can I has lawyer January 4, 2010 4:53 PM   Subscribe

I know we've been over this before, but it bothers me to see people giving legal advice on askme, like this.
posted by yarly to Etiquette/Policy at 4:53 PM (384 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite

Linking to the laws of the state of New York?
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 5:03 PM on January 4, 2010


Some more context might help you out here. Is your problem with legal advice, with this legal advice, or what?

I tire of the idea that people simply shouldn't read the law. I look codes up all the time to help myself and others. That's why they're there.
posted by roll truck roll at 5:03 PM on January 4, 2010 [4 favorites]


So, would you be fine with it if there were an "IANAL?" I generally assume people on the green aren't Doctors, Lawyers, or Electricians in real life, unless explicitly stated otherwise.
posted by mccarty.tim at 5:05 PM on January 4, 2010


It's not just a link to a law - it's a link to the law, an interpretation of the law, and an application of the law to the specific facts. That's legal advice.

I am definitely in favor of people reading the law (or, preferably, good self-help manuals like the ones Nolo publishes) themselves, but they are not a substitutes for real legal advice.
posted by yarly at 5:06 PM on January 4, 2010 [4 favorites]


To be honest it seems pretty tangential to the thread at best as I doubt the source of the poster's problems is going to get all legal on her.
posted by GuyZero at 5:07 PM on January 4, 2010


Yeah, I feel like linking to applicable laws is a generally positive practice.

And also, when you post to AskMe, you are asking a bunch of total strangers for their advice. I asked a question the other day about whether clamping two jumper cables would be ok or if it would kill me. When you ask questions here, you sort of have to take the google approach of determining that a bunch of similar answers are probably the right ones, that no one is your lawyer or your doctor, and that statements made assertively and confidently may be totally wrong.
posted by ORthey at 5:09 PM on January 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


The 'legal advice' in that thread was completely unnecessary and off-base. The OP wasn't asking for legal information in any way, shape or form; she was requesting affirmation of what she already knew and she got it.
posted by LOLAttorney2009 at 5:10 PM on January 4, 2010


I usually find that the likelihood that you should follow an anonymous stranger's legal advice on the internet is inversely correlated to the amount of disclaimers they include about it not being legal advice and IANYL etc. People who give you a flat answer very often are wrong. I'll call this Haddock's Second Law.

I think the crux of the issue is that Mary (whose posts I generally quite like) has told the OP NOT to get a lawyer, which I think is a bit cavalier. Also, the issue with "reading the law" is that the law is often not the final word on an issue. There are commonly administrative regulations, published guidance and rulings, caselaw, legislative history and all sorts of authority actual lawyers have to eat all day long. Just linking to the statute is not necessarily helpful without looking further afield.

I am all for a lay public that is able to understand the laws that govern their daily lives. But the truth of the matter is that we in the U.S. live under an often oppressively complicated morass of law that is frequently just not something you want to mess with--you need a professional to guide you. And I assure you, my rates are very reasonable, as I can be paid in hugs and sandwiches.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 5:13 PM on January 4, 2010 [10 favorites]


To be honest it seems pretty tangential to the thread at best as I doubt the source of the poster's problems is going to get all legal on her.

HAHAHAHAHAAA

Oh man people like that roommate/charity case/scammer should be allowed to sit for the bar.
posted by kathrineg at 5:21 PM on January 4, 2010


Mary (whose posts I generally quite like)

Yes, I like her posts too. This is nothing about her personally.
posted by yarly at 5:22 PM on January 4, 2010


If I go to ask me for advice, it is because I'm specifically seeking the advice of a group of strangers, only very few of whom are likely to have formal training in the field in which I am interested in. I go to askme not just knowing that I am not necessarily asking an "expert" but also on many cases I am specifically looking for people who are not "experts". I actively seek a range of "regular people" type perspectives. I believe as an adult in full possession of my mental faculties, I have the right to talk about legal issues with non-lawyers and health issues with non-doctors. And I'm grateful to have this forum where I can do so.
posted by serazin at 5:23 PM on January 4, 2010 [22 favorites]


Serazin, I don't think (and I would be surprised if yarly were to think) that you should be denied the forum to ask these questions. But I expect we might be advised to be wary of someone doling out medical advice on a flat basis (on what I might assume to be a Google search, given that I seem to recall that Mary lives elsewhere and isn't a lawyer). No need to see a doctor--that growth's not cancer! I googled it!

Hopefully, no bad ever comes of bad advice on the green. But when lay people (no matter whether the question is about law, medicine, data recovery, or aeronautics)--without any explanation of how they got to the answer and without any caveats--it does seem a bit hairy to me.

But hell, no one knows I'm a dog, so what do I care? I can't be sued. Arf.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 5:41 PM on January 4, 2010


I figure anyone dumb enough to blindly listen to internet advice is just as likely to read something they randomly Google and believe that.
posted by smackfu at 5:48 PM on January 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


Some day MeFI is going to be sued, and that will be the end of annoying legal questions, or the even more annoying "I am bleeding and in pain and blind what do I do" questions. Until then, just scroll past.
posted by xmutex at 5:53 PM on January 4, 2010


but they are not a substitutes for real legal advice.

So? It's Ask Me, who ever said that was legal advice? Maybe you have a different definition than me, but I'm thinking of legal advice in the same context as "I am not your lawyer and this is not legal advice", followed by some frank assessment of the situation. Are you not okay with answers about legal issues at all? Do you think that was implicitly somebody trying to give legal advice even though they didn't say they're a lawyer?

I think it'd be helpful if you laid out the specific issue with that in a bit more of a verbose fashion so people that can't read between the lines like me know what we're arguing about.
posted by floam at 5:55 PM on January 4, 2010


Jeez, people come to askme seeking advice on any number of topics. And it's omly that - advice. Why should legal advice have its own special status?
posted by Neiltupper at 6:00 PM on January 4, 2010


Also, I should probably just state that I'm probably the minority in favor of actual legal advice giving, even though I didn't think that was what happened there. It annoys me that the Internet can't be as awesome about applicable legal information and hacks as it is about applicable TiVo information and hacks.

Are there any sites out there where you can ask actual legal questions, get answers from people smart on the subject, without all the tap-dancing or holding-back?
posted by floam at 6:00 PM on January 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


I don't think the poster was giving legal advice. She was giving her opinion, backed up by the relevant law, that the OP's problem is primarily not a legal problem. Some problems can be solved by laypeople, without the need for a lawyer. She is suggesting that this may be one of them. I don't see anything wrong with that.
posted by embrangled at 6:01 PM on January 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


Neiltupper: I think it sucks, but I think it basically boils down to ridiculousness where people decided that casual "legal advice" carries with it some implied baggage of attorney-client privilege, and the possibility of lawsuits if the advice was bad or didn't work out.
posted by floam at 6:03 PM on January 4, 2010 [2 favorites]


I'll call this Haddock's Second Law.

What's your first law, Admiral?
posted by HabeasCorpus at 6:04 PM on January 4, 2010


Wow, my first callout. Too bad it isn't an exciting one.
posted by MaryDellamorte at 6:06 PM on January 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


Well there are two issues, right?

- laypeople giving legal advice which is basically Not a Great Idea
- lawyers giving sort of legal-sounding advice which may actually be illegal or lawyer-immoral

The big deal, to me, is that if someone who is not a lawyer goes and googles something and says "Well here's what the tenant's association says. You probably don't need a lawyer." it's pretty clearly personal advice, like I'd tell you to go to small claims court if your roofer screwed you or whatever. For lawyers, giving this sort of advice is a possible Big Deal because you're not supposed to give advice away for free and because you don't want someone assuming they're having a lawyer-client relationship with you when they're not. Lawyers mostly deal with this by putting a lot of IANAL disclaimers on stuff and/or avoiding those questions.

However, not all lawyers feel this way and some feel this way stronger than others. Same for doctors. I'll be the first to admit if there's an anonymous question in the queue that is mostly a question that will be answered with a resounding chorus of "go to the doctor/lawyer STAT" I usually don't even approve it. Maybe not totally kosher, but people need to sort of be clear what their issues are and why they're not dealing with them in [what seems to be] the obvious way. I mean I understand "I can't afford a doctor/lawyer" but often AskMe is good at saying "Yeah but if this is a really critical problem, a $200 doctor/lawyer bill is going to seem paltry. Please get it checked out"

I feel like tenant law is one of those places where a lot of advocacy happens through non-legal channels and it's a lot more appropriate for this sort of question and interaction then, say the immigration questions which, while they benefit sometimes from personal experience are often going to end with "and then talk to a professional"

This may not have been the best example question. I've definitely seen questions where I think people are fishing for getting free advice that they'd otherwise have to pay for and I don't like those. That said, people can extract their own splinters and write their own simple wills. Knowing when you've reached the doctor/lawyer line is something that I think AskMe is often [though not always] decent at.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 6:07 PM on January 4, 2010 [3 favorites]


Neiltupper: I think it sucks, but I think it basically boils down to ridiculousness where people decided that casual "legal advice" carries with it some implied baggage of attorney-client privilege, and the possibility of lawsuits if the advice was bad or didn't work out.

Yes, lawyers and other professionals can be held liable if they give casual professional advice that turns out to be wrong. That's why if you're at a cocktail party, the doctor you meet won't look at your mole and the lawyer won't advise you on your tenancy squabble. They don't want to lose their professional registration or wind up getting sued.

This does not mean that laypeople can't offer lay advice that happens to fall within legal or medical realms. There's nothing wrong with saying, "Here's the relevant law, looks like you're on solid ground here, so you probably don't need a lawyer". It's no worse than saying, for example, "Asparugus always makes pee smell funny, so if that's your only symptom, you're probably not dying, so you don't need to go to emergency."
posted by embrangled at 6:22 PM on January 4, 2010


I don't have any problem with internet legal advice. But the law she cited basically says this (I'm breaking it down as pseudocode, for some reason):

IF thirty days or more
THEN these methods of eviction are unlawful.

OK, great. So all we know is that this doesn't apply to our situation. But there's no ELSE IF here. What methods of eviction are lawful if she's been living there for under 30 days? And are there any special provisions for subtenants/roommates? I don't see these questions addressed. This is the kind of thing a landlord/tenant lawyer in New York can specifically answer, and then you'll know you won't have to tell a judge why you kicked a lawful subtenant to the curb without notice or eviction proceedings.
posted by naju at 6:23 PM on January 4, 2010


Yeah, there's no reason people can't give lay advice about the law. What's next, no giving computer advice unless you're a certified whatever? No interior decorating advice unless you're a certified interior decorator?

Now, the ramifications of accepting poor lay advice are greater for legal questions than most other types of questions, but that's just a caveat emptor issue. If you're asking for legal advice on the internet one presumes you understand the risks.
posted by Justinian at 6:36 PM on January 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


The OP of the AskMefi thread was not asking for legal advice, FYI.
posted by MaryDellamorte at 6:41 PM on January 4, 2010


Sure, but the Meta post is talking about legal advice. It'd be a really short Meta thread if we just all agreed that it didn't apply to your answer. And we don't want that, do we?
posted by Justinian at 6:44 PM on January 4, 2010


The catch with the law is that the ELSE IF is in a service pack, and the whole thing is made by Microsoft. Le sigh. Also, le arf.

But, IANYLawProfessor, if there's anything that anyone takes out of this thread, let it be that you always--at the very least--need to look for the regulations that are promulgated under whatever statute you're looking at. The regulations are where the action is, I assure you. Statutes are enacted under light of day under the auspices of whatever legislative body governs you. Regulations are cooked up by civil servants in whatever administrative entity actually enforces the law (usually with public comment, but the public doesn't get to "vote on" the regulations). Often a lot--a LOT--of the work that is needed to implement a statute is done in the regs.

I'll call this Haddock's Second Law.

What's your first law, Admiral?


If you are consulting AskMe on anonymous basis before you do something, you probably shouldn't do it.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 6:44 PM on January 4, 2010 [6 favorites]


Generally excellent advice but if I had followed it strictly, how would I ever have successfully disposed of that dead body?
posted by Justinian at 6:50 PM on January 4, 2010


oh crap
posted by Justinian at 6:50 PM on January 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


Also, I should probably just state that I'm probably the minority in favor of actual legal advice giving, even though I didn't think that was what happened there. It annoys me that the Internet can't be as awesome about applicable legal information and hacks as it is about applicable TiVo information and hacks.


Well, the problem is that legal advice and Tivo advice are really different. There's one Tivo system and a basically uniform set a parameters for hacking it; a legal situation involves the particular facts, statutes, regulations, and cases interpreting all of those, plus the practical experiences of a lawyer who routinely deals in that area of the law. You just can't definitively answer most legal problems by citing a statute. It just doesn't work that way.

That said, I really do think that lay people have a lot to contribute on legal questions on askme, if the answers are relating their actual experience with the legal system with similar problems or linking to materials designed to help lay people. This thread has a lot of good examples of that.
posted by yarly at 6:56 PM on January 4, 2010


t's not just a link to a law - it's a link to the law, an interpretation of the law, and an application of the law to the specific facts. That's legal advice.

