance, then the judge should easily discern the “fingerprints” of a lawyer on the filing.

Still others claim that ghostwriting offends Model Rule 8.4’s proscription against dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation. However, the ABA’s 2007 formal opinion rejected this notion that failure to disclose the legal assistance provided would mislead the court. State and local jurisdictional rules notwithstanding, the ABA concluded that ghostwriters make no statement of any kind to the tribunal as to the type or degree of legal services provided to the pro se litigant. Consequently, the court and opposing counsel will only be misled if the litigant indicates that the document in question was prepared without legal assistance—at least according to the ABA Model Rules.

Ghostwriting Is Not so Scary Anymore

As the limited-scope representation movement continues to gain momentum, state ethics rules are still changing to accommodate the practice of legal ghostwriting. Earlier in 2016, Colorado became the most recent state to issue comprehensive guidance on the ethical rules governing unbundled legal services including ghostwriting. Some bar associations have even withdrawn outdated opinions in light of other state bar associations’ concerns about the effect of such a prohibition on the accessibility of legal services to pro se litigants.

As courts and bar associations relax restrictions on unbundled legal services, ghostwriting is no longer as risky as it once was. Lawyers have no reason to be afraid, so long as they don’t let rules on ghostwriting take them by surprise. 

Here are the ethics rules on ghostwriting for pro se clients in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

StateSource"Ghostwritten" Pleadings AllowedRequirement to Disclose Identity of Ghostwriters
AlabamaAla. Bar Ass'n Ethics Op. 2010-01 (2010)YesNo
AlaskaAlaska Bar Ass’n Ethics Op. 93-1 (1993)YesNo
ArizonaAriz. State Bar Comm. on Rules of Prof'l Conduct Formal Op. 05-06YesNo
Arkansas In re Rules of Prof'l Conduct (2016 Ark. 204)YesTBD
California Cal. Rules of Prof'l Conduct rule 3.37 YesNo
ColoradoRevised Colo. Bar Ass'n Ethics Op. 101, Colo. R. of Civ. P. 11(b) (1998)YesYes
ConnecticutConn. Bar Ass'n Informal Op. 98-5 (1998)YesYes
DelawareDel. State Bar Ass’n Comm. on Prof’l Ethics, Op. 1994-2 (1994)YesYes
FloridaFla. Bar Ass’n Op. 79-7 (2000)YesNo
GeorgiaGa. Code of Prof'l Conduct Rule 1.2(c); In re Burton, No. 03-92191-JB, 2006 WL 6591614 (Bankr. N.D. Ga. Nov. 28, 2006)YesTBD
HawaiiHaw. Rule of Prof'l Conduct 1.2(c) & 6.5; Haw. Revised Code of Jud. Conduct Rule 2.2 cmt 4TBDTBD
IdahoIdaho Rules of Prof'l Conduct 1.2(c); 6.5; Idaho Court Admin. R. 53TBDTBD
IllinoisSup. Ct. R. 11, Comm. cmt to R. 137, Ill. State Bar Ass’n Op. 849 (1983); Op. 85-06 (1985)YesNo
IndianaInd. Bar Ass'nYesTBD
IowaIowa State Bar Ass'n Op. 96-31 (1997), 94-35 (1995)YesYes
KansasKan. Ethics Op. 09-01 (2009)YesNo
KentuckyKy. R. of Prof'l Conduct 1.2(c); Ky. Bar Ass’n, Ethics Op. KBA E-343 (1991)YesYes
LouisianaLa. Sup. Ct. Pro Se GuidelinesTBDTBD
MaineMe. Ethics Comm’n Op. 89YesNo
MarylandMd. Limited Scope Rule Changes (2015)YesSometimes
MassachusettsMass. Bar Ass'n Comm. on Prof'l Ethics, Op. 98-1 (1998)NoNo
MichiganState Bar of Mich. Op. RI-347 (2010)YesNo
MinnesotaMinn. Pro Se Implementation Comm. ReportYesNo
MississippiModel R. 1.2; In re Richmond No. 16-10748-NPO (2016)TBDYes
Missouri Mo. R. 4-1.2, Rule 55.03(a)YesNo
MontanaOrder in re Changes to the Mont. R. Civ. P.; Mont. R. Prof'l Conduct (2010)YesNo
Nebraska Neb. R. of Prof'l Conduct 3-501.2(c)73; Ct. R. Pleading in Civil Cases 6-1111(b)74YesYes
NevadaState Bar of Nev. Standing Comm. on Ethics and Prof’l Responsibility, Formal Op. No. 34 (2006, revised 2009); Nev. Rule 5.28 YesYes
New HampshireN.H. Bar Ass'n Ethics Comm., Unbundled Services – Assisting the Pro Se Litigant (1999) YesNo
New JerseyN.J. Sup. Ct. Advisory Comm. on Prof’l Ethics, Op. 713 (2008)YesSometimes
New MexicoN.M. R. of Prof'l Conduct R. 16-303 cmt. (2008)YesNo
New YorkN.Y. R. of Prof'l Conduct 1.2(c); 6.5; N.Y. State Bar Ass'n Op. 613 (1990); N.Y. County Law Ass'n Comm. on Prof'l Ethics Op. 742 (2010)YesSometimes
North Carolina N.C. State Bar, 2008 Formal Ethics Op. 3 (2009); 2005-10 (2005)YesNo
North DakotaN.D. R. of Prof'l Conduct 1.2(c); N.D. R. Civ. P. 5(5); 11(e)YesTBD
OhioOstevoll v. Ostevoll, 2000 WL 1611123 (S.D. Ohio), Report & Recommendations of Sup. Ct. Task Force on Pro Se; Indigent Litigants (2006)TBDTBD
OklahomaOkla. R. of Prof'l Conduct 1.2(c); 5 Okla. Stats. §5; Communication Obligations to Clients, 76 Okla. Bar J. 24 (Sep 2005)TBDTBD
OregonOr. Uniform Trial Ct. R. 2.010(7)YesYes
PennsylvaniaPa. Bar Ass'n Comm. on Legal Ethics and Prof'l Responsibility and Pa. Bar Ass'n Prof'l Guidance Comm. Joint Formal Op. 2011-100YesNo
Rhode IslandSuper. R. Civ. P. 11, Canon 3(D) of Art VI Code of Jud. Conduct, FIA Card Services, N.A. v. PichetteYesYes
South Carolina S.C. R. of Prof'l Conduct Rule 3.3(a)(2), In re Mungo, 305 B.R. 762 (Bankr. D.S.C. 2003)TBDYes
South DakotaS.D. R. of Prof'l Conduct 1.2(c) TBDTBD
TennesseeBd. of Prof’l Responsibility of Sup. Ct. of Tenn., Op. 2007-F-153 (2007)YesSometimes
TexasTexas LawyerTBDTBD
UtahUtah State Bar Ethics Advisory Op. 08-01 (2008); Op. 74 (1981)YesNo
VermontVt. Rules of Prof'l Conduct R. 1.2 cmt. 3YesNo
VirginiaVa. State Bar Ass’n Legal Ethics Op. 1761 (2002) YesSometimes
WashingtonWash. Sup. Ct. R. 11(b)YesYes
Washington D.C.D.C. Bar Op. 330 (2005)YesNo
West VirginiaW.V. Lawyer Disc. Board L.E.O 2010-01YesYes
WisconsinWis. State BarTBDTBD
WyomingWyo. R. of Prof'l Conduct R. 1.2 cmt 3YesYes
Anna Massoglia
Anna Massoglia is a public policy professional, researcher, and writer based in Washington, D.C., where she works researching campaign finance law issues related to politically active nonprofits.

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