There are many websites and forums available to the general public to pose legal questions, which are then answered by “attorneys.” I participate on some of these sites from time to time and often question the wisdom of the people posing the questions, but also regularly question the wisdom contained in the answers. As a result, I think that there are some basic considerations the public should think about when posing questions on these sites.
You have the right to remain silent: You know those rights that everyone knows from watching 2000 episodes of Law and Order, or Rookie Blue? Well they apply to the things you post on the internet too! People don’t think about the fact that these sites are clearly open to the public. Everyone from the lawyers you are hoping will answer your questions, to your neighbors and friends, as well as to the police and prosecutors have the ability to surf these sites. Think of these sites as a park in the middle of town. Anything you say (write down) is public and could be used against you in a court of law.
While your name may not be on the post, depending on the type and amount of information you put in your question, it is possible that the question could be linked back to you if a full investigation were done. So, you need to be conscious of that fact when you post your question. This causes a double edged sword though. If you try to keep out all the details of your situation, then the question becomes so general in nature that the answers you get may not be helpful. On the other hand, if you put every little detail in your question, then the answers you get may be very specific, but your question may also serve to hurt your case if someone connects the question to you later on. How do you resolve this issue? Use your judgment.
These sites are meant for general legal questions. Things like “What kind of lawyer should I call regarding busted water pipes in my house” or “how long do you have to file a lawsuit related to a car accident.” If you have a very specific question that you need to put a lot of specific facts into if you are going to get a reliable quality answer, then you should probably call around to a few lawyers in your area for consultations and schedule an appointment with one that you feel comfortable with.
Range of Quality: Understand that there is a giant range of quality in the possible answers your question may generate. There are 2 main issues that will impact the quality of an answer. The first is the question itself, and the second is the person providing the answer.
- Is your question honest? Human nature is to want other people to confirm that your position is correct. We like to think we are smart and understand the world, and that when we get into a bad spot, we are right and the other person is wrong. As a result, the question you pose (the way you write it) often reflects this desire. People will write a question that includes a visible bias that they are the victim. To support that bias, they include only the specific facts that help prove their point. They leave out important details about things that they said, or things they did, that may have provoked the situation. And, without these details, the person reading your question only has part of the story. And, with a half true question, you may only get a half true answer.
- Is the person answering your question reliable? You are posing a question to a public forum, where anyone who is an attorney can answer. Depending on the site, you may not know whether the person answering your question: (a) is actually a lawyer, (b) licensed in your state and/or knowledgeable in your state’s specific laws, (c) practices law in the area that you are inquiring about, (d) has been an attorney for 1 year or 25 years, or (e) just isn’t that good of an attorney. As such, in your mind you should preface each answer with “For What Its Worth.” After all, this is free advice. Now, if you get 5 answers from different attorneys and each one gives you the same answer, then you are probably pretty safe assuming the answer is generally correct. But, beware if there are differing answers, or if there is only one answer.
Understand the motives of the attorneys in answering your question. Ask yourself why would an attorney, who may charge his/her clients upwards of $100 per hour for their work, take the time to answer my question for free. I’ll tell you why I do it.
- I enjoy it. I like spouting the knowledge that I spent years (and exorbant amounts of money) learning in law school, practice, and ongoing legal seminars.
- I hope that it eventually generates business. The theory is that if I continue to answer questions with well thought out, knowledgeable answers, that someone who decides to hire an attorney will view me as an honest knowledgeable attorney and give me a call.
- Ratings. Some sites, such as Avvo, provide points to attorneys for things like answering questions, or having other attorneys agree with your answer, or even for you agreeing with other attorneys’ answers. So, the more questions you answer, the more points you get. The more points you get, the higher your rating on that site is, and then when someone searches for attorneys in your area, the higher your rating is, the closer to the top of the list your name will be. The negative part of the ratings is that, other than the points awarded when other attorneys agree with your answer, the ratings are not based on quality at all, just quantity. So, you will see some attorneys who answer nearly every question with a stock, cut and paste, answer that says something like “You should contact a local attorney for a confidential consultation.” That 10 word answer receives the same points as a full page answer that another attorney gives that has specific information. So, you should beware of the ratings on these sites.
Conclusion: “Ask a Lawyer” sites definitely serve a purpose. They can help you with basic information, help you decide whether you should contact a lawyer at all, or help you decide what type of lawyer you should call. However, remember that an answer you get to a general question, with the few hand picked facts you present, cannot realistically compare to the advice or opinion provided by an attorney who has had the opportunity to speak with you in person, ask probing questions for facts that you may not have thought relevant, and who has had time to review the full situation.
Don’t shy away from the “ask a lawyer” sites, just realize their limitations, use them for what they are good for, and then when you realize that you actually need legal help, call a professional.
- The AVVOcalypse is Upon Us; Run for Your Lives! (unwashedadvocate.com)