I am definitely in favor of people reading the law (or, preferably, good self-help manuals like the ones Nolo publishes) themselves, but they are not a substitutes for real legal advice.


Oh give it a fucking rest. People who read this stuff are not precious little flowers that need your overarching protection. They know that they are getting answers from non-lawyers, bad lawyers, teenagers, etc. It's all information that gets put into the mix. Some of it might lead to more research on their part etc. These are not legal opinions being rendered here, not even the real lawyers are often eager to offer that up. Stuff the paternalism.
posted by caddis at 6:59 PM on January 4, 2010 [6 favorites]


DON'T TOUCH THE BODY!
posted by Artw at 7:24 PM on January 4, 2010


yarly: “That said, I really do think that lay people have a lot to contribute on legal questions on askme, if the answers are relating their actual experience with the legal system with similar problems or linking to materials designed to help lay people. This thread has a lot of good examples of that.”
posted by koeselitz at 7:25 PM on January 4, 2010


Hee hee. Forgot my comment.

Then what exactly are you recommending here - are you seriously asking that people not link to anything in a legal thread, for fear of it being legal advice?
posted by koeselitz at 7:26 PM on January 4, 2010


It bothers me to see people getting bothered by things on an internet forum that have absolutely no bearing whatsoever on their life, health, psyche, financial situation, or liberty. Or even on their cake. Did the AskMe comment ruin your cake? Is that why we're all here?
posted by turgid dahlia at 7:39 PM on January 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


Also:

yarly: “Well, the problem is that legal advice and Tivo advice are really different. There's one Tivo system and a basically uniform set a parameters for hacking it; a legal situation involves the particular facts, statutes, regulations, and cases interpreting all of those, plus the practical experiences of a lawyer who routinely deals in that area of the law. You just can't definitively answer most legal problems by citing a statute. It just doesn't work that way.”

I think you're somewhat confused about the main issue of concern with leads people to inform duly about whether they're a lawyer or not. The fact is that people might sometimes give that information just to be nice, but the main reason isn't to be careful to inform the asker - the main people say "I am not your lawyer" is to protect themselves as lawyers. The concern isn't that somebody might take some bad advice - the concern is that there are very real laws governing the relationship between lawyers and the people who take advice from them, and lawyers would rather not break those laws by being construed as an official advice-giver.

In fact, the TIVO example is exactly like the law example, so long as there's no lawyer giving advice. Most importantly, there is no law, statute, regulation, etc against a non-lawyer giving other people legal advice. We can give legal advice all day if we want to. That doesn't mean we know what we're talking about, any more than we know how a TIVO works, but there's no law against it.

The problem with giving legal advice isn't that it's 'dangerous' to people who might take the advice. Frankly, it's not any more dangerous than advice about how to fix your car, or how to go skydiving, or anything else like that. The problem with giving legal advice is that if the person giving the advice is a lawyer, they might get themselves into trouble. So there's really no reason for you to be 'concerned' that people are giving legal advice; if you're worried that they might be lawyers, memail them and let them know they might be getting themselves into trouble - otherwise, what's the big deal?
posted by koeselitz at 7:40 PM on January 4, 2010 [2 favorites]


are you seriously asking that people not link to anything in a legal thread,

I think it's good to link to self-help legal sources and exchange anecdotes. That's really different from saying "Here's the law applied to your situation, you're not doing anything illegal, you don't need to talk to a lawyer."
posted by yarly at 7:41 PM on January 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


get over yourself
posted by caddis at 7:53 PM on January 4, 2010 [6 favorites]


there is no law, statute, regulation, etc against a non-lawyer giving other people legal advice.

The unauthorized practice of law by non-lawyers is definitely banned by many statutes and ethics rules.

And there are lots of reasons lawyers might not give legal advice on Askme besides keeping themselves from getting in trouble -- mainly, that you'd be breaching attorney-client privilege.
posted by yarly at 7:56 PM on January 4, 2010


- lawyers giving sort of legal-sounding advice which may actually be illegal or lawyer-immoral

Sorry if this seems like nitpicking, but.. The problem is actually that an accredited professional may become liable for the correctness of their advice. The unethical side of it is the professional saying "this advice isn't reliable, so you can't sue me if it is wrong." Professionals can't duck responsibility like that.
posted by Chuckles at 7:57 PM on January 4, 2010


and ya, I should have kept reading :P
posted by Chuckles at 7:58 PM on January 4, 2010


When I was doing a "how not to get sued for professional negligence" course as part of my legal training, they showed us a video re-enactment of a (real) case where the fact that a lawyer glanced at a few pages of a contract his friend had signed was enough to establish a solicitor/client relationship. When the contract went bad, the ex-friend sued and won. After that video they showed us the right way to do it, which was to refuse to touch or even look at the contract and, after the friend had left the room, dictate a letter stating that you were not acting for them in the matter. That's why lawyers are reluctant to give even "general" advice in public forums.

I've seen some truly awful legal advice on AskMe, the kind of thing that could really get a person into trouble - and not just the asker, but other people who came upon the thread later. Hopefully most people can exercise enough discretion not to trust random-stranger advice from the Internet, but I'm not that confident.

Most importantly, there is no law, statute, regulation, etc against a non-lawyer giving other people legal advice.

I don't know, I'm pretty sure some jurisdictions have laws against practising as a lawyer without a licence. Giving free Internet advice may or may not count.

IANYL.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 8:06 PM on January 4, 2010


"If you are consulting AskMe on anonymous basis before you do something, you probably shouldn't do it."

Nah, the Wii game I bought my folks was pretty well received, even if it didn't measure up to their obession with disc golf and bowling from the resort pack.
posted by klangklangston at 8:25 PM on January 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


That's why lawyers are reluctant to give even "general" advice in public forums.

And so they probably shouldn't. But they can also STFU about what non-lawyers do in public forums. Lawyers are not the boss of us.*

*I wish that were true, anyway
posted by Rumple at 8:29 PM on January 4, 2010


yarly: “I think it's good to link to self-help legal sources and exchange anecdotes. That's really different from saying ‘Here's the law applied to your situation, you're not doing anything illegal, you don't need to talk to a lawyer.’”

So: what you object to is non-lawyers telling people that they don't need a lawyer? You're of the opinion that only a lawyer can tell someone whether or not they need to hire a lawyer?

This is just a guess, but might you be... a lawyer?

The fact is that, since lawyers are not in all times and all places, human beings who are not lawyers often have to make this decision: "is the matter I'm considering before me right now a legal matter, or a social matter?" I appreciate that you'd rather lawyers were consulted even at the fringes of actual law, where people are just human beings dealing with each other on a day-to-day basis, but that's just not realistic. Nor is there any practical or ethic reason for it.

“The unauthorized practice of law by non-lawyers is definitely banned by many statutes and ethics rules.”

Maybe some, but it isn't banned by any law in the US, either federal or state.

If we accepted your point that legal advice from non-experts is dangerous, and shouldn't be allowed, we would on the same terms be forced to wholly reorganize ask.metafilter. As it is, non-experts give advice about all sorts of things there, many of which are as perilous or even more perilous than legal matters. Maybe all of that non-expert advice is killing or bankrupting millions of people every day, but the evidence suggests that this isn't happening. As such, the monumental effort which reorganizing the whole of ask.metafilter would involve doesn't seem to be worth the trouble.

Or do you really think we need to reorganize all ask.metafilter questions so that people are certain to take expert over non-expert advice?
posted by koeselitz at 8:40 PM on January 4, 2010 [3 favorites]


Just how realistic is it that someone could bring a non-frivolous lawsuit against Metafilter for negligent legal advice? Not at all, I think. The site is not liable for the comments of its users under 47 U.S.C. 230, right? (Whoever thought we'd come to love a provision of the Communications Decency Act?)

So, how realistic is that someone could bring a non-frivolous lawsuit against a Metafilter commenter for negligent legal advice? Pretty unrealistic. 1. No plaintiff's attorney is going to take that case on a contingency because the likelihood of success is terrible, the damages are low, the individual defendant is probably not a big deep pocket, there would be jurisdictional complexities (personal jurisdiction in 50 states for commenters?), etc. 2. It's hard to imagine that someone would self-fund such a lawsuit. (If you could self-fund a lawsuit, you probably wouldn't be asking for free legal advice.) 3. The plaintiff would have a hard time showing any kind of reasonable reliance on anonymous legal advice from the internet. 4. The plaintiff would be hard pressed to show damages from the allegedly bad advice (e.g., what would the damages be in relation to the post in question? What is a realistic example of a high-damages case? Perhaps a question about the statue of limitations in a med-mal case, but how many of those do you see on the site and how many lawyers do you think would step up and take a wild guess at that one?).

Perhaps a frivolous lawsuit is possible, but that's always true (someone can bring a frivolous lawsuit for no good reason at all).

I guess a lawyer providing advice on AskMe might have to worry about their own state license and ethics requirements (though I'm not really sure that's true), but that's a problem for the individual commenter to worry about, not the site or the AskMe questioners.

Personally, I think the fear of "legal advice" on AskMe is overblown and mostly perpetuated by self-important lawyers (or, worse, law students).
posted by Mid at 8:41 PM on January 4, 2010 [2 favorites]


I'm sorry I didn't make this clear enough -- my primary concern was to improve the self-help quality of Askme, not protecting Metafilter lawyers (who can certainly protect themselves) or promoting the legal profession or saying that I think Metafilter is going to get sued.
posted by yarly at 8:51 PM on January 4, 2010


yarly: “I'm sorry I didn't make this clear enough -- my primary concern was to improve the self-help quality of Askme, not protecting Metafilter lawyers (who can certainly protect themselves) or promoting the legal profession or saying that I think Metafilter is going to get sued.”

Oh, I know - and please understand, I don't mean this in a hostile way. But disallowing non-expert advice as you're asking us to would mean disallowing all non-expert advice - there is no legal, ethic, or practical difference between this and other cases which are frequent on ask.metafilter.

And would it really be worth it to disallow all non-expert advice?
posted by koeselitz at 8:54 PM on January 4, 2010


I feel sorry for the alcoholic woman's cat :-(
posted by turgid dahlia at 8:56 PM on January 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


>When I was doing a "how not to get sued for professional negligence" course as part of my legal training, they showed us a video re-enactment of a (real) case where the fact that a lawyer glanced at a few pages of a contract his friend had signed was enough to establish a solicitor/client relationship. When the contract went bad, the ex-friend sued and won. After that video they showed us the right way to do it, which was to refuse to touch or even look at the contract and, after the friend had left the room, dictate a letter stating that you were not acting for them in the matter. That's why lawyers are reluctant to give even "general" advice in public forums.

Also, can I just say that that is the most wildly unrealistic thing I've read all day (after a day of reading wildly unrealistic securities disclosures)?

Being a lawyer is not some endless game of CYA in which you have to constantly dictate notes to your file about your friends! Being a lawyer is not about issue-spotting every conceivable frivolous claim that might or might not happen and slapping some boilerplate on it. Being a lawyer is about assessing risks. The risk that my friends are going to sue me for malpractice is low. The chance that a CYA note to the file about my friends would help me in a meaningful way in such a lawsuit is lower still.
posted by Mid at 8:57 PM on January 4, 2010 [3 favorites]


I am not a lawyer although my mother wishes I were. But, I often act as my own legal advice giver. I read the rules, regs, laws, etc and interpret them as best I can. I will tell friends and family, "I am obviously not a lawyer, but here is how I read it..." I just assume that anyone answering a legal question on AskMe is making the same implied disclaimer as real lawyers won't answer the question anyway. Anyway, Mary was not giving legal advice. She was suggesting that the poster did not need legal advice.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 9:00 PM on January 4, 2010


Oh, I know - and please understand, I don't mean this in a hostile way. But disallowing non-expert advice as you're asking us to would mean disallowing all non-expert advice - there is no legal, ethic, or practical difference between this and other cases which are frequent on ask.metafilter.

I get it, and I agree with you. I really think that the thread about name changes in NYC I linked earlier gives some good examples of how you can give non-expert information on Askme. In that thread, people talk about their personal experiences and link to useful information intended to be understood by non-lawyers.
posted by yarly at 9:04 PM on January 4, 2010


I'm specifically seeking the advice of a group of strangers
I once sought the advice of the group The Stranglers and ended up with some thumping bass lines and a smack habit.
posted by Abiezer at 9:08 PM on January 4, 2010 [5 favorites]


Being a lawyer is not some endless game of CYA in which you have to constantly dictate notes to your file about your friends!

I frequently preface my unsolicited life advice to friends with "As your attorney..." That's just before I start screaming about the bats and manta rays.
posted by yarly at 9:10 PM on January 4, 2010 [3 favorites]


they showed us a video re-enactment of a (real) case

Cite, please.
posted by mediareport at 9:10 PM on January 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


turgid dahlia, the cake was a lie. I am angry because of that.
posted by po at 9:12 PM on January 4, 2010


Also, MaryDellamorte should take the certainty down a notch or three when offering non-expert legal advice.
posted by mediareport at 9:13 PM on January 4, 2010 [3 favorites]


As your priest and friend, I advise you to chill out and smoke a fattie.
posted by Meatbomb at 9:35 PM on January 4, 2010 [3 favorites]


I understand the lawyers/doctors/accountants/steelworkers/etc... not wanting to give specific advice which could be construed as establishing any sort of professional relationship.

I like it when a lawyer/doctor/whatever chimes in on an askme with general knowledge about a topic. You know, rather than saying "here's what I think..." we are given a little bit of education on the whys & wherefores of how the legal or medical profession will/would handle such a situation. I think those are more useful anyways, because all the asker has to have done is forget one small detail which could change everything up. Information on general practices and what to expect probably go a long way in reducing the asker's anxiety about seeing someone, and can be applied more broadly by people reading the thread.
posted by Salmonberry at 9:40 PM on January 4, 2010


As your pornographer, I recommend you take your pants off now.
posted by klangklangston at 10:16 PM on January 4, 2010 [5 favorites]


Hypothetical re-write option: "Here's a link which seems to indicate that this is not a legal issue for the OP, but if you're still not sure about this, you should check with someone with more legal experience."

It's not that complicated. Besides, no legal advice on Mefi can actually be legal since it's illegal to have it come from the lawyers, or it is given out without legal authority (but since IANAL, don't take my word on that).
posted by kch at 10:24 PM on January 4, 2010


re-enactment of a (real) case where the fact that a lawyer glanced at a few pages of a contract his friend had signed was enough to establish a solicitor/client relationship. When the contract went bad, the ex-friend sued and won.

What state did this happen in? Or was it federal?
posted by floam at 10:32 PM on January 4, 2010


What state did this happen in? Or was it federal?

It was in Australia. Not sure which state.

Cite, please.

Sorry, don't have my notes with me, and it was several years ago so I don't remember. It's possible that the lawyers giving the course made it all up, but I think I'll give them the benefit of the doubt.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 11:51 PM on January 4, 2010


It doesn't make sense to me why legal advice, or even medical advice, ought to get some sort of special treatment or status — and unless we're open to the idea of just pitching the whole AskMe concept, that seems like what requests / commentary like this boil down to. That legal advice is somehow special.

People ask all sorts of questions on AskMe, which are neither legal nor medical, but are nonetheless Serious Business. If someone asks "how do I replace the fan belt on my car," and someone gives them totally wrong advice, they might end up missing a digit or two. Bad electrical wiring advice? Could be a house fire.

AskMe deals with real life, and real life involves a lot of serious topics. It's sort of a requirement that everyone approach it as adults, and that askers understand that there's no barrier to entry on the part of respondents.

If there are professional or ethical obligations that prevent practicing lawyers or doctors from saying anything in response to legal or medical questions besides "consult an attorney" or "consult a doctor," that's unfortunate and a loss to the community — but it's a problem that lies entirely within those professions, their professional associations, and the laws that govern them. It's not really a result of AskMe, and I can't see a good reason why someone not constrained by those professional obligations should feel compelled to follow them. If a non-lawyer or non-doctor has information that they truly believe is helpful, and I ask a question on that topic, I'd definitely want to hear that information. I'd be nice to hear from actual lawyers or doctors as well, but if they can't say anything for fear of accidentally creating a professional relationship and thus opening themselves to some sort of liability, I'd understand.

We don't want to encourage people to just randomly Google things and post the answers as truth, but OTOH it doesn't make sense to reserve specific subjects to professionals when there are so many other subjects not similarly encumbered.

If there's a problem with people taking AskMe advice and applying it unthinkingly with bad results, the solution would seem to be reminding askers and readers more forcefully that AskMe isn't fact-checked, and answers are only as good (in the best case) as the reputation of the pseudonym posting them.
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:01 AM on January 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


xmutex writes "Some day MeFI is going to be sued, and that will be the end of annoying legal questions, or the even more annoying 'I am bleeding and in pain and blind what do I do' questions. Until then, just scroll past."

I wouldn't be holding my breath. Is there any significant history of internet forum operators being sued for the advice one stranger typed to another? I've been at this a long time. Used Fidonet, ran a couple of BBSes, delved deeply into USENET before the September that Never Ended; have a gazillion comments here and other places, intellectual and not. I can't recall a single case let alone a flood that would endanger the existence of Metafilter's AskMe. And it not a lack of big pockets, GE ran GEnie (hence the name) for example and to paraphrase an IBM vice president, wethey have a lot of lawyers.

yarly writes "The unauthorized practice of law by non-lawyers is definitely banned by many statutes and ethics rules."

Is there even a single case of a stranger giving what turned out to be legal advice to another stranger via an internet forum/MOO/BBS/USENET/IRC being charged under one of these statues? Obviously the ban by a bar ethic committee essentially by definition has no jurisdiction.
posted by Mitheral at 12:54 AM on January 5, 2010


The solution is simple. Ban lawyers from the site, forever. They ruin everything.
posted by vrakatar at 1:19 AM on January 5, 2010


I'll give you my site when you take it from my cold, dead Duffy Bros Fruit Market (Campbelltown) Pty Ltd v Gumland Property Holdings Pty Ltd; Gumland Property Holdings Pty Ltd v Pisciuneri & Anor [2007] NSWCA 7 (14 February 2007)
posted by UbuRoivas at 5:02 AM on January 5, 2010


I'm sorry I didn't make this clear enough
You still aren't. Could you perhaps try explaining yourself in posts of more than two short sentences? I mean you started out with "[a link] bothers me" and then left it at that, ffs. Why is this sort of advice bad for AskMe? What actual harm does it do and has it been shown to do? How should we fix it?
posted by bonaldi at 6:09 AM on January 5, 2010


I'm sorry I didn't make this clear enough -- my primary concern was to improve the self-help quality of Askme

Okay, if so, this was totally not at all clear from your initial post and your first comments. Complaint dismissed with prejudice. Clerk will call the next case.
posted by chinston at 6:17 AM on January 5, 2010


Er, that first sentence was quoting yarly. edit window, plz?
posted by chinston at 6:18 AM on January 5, 2010


The law isn't magic; it's right there in words. Linking to a law isn't giving legal advice.

And I think for someone to be guilty of practicing law without a license, they must (fraudulently) purport themselves AS a lawyer.

I have great respect for lawyers. But not the idea that every interaction with the law requires one.
posted by gjc at 6:20 AM on January 5, 2010


The solution is simple. Ban lawyers from the site, forever. They ruin everything.

Nuke them from orbit, it's the only way to be sure. Better yet, nuke the entire site from orbit. You can't be too careful.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 6:55 AM on January 5, 2010


I'm totally going to write a law review article about this. Great thread, guys!
posted by orrnyereg at 6:59 AM on January 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


And I think for someone to be guilty of practicing law without a license, they must (fraudulently) purport themselves AS a lawyer.

I suspect that depends on the jurisdiction as well. I know in Texas a lot of people who get in trouble for unauthorized practice of law call themselves "immigration consultants". The source for that is my former boss the lawyer who was on the Texas Bar's UPL committee for a while.

While I doubt that anyone will get sued solely over postings on AskMe, or that the site itself will get sued for providing bad legal advice, I wouldn't be surprised if someone's AskMe history were admissible evidence in a UPL case against them. This is one reason why I always preface any comments that could reasonably be taken as legal advice with the IANAL disclaimer. (Another is that I'm not a lawyer and don't want an AskMe poster to think that I am.)

Maybe lawyers shouldn't have a monopoly on interpreting the law to the lay person, but in many jurisdictions, they effectively do. The lawyers have reasons to be worried for themselves, for other commenters, and for AskMe askers; they're not entirely paranoid (even if they are thorough at CYA, which is part of the job).
posted by immlass at 7:04 AM on January 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


This IANAL stuff looks like superstition.

Can any of the lawyers out there cite precedence for lawyers getting into trouble when their casual statements online in a place like AskMeFi came back and bit them? Are there any lawyers out there anywhere who have actually suffered because of the opinions they expressed in an internet forum? If so, would use of the cryptic acronym "IANYL" have saved their skins?
posted by pracowity at 7:33 AM on January 5, 2010


If so, would use of the cryptic acronym "IANYL" have saved their skins?

I've wondered about this too. Even if all Mefites know what it means, it's not known to the general public. The use of an acronym rather than plain English would seem to defeat the purpose of fending off lawsuits or disciplinary proceedings.
posted by Jaltcoh at 8:05 AM on January 5, 2010


We take our profession seriously. We'd appreciate it if the rest of you would too.

It isn't that we're just toting around expensive degrees. We may actually know what we're talking about. But MOST importantly, we know what we don't know - and we know to leave well enough alone in those cases. You all have no clue what you don't know and so you go tromping around in issues that you have no business discussing.

And now that I've started sounding like Donald Rumsfeld, I'll leave you with a bit of existential poetry.

The Unknown
As we know,
There are known knowns.
There are things we know we know.
We also know
There are known unknowns.
That is to say
We know there are some things
We do not know.
But there are also unknown unknowns,
The ones we don't know
We don't know.

—Feb. 12, 2002, Department of Defense news briefing

posted by greekphilosophy at 8:22 AM on January 5, 2010 [7 favorites]


Frankly, I think the bad medical advice you find in AskMe is way more dangerous than the bad legal advice.
posted by amro at 8:35 AM on January 5, 2010


Case in point.
posted by amro at 8:37 AM on January 5, 2010


(I am not referring to all of the answers to that question. But some.)
posted by amro at 8:42 AM on January 5, 2010


Could you perhaps try explaining yourself in posts of more than two short sentences? I mean you started out with "[a link] bothers me" and then left it at that, ffs. Why is this sort of advice bad for AskMe? What actual harm does it do and has it been shown to do? How should we fix it?

I'm sorry, I know this is frustrating, but I can't comment on the specifics of that post!

I guess what I would like is for Askme to be a useful and non-harmful as possible. Along those lines, two ideas for guidelines:

1) that askers understand that most likely no US lawyers are going to answer their specific legal questions, other than to link them to legal help sites or tell them to get a lawyer;
2) that non-lawyer answerers give answers limited to their experiences with the legal system and helpful links to self-help materials.
posted by yarly at 8:43 AM on January 5, 2010


We take our profession seriously. We'd appreciate it if the rest of you would too.
It depends whether it means taking it so seriously that we can't link to the text of laws, or discussing your profession at all.

If you value your profession that much, work to take disrupt the penalty system that means you can't give useful advice. AskMe abhors a vacuum; if lawyers aren't going to answer, laymen are.
posted by bonaldi at 8:47 AM on January 5, 2010


I've seen some truly awful legal advice on AskMe

And there has been truly awful medical, technical, personal, and scholastic advice given as well; as wonderful a resource as AskMe is, there is definitely an implied caveat that the responses an Asker solicits may not always be the 100% straight dope, regardless of the subject.

As to liability issues, Yahoo! Answers is a part of a considerably larger and higher profile entity than MeFi, and they seem comfortable allowing legal-related queries in their pit of yomyucks and knobends. I doubt Matt is going to lose any sleep.

So, in summation: lawyers aren't that special. Also, if I want to perform my own kidney transplant, I will friggin' well do so.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 8:51 AM on January 5, 2010


It isn't that we're just toting around expensive degrees. We may actually know what we're talking about.

Of course a lawyer would qualify that sentence!
posted by smackfu at 8:52 AM on January 5, 2010


It depends whether it means taking it so seriously that we can't link to the text of laws, or discussing your profession at all.

I think it's important to understand that avoiding liability is not the only, or even primary, reason lawyers don't post specific legal advice. There are other really good reasons not to:

1) Assuming there is an attorney-client relationship, if you have a discussion about a person's case in plain view of the entire internet then you could be destroying attorney-client privilege for that information in the future and encouraging them to publicize information they should be keeping confidential. I wouldn't interview a client in the middle of a crowded cafe; I certainly wouldn't interview them on the internet. This is one of the most fundamental rules of being a lawyer.

2) To be a good lawyer, you need to know a lot more than what's in the typical askme post. You need to know the jurisdiction, you need to know the background law, and you need to review all the facts and the documents. I sometimes spend upwards of a week gathering all this material before I'm even ready to make a preliminary conclusion. Some cases require more, some less. You just can't give good off-the-cuff advice.

3) We haven't even discussed the question of whether it's ok to get clients through internet discussion. Some states might consider this a form of unethical advertising.
posted by yarly at 8:57 AM on January 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


Well, as I said, either lawyers need to work to address these issues, and their ethics, in light of the new circumstances of the net, or they need to accept that laypeople will fill the vacuum. Just saying "we think of ourselves very highly, please don't talk about legal issues unless it is in ways we sanction" isn't going to swing.

If you can't redefine "legal advice" to exclude message boards and similar situations where no reasonable person would take the postings as real legal advice, or the establishment of an attorney-client relationship, you're simply going to have to accept the alternative, because it's going to happen.

(The purported fear of actions over dodgy internet legal advice seems very strawman to me, anyway -- like the "don't use your chainsaw in the bath" type of disclaimers. Is there any precedent at all for lawyers being sued or facing ethical charges over such posts?)
posted by bonaldi at 9:07 AM on January 5, 2010


yarly, 1) and 3) seem unrelated to the issue of somebody that's not a lawyer dispensing advise, or discussing legal matters. And I think they are kind of part of what most of us were thinking of when talking about liability, which is "I'm liable to get in legal trouble if I do that as a lawyer!". 2) seems like the same issues you'd run into when you're advising somebody what to do in the case of a cracked foundation or failing marriage. Both probably require a lot more research and care than you're going to get from AskMe, but I think the point is we're okay with less than perfect advise, and perhaps slightly mitigated by the fact that you get to hear a large range of imperfect opinions in aggregate.
posted by floam at 9:07 AM on January 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


The thread wasn't really about legal advice, but if it had been a question specifically about a legal issue and someone commented with "here's a link to the law. It means this. You don't need a lawyer," it would be a pretty bad answer.
posted by ishotjr at 9:14 AM on January 5, 2010


I tire of the idea that people simply shouldn't read the law. I look codes up all the time to help myself and others. That's why they're there.

I can read physics too, doesn't mean I understand it enough to undertake construction of a nuclear bomb. You can't just read it and think it means what it says. You need to look at the definitions section at the beginning of the subchapter and also know what all of the terms of art mean. Lawyers don't get this right a lot of the time. How can laypeople know?

Seriously, this can only lead to trouble. I see the absolute dumbest shit out there on these questions. Like 100% wrong advice, time and time again.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:17 AM on January 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


but I think the point is we're okay with less than perfect advise, and perhaps slightly mitigated by the fact that you get to hear a large range of imperfect opinions in aggregate.

No you're not okay with less than perfect advice. Let me assure you. You think you are, but you are not.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:18 AM on January 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


amro writes "Frankly, I think the bad medical advice you find in AskMe is way more dangerous than the bad legal advice."

Or electrical wiring. Boy Howdy!

greekphilosophy writes "You all have no clue what you don't know and so you go tromping around in issues that you have no business discussing. "

The first part essentially applies to at least half of the questions posted and the last part is wildly elitist. I sure don't buy that some subjects are so delicate that the ignorant should be banned from even discussing them. More so because the people who aren't ignorant of the issues are restricted from talking about it. It's treating the law as if it is some kind of cult Cabal secret society.

A good front page post in the vein of Mutant's finance posts detailing the theory and history of the ethics restriction on legal advice would garner a lot of favourites. Maybe with an explanation of the need for and evolution of attorney-client privilege and why it works the way it does. Especially if the post could avoid the codified legal restrictions which while probably valid are also inconveniently self serving and I'm guessing dramatically variable from place to place.
posted by Mitheral at 9:18 AM on January 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


"Legal advice" - expressing an opinion about what the law is and advising a person on what their rights and remedies are - is not really an okay thing to do on AskMe. The linked post brushes way too close for comfort. In many jurisdictions, it would be a crime. Carrying out crimes on MeFi et al. is probably not okay with Matt.

At the very least, posts along the lines of "The law in that jurisdiction is x, y, and z, and you should..." shouldn't be allowed.

Something closer to the following is almost always preferable: "I am or am not a lawyer, but in any case I am not your lawyer, and my read of this statute is x, y, and z. If it were me, I would do a, b, and c, but if you decide you need actual legal advice, you need a lawyer. The bar association website for that jurisdiction can help you find one appropriate for your problem and price range."
posted by jock@law at 9:27 AM on January 5, 2010


Wait, the green wire is the ground?
posted by fixedgear at 9:29 AM on January 5, 2010


Like 100% wrong advice, time and time again.
I don't think the way to fix this is to remain silent in the questions and hope that the odd MetaTalk thread will stop people from posting erroneous legal advice, though. Lawyers and doctors are expensive, so people will post here instead, and other people will try to answer them. This is always going to be true.

It occurs to me that there are plenty of "Ask A Lawyer" TV and radio shows, and none of them are bookended by half an hour of disclaimers, nor does anyone think that such shows create attorney-client relationships. Additionally, they're often specifically advice-orientated. Yet somehow on AskMe the converse is inescapably true?

Like Mitheral says, such a hard-line interpretation seems suspiciously self-serving, particularly when the site and posters could be helped by answers, even those that go no further than correcting these errors.
posted by bonaldi at 9:31 AM on January 5, 2010


Citation, please, for any criminal prosecution anywhere, ever, for an attorney or non-attorney* providing advice on the internet.

*Not a non-attorney falsely claiming to be an attorney, which is garden variety fraud, just as if I claimed to be a neurosurgeon.
posted by Mid at 9:32 AM on January 5, 2010


I was referring to jock@law's post here, if it's not clear.
posted by Mid at 9:35 AM on January 5, 2010


The linked post brushes way too close for comfort. In many jurisdictions, it would be a crime. Carrying out crimes on MeFi et al. is probably not okay with Matt.

This is an oversimplification of Matt's position. I'm pretty certain Matt doesn't mind people giving links to statute pages and advice about what to do. Whether you think he should mind, of course, is another matter.

But, because I'm curious... explain it to me like I'm a little slow, because I think I am in this instance.

- what is the crime?
- who would potentially be the aggrieved party?
- who would be gone after? [MeFi? a specific commenter?]
- does this matter based on whether the commenter is a legal professional or not?
- does this matter based on whether the advice is public [i.e. on a forum] or private [i.e. me at a party telling someone they don't need a lawyer]?
- reality-check-wise could you give me an example from the real world where someone got prosecuted and convicted for such a crime?

I know there are broad ideas in here that people discuss frequently, but I'd like very specific details. Is this like pracrticing medicine without a license? What is the crime?
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 9:37 AM on January 5, 2010


I'm sorry, I know this is frustrating, but I can't comment on the specifics of that post!

oh come on
posted by chinston at 9:38 AM on January 5, 2010


The law isn't magic; it's right there in words. Linking to a law isn't giving legal advice.

Exactly wrong. Linking to a law is implying that the code sections in question are applicable. They may not be. Take for example, common landlord-tenant issues. Some landlords are not covered by the law because other sections define the meaning of the word "landlord." Statutes of limitations are not usually found in the same chapter, let alone subchapter of a law. But you don't know that and you don't know where to look.

And I think for someone to be guilty of practicing law without a license, they must (fraudulently) purport themselves AS a lawyer.

You prove our point. Your assertion is wrong, and you made it without even checking the relevant statutes!

California, for example, has one of the strictist UPL sections:


(a) Any person advertising or holding himself or herself out as practicing or
entitled to practice law or otherwise practicing law who is not an active member
of the State Bar, or otherwise authorized pursuant to statute or court rule to
practice law in this State at the time of doing so, is guilty of a misdemeanor
punishable by to one year in a county jail or by a fine of up to one thousand
dollars ($1,000), or by both that fine and imprisonment. Upon a second or
subsequent conviction, the person shall be confined in a county jail for not less
than 90 days, except in an unusual case where the interests of justice would be
served by imposition of a lesser sentence of less than 90 days for a second or
subsequent conviction under this subdivision, the court shall state the reasons for
its sentencing choice on the record.
(Emphasis added).

And to demonstrate conclusively that it isn't just what is written in the code sections, check out how incredibly modified the code sections are when you look at them:

‘[A]s the term is generally understood, the practice of the law is the doing
and performing services in a court of justice in any matter depending therein
through its various stages and in conformity with the adopted rules of procedure.
But in a larger sense it includes legal advice and counsel and the preparation of
legal instruments and contracts by which legal rights are secured although such
matter may or may not be depending in a court of law.’ (People v. Merchants
Protective Corp. (1922) 189 Cal. 531,535, quoting Eley v. Miller (1893) 7 Ind.
App. 529 [citations omitted].)


And since the code sections have been modified, the prior definition by the court is implied to be the definitions of "practicing law"

You can't just say things are true because it is your opinion. You see the law is a real thing and your "belief" on what the law says or should say is totally irrelevant to the question. You need to actually know what it says before it is put out there.

I have great respect for lawyers. But not the idea that every interaction with the law requires one.

Most do.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:39 AM on January 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


The site is not liable for the comments of its users under 47 U.S.C. 230, right? (Whoever thought we'd come to love a provision of the Communications Decency Act?)

I'm not 100% sure that's true in the 7th Circuit.
posted by jock@law at 9:39 AM on January 5, 2010


What is the crime?

"I'm sorry Ms. West, but telling you that on teh internets would be an unethical violation of my conduct code."
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 9:42 AM on January 5, 2010


Just to focus the discussion a bit, I believe the most likely legal repercussions for giving legal advice in a naughty way on the internet would probably be civil punishment, not criminal. So a lawyer might get sanctioned by the bar (a monetary penalty, or getting the lawyer's name on some list of shame, or even disbarred), but probably not prosecuted or jailed.

I'm not saying that a crime isn't an option, though, because it is. Just seems unlikely. But not impossible. Possible, but a very small chance of criminal punishment or criminal sanctions. But I'd look to civil sanction first. Then criminal. But I wouldn't spend too much time looking for criminal sanctions.

I am a lawyer. IANYL. GAGA.
posted by chinston at 9:42 AM on January 5, 2010


Citation, please, for any criminal prosecution anywhere, ever

I am not able rightly to apprehend the kind of confusion of ideas that could provoke such a question. Legal ethics are within the police power of the states. State criminal prosecutions don't generally end up on Westlaw. Appeals from them do, sometimes, depending on whether the appellate court actually hears the case, actually issues an opinion, etc.
posted by jock@law at 9:43 AM on January 5, 2010


I think the fundamental difference between internet medical advice and internet legal advice is that, while bad advice in each category is inherently dangerous, I expect few(er) people would read a link to a medical journal and believe that whatever that one page said was the definitive answer to their complaint--though this seems exactly what one might do with the post that started this thread.

I definitely appreciate people who rankle at the notion that they are not qualified to administer their own legal affairs--and I don't think yarly or other lawyer posters here are saying that. But the insidious danger with legal advice (lay or professional) is that the answers that can be determined by consulting only one resource are really rather rare. When you're in a bind and you post a question to AskMe and someone says flatly that there's "no need to see a lawyer, because here's the rule" and the whole thing makes sense, maybe you follow the advice. But the pony I'm flogging here is that there are almost always regulations, other statutes, administrative guidance, case law etc. that go along with that one "definitive" link, and it all needs to be taken together.

Personally, I have no problem with anyone, regardless of training, posting a response that says "this looks like the answer, but you should double check" or "I had the same thing happen to me in your jurisdiction, and here's what my lawyer said" or "here's a good book/website to get started." Mary may have been right--I literally have no idea whether her advice was good or bad--but considering that locking a tenant out could be an actual crime in some jurisdictions, it seems wise to hedge it and to tell the OP to consult a lawyer.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 9:43 AM on January 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


You can't just read it and think it means what it says.

It usually means just the opposite. That's why you need a lawyer.
posted by owtytrof at 9:44 AM on January 5, 2010


I mean citation to any source of any kind. But I guess you don't have one. All of the internet lawyer prosecutions must be going unreported on the internet and in the thousands of legal industry publications out there.
posted by Mid at 9:46 AM on January 5, 2010


I am not able rightly to apprehend the kind of confusion of ideas that could provoke such a question.

You said "This is a crime."
They said "Can you point to one person who has ever been prosecuted with such a crime?"

Which part is difficult for you to apprehend?
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 9:47 AM on January 5, 2010 [6 favorites]


Is there any precedent at all for lawyers being sued or facing ethical charges over such posts?

None yet, AFAIK. But it will inevitably happen, probably soon. And I don't expect the ethics committees to be very understanding or forgiving.

Fun fact: while there is no all-encompassing definition for "the practice of law" in my state, the courts have explained it as giving advice or services “when the giving of such advice or rendition of such service requires the use of any degree of legal knowledge or skill.” Unauthorized practice of law includes giving such advice to a person in a jurisdiction I'm not licensed to practice in (which would be anywhere except Illinois). Yay! So it seems like I should not give any legal advice on the internet, IANYLs or not. (PTERODACTYL)
posted by naju at 9:48 AM on January 5, 2010


Thanks, Ironmouth, for your legal advice on what legal advice I can give on the internet. No doubt you'll want to continue this attorney-client relationship if anything goes wrong, but since you've linked to the relevant statute (and loudly proclaimed that interpreting statutes is something that can only be done in the context of legal advice), I think we're all on the same page. Pro bono no less! Nolo contendere, it's great advice!
posted by klangklangston at 9:49 AM on January 5, 2010 [6 favorites]


Which part is difficult for you to apprehend?

And please compose your answer in the manner of Henry Fielding.
posted by chinston at 9:49 AM on January 5, 2010


The English courts have the concept of a McKenzie Friend who doesn't have to be trained in law but can assist a litigant in person. Was used extensively by various lefties of my acquaintance when in court (I boldly settled for looking at my shoes until fined the few times I made it there).
posted by Abiezer at 9:50 AM on January 5, 2010


Quick, Ironmouth - dictate a note the file that says "IANYL" 10,000 times and you will be safe!
posted by Mid at 9:50 AM on January 5, 2010


jessamyn: i stated it clearly. state trial courts generally do not issue opinions. there's no actual authority likely to exist in legal databases. the best you could do is a google search.
posted by jock@law at 9:50 AM on January 5, 2010


the best you could do is a google search.

Clients love it when I tell them this.
posted by chinston at 9:52 AM on January 5, 2010


"jessamyn: i stated it clearly. state trial courts generally do not issue opinions. there's no actual authority likely to exist in legal databases. the best you could do is a google search."

You can get AIDS from public toilets, but because the NIH doesn't index AIDS transmission, you're just going to have to take my word for it.
posted by klangklangston at 9:53 AM on January 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


The crime is doing something a lawyer doesn't want you to do.

The thing they don't want you to do is something they get paid for doing.
posted by Rumple at 9:55 AM on January 5, 2010


But, because I'm curious... explain it to me like I'm a little slow, because I think I am in this instance.

- what is the crime?


Unauthorized practice of law.

- who would potentially be the aggrieved party?

Criminally, the state, administratively the state bar, civilly the person provided advice

- who would be gone after? [MeFi? a specific commenter?]

unknown, this is a new area of law, certainly the person providing advice.

- does this matter based on whether the commenter is a legal professional or not?

Unknown. The California statute above says everyone. However, from a practical matter it really depends on the advice given, how wrong it is, whether it was relied upon, etc. Risks are real.

- does this matter based on whether the advice is public [i.e. on a forum] or private [i.e. me at a party telling someone they don't need a lawyer]?

Off the cuff, I'd say likely no, at least in my jurisdiction. I am not your or MeFi's lawyer.

- reality-check-wise could you give me an example from the real world where someone got prosecuted and convicted for such a crime?

Wayne Winrow.

Thom Satterlee

Cheyenne Jessie

I know there are broad ideas in here that people discuss frequently, but I'd like very specific details. Is this like pracrticing medicine without a license? What is the crime?

Again, the crime is Unauthorized Practice of Law. It is generally punishable by jail time and fines.

These are facts. People are welcome to ignore those facts and just keep on saying stuff that isn't true. But somebody is going to make a big mistake one of these days.

I advise that Matt talk to an attorney about this to figure out what his liability will be. This is a completely new area of the law, and a developing one. Only a fool wouldn't look into this.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:57 AM on January 5, 2010 [7 favorites]


Thanks Ironmouth.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 9:57 AM on January 5, 2010


Thanks, Ironmouth, for your legal advice on what legal advice I can give on the internet.

I am not your lawyer. But I won't deny that you have a point. However, I advise you to find an attorney in your jurisdiction to see what advice you can give.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:59 AM on January 5, 2010


I think the fundamental difference between internet medical advice and internet legal advice is that, while bad advice in each category is inherently dangerous, I expect few(er) people would read a link to a medical journal and believe that whatever that one page said was the definitive answer to their complaint--though this seems exactly what one might do with the post that started this thread.

Also, since you can't get pharmaceuticals or do surgery on yourself, then the amount of damage is limited to what happens if you don't go into to see the real doctor. In the law, you are allowed to represent yourself pro se. You could go in and screw it all up yourself and the judge would say have a nice day as he signed the order taking your house away.
posted by Ironmouth at 10:01 AM on January 5, 2010


Thanks Ironmouth.

Just from an internet search alone, I get the idea that several thousand people a year are arrested for doing this. Most are former lawyers trying to get by after being disbarred. Some are kooks.
posted by Ironmouth at 10:03 AM on January 5, 2010


Also doctors don't usually cause disease. Lawyers cause laws that only they can understand.
posted by Rumple at 10:05 AM on January 5, 2010




"I'm thinking of killing my parents for the insurance money. Is this legal?"

[Question deleted. We have no way of knowing whether or not a thing is legal without talking to a lawyer.

We rise like ghosts in autumn mist; we are jellyfish in the sea's swells. Now, motionless, we wait for a lawyer to pass by and move our creaking limbs, to lift a spoon to our lips, to tell us how to love, to live, to die.]
posted by Optimus Chyme at 10:12 AM on January 5, 2010 [9 favorites]


Here's a few articles:

Internet Unauthorized Practice of Law--occured in 2002!

An entire Georgetown Journal of Legal Ethics Article.

From the linked article:

Legal advice given in Internet chat rooms is not always considered unauthorized practice of law.32 However, providing specific advice, targeted to the individual fact patterns presented by the audience, is often considered unauthorized practice of the law.33 Lawyers providing legal advice on Internet chat rooms are warned that lawyers' comments must be truthful, lawyers should consider whether an online party is represented by another lawyer, lawyers should not "deal on behalf of a client with a person who is not represented while the [lawyer] is stating of implying that he or she is disinterested,"34 and lawyers should consider including a notice of the jurisdiction in which the lawyer is licensed to practice.35 Although some lawyers using the Internet as a vehicle to provide legal advice phrase their statements in general terms, one study suggests that inquiries made over the Internet are rarely general questions; rather, they are specific questions asked by people seeking specific legal advice from lawyers.36

This stuff is real. People in the legal profession are really looking at it. And this site needs to be damn careful about what it is doing. I've been warning about this for a long time. And the people telling me I'm wrong are not legal professionals and don't understand the real dangers.
posted by Ironmouth at 10:14 AM on January 5, 2010 [7 favorites]


Did any of the three mentioned convictions have anything to do with posting on the internet?
posted by morganannie at 10:14 AM on January 5, 2010


"I'm thinking of killing my parents for the insurance money. Is this legal?"

I know you think you're clever, but you might consider contributing to the discussion in a productive, meaningful, and substantive way.
posted by jock@law at 10:15 AM on January 5, 2010


Both Ironmouth's and jock@law's links are for people being prosecuted for unauthorized practice of law. I don't think anyone here doubts that such prosecutions happen; they doubt that they're going to happen over what amounts to the internet equivalent of an "ask the lawyer" chatshow. Are there any cases of people offering essentially broadcast advice online suffering penalties?

I mean, this site is run by a lawyer, questions are answered by attorneys, and there are a few simple disclaimers amounting to "this is general advice, we are not your lawyers". Would similar disclaimers not solve the problem for the vast majority of AskMe situations?
posted by bonaldi at 10:16 AM on January 5, 2010


(posted that before Ironmouth's second set of links)
posted by bonaldi at 10:16 AM on January 5, 2010


Did any of the three mentioned convictions have anything to do with posting on the internet?

If you commit a crime on the Internet, you commit a crime in real life!
posted by jock@law at 10:17 AM on January 5, 2010


"These are facts. People are welcome to ignore those facts and just keep on saying stuff that isn't true. But somebody is going to make a big mistake one of these days."

None of those examples seemed to be on point, especially given the context of AskMe, to the extent that I wonder if you actually read your search results. The first was for acting as an attorney and filing documents—documents not applicable to the jurisdiction the "non-attorney filer" was in. The second was for inventing a county and using that as a basis for fraud, essentially. The third was someone who ultimately was not censured for practicing law without bar sanction, but for commingling his funds in an attempt to evade the law. In all of these cases, there is a common thread of personal enrichment and fiscal malfeasance that is simply non-existent in AskMe.

I understand the reluctance and the large risks that bad advice entails, and am mindful of the adage that a man who represents himself has a fool for a client, but that something bad could conceivably happen is not the same thing as something bad happening.
posted by klangklangston at 10:19 AM on January 5, 2010


Ironmouth writes "- reality-check-wise could you give me an example from the real world where someone got prosecuted and convicted for such a crime?

"Wayne Winrow.

"Thom Satterlee

"Cheyenne Jessie"


A former member of a bar who was lying to the bar about participation in active cases, a nut job actually presenting himself as a lawyer in a court and someone filling out paper work only allowed by the state to be filled out by a lawyer. These are all pretty cut and dried cases of fraud and not what is being discussed here.

Ironmouth writes "Also, since you can't get pharmaceuticals or do surgery on yourself,"

This isn't true in a great many, maybe even the majority of cases.
posted by Mitheral at 10:20 AM on January 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


bonaldi, that site you linked is interesting. I personally think she's skating a thin line, but all of the answers are very carefully hedged to essentially come down to "it depends on the particular facts, consult a lawyer."
posted by yarly at 10:21 AM on January 5, 2010


Ah, the second round of links is much more salient, and I'll take a moment to read them. DAMN YOU PREVIEW
posted by klangklangston at 10:22 AM on January 5, 2010


In all of these cases, there is a common thread of personal enrichment and fiscal malfeasance that is simply non-existent in AskMe.

What about favorites and being marked "best answer"? I'm being only party facetious here, but I'd be interested to see what counts as "enrichment" in 2027. Compare the discussion about taxing online gold as income.

Plus, it gives me an opportunity to flog my other pony--that "favorites" should be renamed "bookmarks" and should be visible only to the bookmarker. Heed my words, mods! Favorites are bad, and we're all going to jail!
posted by Admiral Haddock at 10:26 AM on January 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


If you commit a crime on the Internet, you commit a crime in real life!

Right, but that wasn't my point. The examples that had been posted had nothing to do with illegal use of law on the internet.

Seconding klangklangston here,

ah, the second round of links is much more salient, and I'll take a moment to read them. DAMN YOU PREVIEW
posted by morganannie at 10:26 AM on January 5, 2010


Wayne Winrow
Thom Satterlee
Cheyenne Jessie


What do these three have in common? That's right. All three gave general advice on the internet without being a bar-certified Lawyer™. Wayne Winrow posted on Yahoo! Answers that you can generally sell your car by following the instructions on the back of the title. He was NABBED! by the Suffolk County Sheriff's Office and sentenced to three years in a federal prison. Wayne now admits that he is a danger to the community.

Thom Satterlee posted on ask.metafilter.com that you should not punch a child. The Committee of Elders ruled that such an interpretation of the law constituted lawyery, and he was banished to the Grim Plains of Karak-Suut.

Cheyenne Jessie is still missing....
....
..?
posted by Optimus Chyme at 10:27 AM on January 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


The Grim Plains are actually kind of nice this time of year.
posted by Mister_A at 10:29 AM on January 5, 2010


Thanks for the links, Ironmouth.
posted by chinston at 10:30 AM on January 5, 2010


I'd be interested to see what counts as "enrichment" in 2027

Water that isn't distilled from your own urine.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 10:30 AM on January 5, 2010


Has anybody found someone actually arrested, prosecuted, or fined for posting "legal advice" comments on the internet? I'm pretty sure no.
posted by Mid at 10:32 AM on January 5, 2010


Ironmouth the posts you linked to you are fairly egregious examples, like this:

In both cases, Jessie had signed off on petitions as a non-attorney preparer, Peyton said. While some states allow nonlawyers to prepare bankruptcy petitions, Virginia is not one of them..

It seems he's violating a fairly specific statute and he signed off on a petition. I doubt anyone would construe "I'm not a lawyer but I've been in a similar legal experience once and here is what happened to me ..." in anywhere near the same ball park as operating an illegal bankruptcy business. The other cases are similar in nature.

I think ikkyu2 had a good point when it comes to questions from clearly mentally ill people. There is a lot of bad advice on the AskMetafilter and the mentally ill are almost by definition not in the frame of mind to decide a good answer from a bad one, but this is in a different ballpark.

As a non-lawyer I guess I could just "not get it" (and I mean that sincerely), but in the linked cases it goes way beyond a comment made onto a forum and a pattern of repeated malpractice.

It just seems, at least as far as I'm understanding, that if a friend came to me and asked how to deal with a traffic ticket, and I said, "Oh tell the judge you wish to plead down the charge," and he does and this somehow leads him to getting in trouble, he (or the bar association or whoever) could come after me for practicing law when I'm not a lawyer. This is really absurd.

As a counterpoint Stackoverflow runs a site on startup advice OnStartups.com and I see legal advice on there all the time. AskMetafilter is certainly not unique in that regard.
posted by geoff. at 10:32 AM on January 5, 2010


Plus, it gives me an opportunity to flog my other pony--that "favorites" should be renamed "bookmarks" and should be visible only to the bookmarker. Heed my words, mods! Favorites are bad, and we're all going to jail!

This came to be known as the Haddock maneuver or Haddock's Gambit. Derail by use of the discussion of favorites (or favourites.) When exercised adeptly your opponent will be left in bewilderment as the thread lurches away from them.
posted by Babblesort at 10:33 AM on January 5, 2010


that if a friend came to me and asked how to deal with a traffic ticket, and I said, "Oh tell the judge you wish to plead down the charge," and he does and this somehow leads him to getting in trouble, he (or the bar association or whoever) could come after me for practicing law when I'm not a lawyer

That's not the kind of situation we're talking about.
posted by jock@law at 10:39 AM on January 5, 2010


This came to be known as the Haddock maneuver or Haddock's Gambit. Derail by use of the discussion of favorites (or favourites.) When exercised adeptly your opponent will be left in bewilderment as the thread lurches away from them.

And if that doesn't work, I'll dust off the old Reverse Haddock Flank, which is both the most tender fillet of haddock, and also a scathing indictment of Metafilter's tolerance of stereotypes of how Israelis treat transgendered Palestinian vegans.

What was this thread about again?
posted by Admiral Haddock at 10:41 AM on January 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


This stuff is real. People in the legal profession are really looking at it. And this site needs to be damn careful about what it is doing. I've been warning about this for a long time. And the people telling me I'm wrong are not legal professionals and don't understand the real dangers.

I understand where you're coming from, but it seems difficult to understand how the state would ever be able to successfully prosecute a layperson for giving "legal advice" when the purported advisor does not hold themselves out as a licensed attorney, specifically indicates that they are not an attorney, the purported advice is in no way related to any business or market activity of the purported advisor, and the purported advisor receives no benefit of any sort whatsoever from offering the purported advice, in the face of a strong first amendment expectation that citizens should be able to freely discuss government, politics, and the legal output of the government without fear of being prosecuted.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:42 AM on January 5, 2010 [4 favorites]


That's not the kind of situation we're talking about.

You're right, I retract my comment.
posted by geoff. at 10:43 AM on January 5, 2010


Also, "the people telling me I'm wrong are not legal professionals and don't understand the real dangers"

This is wrong. I am telling you that your concern is overblown and I am a legal professional. The odds that anyone would ever waste time prosecuting a charge of unlawful practice of law against an internet commenter who was not (a) falsely representing themselves as a lawyer; or (b) charging money for the advice is very very low. The fact that neither you nor jock@law can find any example of any such prosecution in any jurisdiction supports that conclusion, as does the common sense point that state bar associations have a lot bigger fish to fry than AskMe comments (case in point being the egregious and inapposite examples of attorney wrongdoing you linked.)
posted by Mid at 10:43 AM on January 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


The fact that neither you nor jock@law can find any example of any such prosecution in any jurisdiction supports that conclusion, as does the common sense point that state bar associations have a lot bigger fish to fry...

Ohhhh so you mean you run Kazaa with an empty Shared Folder?
posted by jock@law at 10:48 AM on January 5, 2010


If you're giving computer advice, jock@law, I hope you've at least passed the foo bar.
posted by one more dead town's last parade at 10:54 AM on January 5, 2010 [4 favorites]


This is wrong. I am telling you that your concern is overblown and I am a legal professional.

Just to refocus - my original concern in posting this was not liability of answerers, but potential harm to askers. Since you are a legal professional, I really hope you do care about that.
posted by yarly at 10:54 AM on January 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


strong first amendment expectation that citizens should be able to freely discuss government, politics, and the legal output of the government without fear of being prosecuted.

There is no first amendment expectation that one can engage in commerical speech related to practicing a licensed profession.

This is wrong. I am telling you that your concern is overblown and I am a legal professional. The odds that anyone would ever waste time prosecuting a charge of unlawful practice of law against an internet commenter who was not (a) falsely representing themselves as a lawyer; or (b) charging money for the advice is very very low. The fact that neither you nor jock@law can find any example of any such prosecution in any jurisdiction supports that conclusion

This is a totally new area of the law. You can take risks if you like. I am assuming you are an attorney. I think it is unlikely that UPL prosecutions are going to be handed out for the advice, at least from non-lawyers not putting themselves out there as lawyers. However, there are liability risks for MeFi that Matt needs to get a handle on. He needs to see a lawyer, just to get an opinion.

But this is getting sidetracked--My main point originally wasn't liability at all, I was merely responding to other posters. My main point was "is this good for the people who are asking the questions?" And I believe the answer to be no.

There is a huge amount of wrong legal advice on AskMe. Just linking to a section of law that you think is correct isn't going to cut it. It is often wrong. And that's the tip of the iceburg. There is just plain erroneous advice that I can't even call out because I'm not a lawyer in the jurisdiction. I just say--ignore and get a lawyer.

In the end are clients and persons with legal problems well-served by the way AskMe is handling this? I say no. Do you think they are getting well helped?
posted by Ironmouth at 10:59 AM on January 5, 2010


Just to refocus - my original concern in posting this was not liability of answerers, but potential harm to askers.
and
In the end are clients and persons with legal problems well-served by the way AskMe is handling this? I say no. Do you think they are getting well helped?

Is the way to fix this problem to a) get people to stop asking questions that might have a legal aspect, b) stop laymen from answering them or c) get lawyers to unclam?

a) isn't going to happen, especially with questions like the original linked one, b) isn't going to happen, either: answerers answer. Which leaves c), and brings us back to the question of liability.

That's why it's not a sidetrack, it's really at the heart of this. Can lawyers give general advice and opinion as Mid suggests, or are they unable to even call out the mistakes? Settle that and you settle the harm-to-posters issue.
posted by bonaldi at 11:07 AM on January 5, 2010


However, there are liability risks for MeFi that Matt needs to get a handle on. He needs to see a lawyer, just to get an opinion.

Are you assuming that Matt hasn't already contacted a lawyer, or do you know this as fact?
posted by morganannie at 11:07 AM on January 5, 2010


Is the way to fix this problem to a) get people to stop asking questions that might have a legal aspect, b) stop laymen from answering them or c) get lawyers to unclam?

a) isn't going to happen, especially with questions like the original linked one, b) isn't going to happen, either: answerers answer. Which leaves c), and brings us back to the question of liability


Drop the category, mods delete all legal based questions. Simple. Some work, but it gets done.
posted by Ironmouth at 11:09 AM on January 5, 2010


Can lawyers give general advice and opinion as Mid suggests, or are they unable to even call out the mistakes? Settle that and you settle the harm-to-posters issue.

Bonaldi - No, lawyers are not going to be willing to call out mistakes (any more than I have here, or to say "get a lawyer) or give opinions on specific questions. Lawyers take this really, really seriously. You just can't advise clients in a public internet forum. Not only would you be giving bad, off-the-cuff advice, but you'd also be breaching attorney-client privilege.
posted by yarly at 11:12 AM on January 5, 2010


Drop the category, mods delete all legal based questions. Simple. Some work, but it gets done.
The question linked was in "human relations", and is much broader than just a "legal-based question". I think it's more than "some work", too, for non-lawyer mods to police AskMe for answers that could amount to legal advice in any given jurisdiction.
posted by bonaldi at 11:12 AM on January 5, 2010


There is no first amendment expectation that one can engage in commerical speech related to practicing a licensed profession

You're maintaining that any speech related to legal questions, even speech that is not connected to commercial activity in any way, is automatically commercial speech rather than simple private speech or political speech?
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:13 AM on January 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


No, lawyers are not going to be willing to call out mistakes (any more than I have here, or to say "get a lawyer) or give opinions on specific questions. Lawyers take this really, really seriously. You just can't advise clients in a public internet forum. Not only would you be giving bad, off-the-cuff advice, but you'd also be breaching attorney-client privilege.

Again, it seems that not all lawyers here agree with you, and nor does everyone unanimously see it as an attorney-client relationship. You keep construing it as such, but there are other interpretations and approaches, like those from the site I linked to.
posted by bonaldi at 11:14 AM on January 5, 2010


jock@law: you just refuse to address the enormous real-world hole in your argument. There is no real world example of the danger you are warning everyone about in stark and authoritative terms. You are cautioning everyone about a prosecution that has never happened. Any 1L can come up with a theoretical legal risk and then play Chicken Little and warn everyone against a bunch of issue spotting scenarios. There are lot of theoretical legal risks in life. Your own 1040 probably has 10 theoretical legal risks more serious than the one we are discussing. Jessamyn specially asked about the real-world risks. The nonsense responses (a bunch of links to people who did nothing resembling the type of conduct we are discussing here) and unsupported assertions ("this is a crime!!") tells the tale -- the real-world risk is very very small.

Ironmouth: I am unaware of any successful prosecution against a website for the comments of its users other than the one odd-ball housing discrimination case from (I think) the Ninth Circuit. I am aware of many cases rejecting such liability under 47 U.S.C. 230. I think the risks for Matt are very low, but I agree with you that it would not hurt him to see a lawyer about it (I am betting he already has).

As for the specific comments on AskMe, I think they are totally harmless. I mean, the post in question is about a person's legal "right" to stay in an apartment for which they (1) have not signed a lease; (2) do not pay rent; and (3) have lived in for something like a week. I would say the person does not have a strong claim to any rights in the apartment. But, like most of these sorts of questions, the legal issue isn't really the point -- I will personally guarantee that the AskMe poster and the unwanted guest will never see the inside of a courtroom with this dispute. The guest certainly isn't going to file a non-frivolous suit (what would be the cause of action?), the police certainly aren't going to file charges against anyone, etc. So you're left with "how do I get this annoying person out of my apartment?" To act like this is an important Legal Issue with ramifications that would reach a state bar disciplinary committee is just silly.

I think most AskMe's are like that. The specific, definitive legal answer is usually not the point and usually does not solve the problem. Typically, there is no definitive answer. Or the answer is "you need to see a lawyer because there is no definitive answer and this is complicated." I am not aware -- and nobody has linked to -- any specific, definitive wrong legal advice given on AskMe that would lead to any real-world bad consequences.
posted by Mid at 11:14 AM on January 5, 2010


Is the way to fix this problem to a) get people to stop asking questions that might have a legal aspect, b) stop laymen from answering them or c) get lawyers to unclam?

Bonaldi, I think the crux of the issue is that the answer that sparked all this was from a layperson in another jurisdiction who gave a definitive sounding answer, told the OP not to seek a lawyer, and gave a cite to a statute that may or may not be applicable (and, cue pony #1, there may be regs or other guidance that affect the outcome).

The original hue and cry was not over answerer's liability, per se, but the liability of the OP if she just followed the authoritative-sounding answer.

I think the solution is simple: if you're not a lawyer, say "I am not a lawyer, but check this out, I think may be relevant..." and "you should double-check with a lawyer in your jurisdiction." At the very least, an OP would be clearly on notice to do some more digging.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 11:15 AM on January 5, 2010


bonaldi: you're offtopic. nobody has said anything about problems with "answering" "questions that might have a legal aspect." the problem is doing a specific act, called, at law, "offering legal advice."

Ex. 1: "I got one of those tickets once and didn't think it was fair, so I asked for a formal hearing. The prosecutor's office offered me a deal to reduce my fines, and I took it. You could try that." = Almost definitely IS NOT legal advice

Ex. 2: "The law is that you have A, B, and C rights. [citation of dubious quality, probably unresearched]. She has no rights whatsoever, kick her out TONIGHT." = Almost definitely IS legal advice

Please tell me that you see and understand the difference between the two.
posted by jock@law at 11:15 AM on January 5, 2010


Again, it seems that not all lawyers here agree with you, and nor does everyone unanimously see it as an attorney-client relationship. You keep construing it as such, but there are other interpretations and approaches, like those from the site I linked to.
posted by bonaldi at 11:14 AM on January 5 [+] [!]


Again, take a look at that site -- almost every one of those answers boils down to "it depends" and "consult a lawyer in your jurisdiction." If there's a mefi US lawyer who's comfortable doing more, I'd be interested to know who, and what parameters they use, but I think most of us keep pretty similar limits.
posted by yarly at 11:16 AM on January 5, 2010


Ex. 1: "I got one of those tickets once and didn't think it was fair, so I asked for a formal hearing. The prosecutor's office offered me a deal to reduce my fines, and I took it. You could try that." = Almost definitely IS NOT legal advice

Ex. 2: "The law is that you have A, B, and C rights. [citation of dubious quality, probably unresearched]. She has no rights whatsoever, kick her out TONIGHT." = Almost definitely IS legal advice


Exactly. And I would add that Ex. 1 is often the more useful kind of information to have about how a legal situation will actually play out and a perfect example of a good use of Askme! If I got a traffic ticket and wanted to know if I was going to get my fine reduced, I'd be much more likely to post here and get experiences from people who had been to traffic court than I would be to read the statute.
posted by yarly at 11:20 AM on January 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


There is no real world example of the danger you are warning everyone about in stark and authoritative terms.

The law has the potential to screw people over pretty bad, and it's utterly unconscionable that you're going out of your way to make sure it does. Everyone here knows that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, especially when - as has been explained - state trial courts don't exactly get their decisions on Westlaw. You're left with news reports. Yeah, a lot of the news reports that have been linked are egregious. Oh you mean news reports only cover newsworthy violations? Color me shocked.

Link me to a "citation" about someone getting arrested, tried before a jury, and convicted of Driving While License Suspended in, say, Michigan. Until you do, please stop ranting aimlessly. You're spreading misinformation and it has the potential to really hurt people.
posted by jock@law at 11:24 AM on January 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


I think ikkyu2 had a good point when it comes to questions from clearly mentally ill people. There is a lot of bad advice on the AskMetafilter and the mentally ill are almost by definition not in the frame of mind to decide a good answer from a bad one, but this is in a different ballpark.

There is actually a lot of really good information regarding mental illness in AskMe, and I'm not the only one supplying it. So_gracefully, dchryssr and greta simone are just a couple other social workers I think of off the top of my head (there are a few others, sorry I can't recall everyone!) who have good things to say, Omie Wise, of course, is consistently on point and both dilattante and Mavri are attorneys with experience in mental health related issues that supply great information regarding the disability process. What you don't see any of the above people doing is diagnosing people based on the limited type of unvarifiable information usually presented in AskMe, nor making recommendations about whether someone should or should not take medication, nor what kind of medications they should be taking. When we see people who are not mental health professionals doing this, we call them out. If there is ever a case where someone is even vaguely possibly in a state of mental health crisis, we instruct them to get to an emergency room.

There is a lot of bad advice on mental illness here, sure. But you know what? You should see my memail folder. You should see my personal email inbox. I get a new person reaching out to me just about every week because of something they read here, and I do the best I can to help those people and get them in touch with the real life professionals nearest to them who can provide the services they or their loved ones need. A lot of those people got back in touch with me at some point later on and told me that the information I provided helped them.

Honestly, I think the mental health professionals on the site have set a pretty good standard for how AskMe can be used appropriately to obtain information and instructions about accessing and coping with the hurdles often encountered in the systems we work inside.
posted by The Straightener at 11:26 AM on January 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


jock@law: You're quipping about kazaa and snipping at Jessamyn, so shove your "offtopic".

Regardless, I still feel on-topic, because people here are questioning whether every type of post made on AskMe in legally-related threads by a lawyer is tantamount to doing that which is called, at law, "offering legal advice".

I absolutely see the difference in your two examples. Setting aside the issue of the risk to the answerer in Ex 2, as I assume no actual lawyer is going to perform the act which is called, at law, "offering legal advice" here, the question remains whether or not lawyers can improve AskMe and help reduce the harm that yarly is worried about by highlighting incorrect answers of the Ex 2 kind. I mean, "stop reading this rubbish and get to a doctor because x and y" is pretty often seen and acceptable on medical AskMes, for instance. Is "stop reading this rubbish and get to a lawyer because x and y" really so lethal to lawyers?

Yarly seems to think she can't even comment on the matters in the linked thread without creating and simultaneously destroying an attorney-client relationship. That question seems moot, to me.

The original hue and cry was not over answerer's liability, per se, but the liability of the OP if she just followed the authoritative-sounding answer.

I think the solution is simple: if you're not a lawyer, say ...


AskMe has always been reader-beware. If the OP follows what amounts to legal advice and fucks up, well, they took legal advice from an internet stranger. But any solution that proposes that every AskMe answerer should couch certain answers in a non-obvious way to avoid non-obvious (and unproven) legal risks when AskMe askers have shown they can't even navigate the Headline field without three different sets of warnings is on a hiding to nothing.
posted by bonaldi at 11:28 AM on January 5, 2010


koeselitz: Maybe some, but it isn't banned by any law in the US, either federal or state.

I see that Ironmouth has this covered, although as far as I know the sort of conduct that leads to prosecution is typically more "actual" legal representation (e.g. sending a letter to someone saying "I represent Mr. SoAndSo ...") than the sort of thing you'd encounter here.

Kadin2048: If there are professional or ethical obligations that prevent practicing lawyers or doctors from saying anything in response to legal or medical questions besides "consult an attorney" or "consult a doctor," that's unfortunate and a loss to the community — but it's a problem that lies entirely within those professions, their professional associations, and the laws that govern them.

I agree entirely, but it's a tricky thing. It's always amazed me that my own body is such a mystery to me. A pain in my gut could be indigestion, appendicitis, or cancer. A doctor could, presumably, tell me which it was. But I think it's unlikely that a casual comment by a MD friend at a cocktail party would convince me not to worry about it, it's probably gas. If nothing else, the continuing pain would be clear evidence to the contrary.

The law is different, because people don't typically encounter it at all until the shitstorm starts, and by then it's often too late to do anything about it. Casual legal advice could certainly cause someone to take or not take some action which turns out to be ill advised, or catastrophic, even. How is the advisee to know otherwise? Even leaving aside formal ethical rules, it pays for the lawyer to be careful.

I will continue to respond to questions that raise legal issues, as carefully as I can. People affected by the legal system have every right to learn about the system, and who better to provide an explanation than the people who work within it?
posted by lex mercatoria at 11:31 AM on January 5, 2010


The Kazaa quip, for those of you who need it spelled out, was about the imprudence of relying on the "oh well they'll be distracted by the big fish" method of legal compliance that Mid was suggesting for MeFi/AskMe. Ask Joel Tenenbaum how that's working out so far.
posted by jock@law at 11:34 AM on January 5, 2010


Jock@law -- here is your Michigan cite, in about 5 minutes worth of research. But, more importantly, what is your point exactly? Everyone knows that people are arrested every day for driving offenses. We don't need "citations" for that. The question on the table is whether anyone is ever arrested (or charged or fined) for unauthorized practice of law because of internet comments. Nobody has person experience saying "yes, this has happened." So we look for some other kind of non-personal experience evidence, like a citation to a document. You have none.
posted by Mid at 11:34 AM on January 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm with yarly in favoring uses of AskMe that help the asker to interact more effectively with members of any number of professions when that's warranted.

"What legal issues do I need to discuss with my attorney?"
"What questions should I ask my doctor to help get a proper diagnosis?" and
"Is it customary to tip a prostitute?"

Are all perfectly reasonable threads that will benefit from experience and possibly even professional insight, but wouldn't require someone to put themselves or the site in the uncomfortable position of being accused of developing a professional relationship.

It's all in the wording. I think that people should be more careful with their words. That's all.
posted by greekphilosophy at 11:34 AM on January 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


Link me to a "citation" about someone getting arrested, tried before a jury, and convicted of Driving While License Suspended in, say, Michigan. Until you do, please stop ranting aimlessly. You're spreading misinformation and it has the potential to really hurt people.

I'm guessing someone will do this shortly.
posted by morganannie at 11:38 AM on January 5, 2010


Mid did it before I even had time to post.
posted by morganannie at 11:39 AM on January 5, 2010


It's the Legal Training (tm)! IANYL IANML IANMLALALA!
posted by Mid at 11:40 AM on January 5, 2010


Jock@law -- here is your Michigan cite

Nope. We're talking about state trial court, remember? Linking to a drunk-driving appellate court opinion that happened to involve a license suspension doesn't cut it.

Everyone knows that people are arrested every day for driving offenses. We don't need "citations" for that.

No, you don't. My point is to demonstrate that non-noteworthy misdemeanor trials don't get media exposure. Your link - about a public-danger felony appeal - does not contradict that point.
posted by jock@law at 11:44 AM on January 5, 2010


I am not aware -- and nobody has linked to -- any specific, definitive wrong legal advice given on AskMe that would lead to any real-world bad consequences.

I bring you the following in regards to non-competes, from only a few weeks ago:

IANAL. I am, however, an IT guy of somewhat long standing, and it's pretty well known that non-competes are completely unenforceable in the state of California

not smart.

I am really not a lawyer. I don't even play one on Metafilter.

However, I have personally seen non-competes be thrown out of court with the admonition "If you ever try this again, I will hold you in contempt of court" to the litigant. However, it *went to court*. Note that. It still cost time and money. Yes, it was humiliating to the litigant, but they still did it. It was still painful to the person being sued.

Personally, I ignore them. I am fearless about non-competes *in my state*. Maybe you shouldn't be, consult a lawyer in your state.


this classic:

I probably wouldn't worry about it, living in CA. But you should talk to someone who actually knows what they're talking about.

There was one I can't find right now (think it was from the late Bageena and was eventually deleted), where there was an intestate estate. The person wanted to save money. Literally, someone suggested they "split it up evenly." If they would have done that they would have committed several felonies.

Bad legal advice happens here all of the time.
posted by Ironmouth at 11:47 AM on January 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


Is your point that state trial courts do not publish opinions? I guess you have me there, though I'm not sure what it is supposed to prove. State trial court decisions generate appeals, which are routinely reported. State trial court decisions also general news stories. Prosecutions of lawyers generate news stories in legal industry publications. If someone, somewhere, was prosecuted in the manner that you suggest is a serious danger, I would expect to see some artifact of it somewhere, be it in an appellate decision, a report from a state disciplinary committee, a news story, something. That there is nothing at all reported anywhere strikes me as pretty good proof that this is not something that happens very frequently, if at all.
posted by Mid at 11:49 AM on January 5, 2010


None of that strikes me as bad advice, relatively speaking in the context of free anonymous legal advice. Non-competes are generally not enforceable in CA, true statement. Why is that bad advice?
posted by Mid at 11:52 AM on January 5, 2010


So why isn't there some magical database you can search that gets you results of all court rulings ever? It's the year 2010 and shit. It would be cool if I could easily find out what arguments/defenses/excuses around here worked for getting out of red light camera tickets.

And if my genius "It was 12 degF that night, it hasn't been that cold here in nearly a decade, how do we know the equipment was rated for that" has any chance in hell of helping me out :(.
posted by floam at 11:56 AM on January 5, 2010


That there is nothing at all reported anywhere strikes me as pretty good proof that this is not something that happens very frequently, if at all.

Which is plainly erroneous. Not only is it a logical fallacy, but malum prohibitum misdemeanors are in the exact same boat, including ones that we are both very certain happen all the damn time. Can I find an example of a state misdemeanor prosecution for UPL without something more egregious? no. Can you find an example of a state misdemeanor prosecution for DWLS without something more egregious? no. In neither case does it mean that they do not exist. All it means is that the material 'proving' their existence is scant.

DWLS certainly gets prosecuted more than UPL, no doubt about it. But that doesn't mean it's not a big potential legal problem that Matt should look at with a lawyer.
posted by jock@law at 11:58 AM on January 5, 2010


The back-and-forth here is getting kind of obnoxious. For what it's worth, this law review article couldn't find any such cases as of 2006 (I know, that's ancient in internet years.) "I have found no instances of unauthorized practice proceedings being brought against those who answered questions in legal forums." Of course, there's still a real danger of it happening, but there you go.
posted by naju at 12:00 PM on January 5, 2010 [3 favorites]




I'm basically with Mid on this one, and though there have been many times when I have seen legal questions on AskMe that have made me say, "You need a lawyer, not strangers on the internet," this is an instance where I feel like the cure to "bad" (i.e., uninformed) speech is more speech, not to shut down discussion entirely by deleting all law-related questions. That seems like a fool's errand, and possibly even counterproductive based on my dim understanding of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. But that's not to say that Matt shouldn't get professional advice, as Mid says.
posted by chinston at 12:03 PM on January 5, 2010


None of that strikes me as bad advice, relatively speaking in the context of free anonymous legal advice. Non-competes are generally not enforceable in CA, true statement. Why is that bad advice?

Note you said generally. Plus there's a nice comment on the end of the thread from a lawyer saying that court decisions can change all of the time and that it happened in Texas the year before. People should not be giving clear-cut answers without even looking at the document.

Are you an attorney?
posted by Ironmouth at 12:03 PM on January 5, 2010


What is the goal of the lawyers here in banning law questions?

Options:
1) To protect Metafilter from getting sued somehow.
2) To protect users from answering and getting arrested for Unauthorized Practice of Law.
3) To protect users from getting bad advice and convince them to see a lawyer.

Even if (1) and (2) are realistic threats, I don't think this will accomplish (3) at all. The users will just go to a forum that does allow the questions, or Google for themselves. People just don't go to lawyers for small things, unless they already have a pre-existing relationship with a lawyer.
posted by smackfu at 12:08 PM on January 5, 2010


Note you said generally.

Isn't the OP discovering "general", currently-correct information a good thing? The whole point of Ask Me? Lots of things change over time, it's not unique to law.
posted by floam at 12:11 PM on January 5, 2010


The thing about "ask a lawyer" as advice is that, while it's technically the most correct thing to do in many cases, it's extremely unhelpful for a whole lot of people. Free legal services are stretched and strapped. We turn away more people than we can help. And that's just the people poor enough to qualify for our services. The massive numbers of people who aren't poor enough to qualify but can't afford hundreds or thousands of dollars in legal fees are completely shit out of luck in our legal system.

Courts and free legal services orgs and bar associations try to address this problem by publishing fact sheets and offering general legal advice. Lots of us have intake lines, clinic hours, or other means to answer questions and give general legal advice based on the information a person gives and a review of whatever legal documents they have.

That doesn't seem much different than answering an askme with possibly incomplete facts. I think the thing is, you have to do it very carefully, which is what the original called-out comment didn't do (because it gave a definitive answer). I've never really thought about a formal structure to this kind of advice, but if I think what I probably tend to do (in my job) is: 1) general statement of the relevant law, 2) possible ways the law will apply to the person's situation given the facts I know, 3) what I think is the likely outcome, with an emphasis on the uncertainty of my prediction, and 4) some advice, again with an emphasis that I can't be certain. I think my answers in AskMe probably follow that general format, although I haven't gone back and looked at them.

This sort of advice giving is certainly controversial. There is always the risk that a missing fact would change everything. There's also the risk that a person will take your advice, the situation will change, but the person will continue to act on the old (now incorrect) advice. But the thing is, short of a civil Gideon, the alternative is people negotiating complex legal systems without any help at all. And I think that's worse.

The question at issue here is an illustration of why I think it's OK, and even good, for lawyers to sometimes pipe up. There were a slew of "change her locks" comments. Now, it's possible all those people are familiar with New York City's illegal eviction law, saw that the person had only been there a few days, and accurately assessed that the OP would not be in danger of running afoul of the illegal eviction law if she changed the locks. But I really, seriously doubt it. So I and a couple of other people pointed out that there is a risk in changing the locks in New York City, although probably not in this case. If the OP had been silent on the amount of time the person had been there, she could have had a serious problem if she followed all the lock-changing advice.

Some people would say that this just shows no one should ever give legal advice on the internet because you get told to change the locks in a city with an illegal eviction law. But, I think people need a way to get legal advice--or maybe I should say legal information--sometimes, even if they can't afford it (or in this case, maybe don't even know they need it.) And how to enforce such a rule? This question, not explicitly a legal question, is going to by its nature lead to "change the locks" answers. Is it best if an attorney who knows that this could be bad advice just ignores it?
posted by Mavri at 12:14 PM on January 5, 2010 [3 favorites]


This looks kind of neat.

You can stick in a question and a bunch of lawyers answer.
posted by floam at 12:16 PM on January 5, 2010


Isn't the OP discovering "general", currently-correct information a good thing?

Nope, because there could be exceptions to the general rule. In fact there was a rather epic battle over enforcement of out-of-state non-competes against Californians. (That case is so confusing that I'm not even sure what it means; but I definitely would never rest on a "generally" wrt a noncompete, I can tell you that much.)
posted by yarly at 12:20 PM on January 5, 2010


Incidentally, if you really want to protect users from being an actual danger to themselves, it's the threatening comments you have to watch out for.

Remember that BART shooting last year? Someone threatened the cop on a message board, and got three years in prison for it.
posted by smackfu at 12:21 PM on January 5, 2010


Ironmouth, I think you're still on too much of a vendetta to burn the forest here. Nobody is arguing that bad legal advice isn't handed out on MeFi, though you keep kicking the horse. But by the same token, lots of lousy all-kinds-of-other-advice gets handed out too. How many times have we told someone to DTMFA when they might have been perfect for each other? Who knows.

jock, I think you're snippy because someone found a DWLS case. Your point still stands, but to argue that nobody can find what we would consider evidence of a DWLS conviction in Michigan doesn't fly.

Why are we all assuming that Matt hasn't talked to a lawyer about this?
posted by craven_morhead at 12:24 PM on January 5, 2010


Oh, and yarly, can you march out how giving legal advice on mefi automatically breaches attorney/client privilege? I understand that it can, but not how it automatically does, unless you assume that an attorney/client relationship is automatically created.
posted by craven_morhead at 12:27 PM on January 5, 2010


Isn't the OP discovering "general", currently-correct information a good thing?

Nope, because there could be exceptions to the general rule.


It sounds like AskMe needs to be shut down entirely then, because general mostly-correct advise is all that's there. Or at least any question of importance that could affect sombodies life in any way. Which is many of them.

I understand (although don't "like") the idea of worrying about legal troubles for Metafilter or answerers, but I haven't seen (as a non-lawyer) a good argument yet for why legal information from a non-lawyer that's mostly correct and general would be anyworse than the same for medical advise, or jumping out of a plane advise.
posted by floam at 12:27 PM on January 5, 2010


This looks kind of neat.

You can stick in a question and a bunch of lawyers answer.


Wow. Just wow. I just poked around a bit, but it strikes me as a law version of high schoolers asking on Yahoo Answers whether they can get pregnant from a hot tub, with answers by college sophomores.

To their credit, most of the answers involve "get a lawyer," though a troubling percentage don't disclaim an atty/client relationship, give a Circular 230 notice, or ask for missing facts.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 12:27 PM on January 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


Oh, and yarly, can you march out how giving legal advice on mefi automatically breaches attorney/client privilege? I understand that it can, but not how it automatically does, unless you assume that an attorney/client relationship is automatically created.
posted by craven_morhead at 12:27 PM on January 5 [+] [!]


Yes, it depends on whether an attorney-client relationship is formed, which depends on reasonability, etc. But I usually play very conservatively on this one. Whenever I talk to a potential client I consider it covered by the privilege as well as confidentiality duties, so I would see it that way if I were to answer a specific legal question on askme too. I don't believe in "IANYL" disclaimers, basically.
posted by yarly at 12:33 PM on January 5, 2010


I also think that the ethical rules that tightly constrain what advice lawyers can give are unethical and protectionist. But I'm not Queen of the World, so I have to follow the rules as best I can.
posted by Mavri at 12:33 PM on January 5, 2010


"Can you find an example of a state misdemeanor prosecution for DWLS without something more egregious? no."

Hi, I was charged with driving on a suspended license in Michigan, because I drove on a suspended license in Michigan. I pled it out to something or other (improper tags?) that didn't involve any points and paid a fine, on the advice of the prosecutor.

So, yeah, I'm your example right here. Not only that, but you're the one making the categorical mistake: The reason why civil—and suspended licenses don't even necessarily bump up in Michigan above the traffic court—aren't news is because they are so common. To argue that it's fallacious to hold that absent some record no one has been seriously disciplined for giving legal advice on the internet is silliness, because the very novelty of such a case would make it newsworthy.

Or, to be more clear, you mistake the burden of proof: You're asserting a positive, that these cases ("crimes") can and do occur. That's the claim you need to justify with evidence. The case against is that there is insufficient evidence—any, really—to justify that claim. Otherwise, you're arguing that we should be afraid of the invisible dragons that live in our closets, and braying "Fallacy!" when someone reasonably asserts that because no evidence exists for these dragons we ought not to let our behavior be influenced by questions of their existence.
posted by klangklangston at 12:34 PM on January 5, 2010


yarly, then why doesn't proclaiming "Hey, I'm not your lawyer, we don't have an attorney/client relationship" in your askmefi answer prevent the attorney/client relationship from forming, and therefore insulate you from claims of a breach of attorney/client privilege?
posted by craven_morhead at 12:37 PM on January 5, 2010


Ironmouth, do they teach you to be such an insufferable sanctimonious jerk in law school or did you start out that way? Your profession is not special and isn't going to be treated like lawyers are priests at the temple of Solomon and opening the Ark without a lawyer present is going to cause legal demons to melt our faces off.
posted by Justinian at 12:41 PM on January 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


Put a check-box in the sign up that says, "I agree that all comments are for entertainment purposes only." Like with facebook recently, old users get a "some features have changed, please complete this check-box before proceeding" message.
posted by StickyCarpet at 12:42 PM on January 5, 2010


I'll back off because I should be working. But, Ironmouth, I would submit that your examples of "bad" legal advice on AskMe aren't really all that bad. The California law point seems pretty much correct. Yes, there are exceptions and nuances in the law that people will miss with "general" or "off the cuff" answers, but the same is true of any form of advice on AskMe, including other Serious Business, as someone aptly said above. Most of the advice you linked has express disclaimers like "I am not a lawyer" or "you should talk to someone about this." And I think the "conflict of interest" comment was also not necessarily wrong -- the commenter said that the lawyer might not even know about the "conflict" because nothing in the question indicated that the lawyer knew that the brothers had become adverse to one another.

And klang nails it with respect to the lack of evidence.
posted by Mid at 12:42 PM on January 5, 2010


Ironmouth writes "My main point was 'is this good for the people who are asking the questions?' And I believe the answer to be no.

"There is a huge amount of wrong legal advice on AskMe. Just linking to a section of law that you think is correct isn't going to cut it. It is often wrong. And that's the tip of the iceburg. There is just plain erroneous advice that I can't even call out because I'm not a lawyer in the jurisdiction. I just say--ignore and get a lawyer. "


It's getting to the point of DTMFA cliche.

jock@law writes "Everyone here knows that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, especially when - as has been explained - state trial courts don't exactly get their decisions on Westlaw. You're left with news reports. Yeah, a lot of the news reports that have been linked are egregious. Oh you mean news reports only cover newsworthy violations? Color me shocked."

A case where any even marginally connected forum administrator or his users was prosecuted for practising law without a licence would hit the net like a hammer to a finger. Everyone would know, you wouldn't have to go searching for it.

Ironmouth writes "An all time classic. The guy doesn't do anything, the statute of limitations passes. There are dozens more. Dozens."

Whoop dee do. I've seen electrical advice so wrong that houses would burn down at a minimum if followed and people could die with a little bad luck. I have no doubt the same things are seen by engineers, appraisers, chemists, pharmacists, doctors, therapists, etc ad nauseum in their respective professional areas all the time. That kind of risk is one people assume by asking questions of strangers.
posted by Mitheral at 12:46 PM on January 5, 2010


Justinian, there are enough arguments floating around here without personal attacks. One major thrust of Ironmouth's arguments that you don't seem to grasp is that, while the profession may not be special, there are special laws that apply only to someone's dissemination of legal advice without a license that do not apply to, say, furniture-building advice given without a license.
posted by craven_morhead at 12:47 PM on January 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


yarly, then why doesn't proclaiming "Hey, I'm not your lawyer, we don't have an attorney/client relationship" in your askmefi answer prevent the attorney/client relationship from forming, and therefore insulate you from claims of a breach of attorney/client privilege?
posted by craven_morhead at 12:37 PM on January 5 [+] [!]


I'm not so worried about claims against me - I'm worried about the client losing his/her privilege. That's like the worst thing ever to do if you're a lawyer, lose somebody their privilege.

In terms of establishing an attorney/client relationship, I don't believe that a disclaimer is enough (in terms of my understanding of the law and my own personal ethics) if you give specific advice tailored to somebody's specific problem. "IANYL" is just a joke.
posted by yarly at 12:48 PM on January 5, 2010


I like the cite yarly, but those decisions relate to communications "with a view to obtaining legal services;" an argument that I don't think applies to MeFi. As for the client losing his/her privilege, if that happens at all with an AskMeFi question, wouldn't it happen in the question itself? How would you answer affect the client losing privilege?
posted by craven_morhead at 12:51 PM on January 5, 2010


If that happens at all with an AskMeFi question, wouldn't it happen in the question itself? How would you answer affect the client losing privilege?
posted by craven_morhead at 12:51 PM on January 5 [+] [!]


I do think that some Askers request specific legal advice, close enough to be a request for legal services if they know the answerer is a lawyer. "Service" is pretty broadly definable. And yes, I guess the question itself could be privileged under other circumstances.
posted by yarly at 1:01 PM on January 5, 2010


Got it.
posted by craven_morhead at 1:06 PM on January 5, 2010


jock, I think you're snippy because someone found a DWLS case. Your point still stands, but to argue that nobody can find what we would consider evidence of a DWLS conviction in Michigan doesn't fly.

I don't think I'm being snippy, but that's beside the point. I didn't argue that nobody could find evidence of a DWLS conviction, just like Mid didn't argue that nobody could find evidence of a UPL conviction. What I argued was that nobody reports on run-of-the-mill state misdemeanor convictions, so Mid's argument - that because there were no reports of run-of-the-mill state misdemeanor convictions, they are not prosecuted - is a nonstarter.

Mid forwarded the argument way back that, because Metafilter/MeFites was a small fish and not doing the kinds of egregious fraud that Ironmouth's links referenced, it/they would not get in trouble. He tried support this by claiming that the dangers of small fish prosecution were practically nonexistent. He claimed that he could surmise this by the lack of a record of small fish prosecutions. My whole point to the Kazaa quip, and my whole point to this, is by way of saying that (a) small fish do get prosecuted, all the time; and (b) if you don't see evidence of small fish being prosecuted, you should consider the possibility that it is because (i) small fish state misdemeanors don't get legal opinions (this is a fact) and (ii) small fish don't make big waves in the news.

I think this is a large flaw in Mid's argument, and it's one he has yet to address. It reminds me of this. A search turning up nothing might mean that the thing you're looking for doesn't exist, or it might mean that your search is making wrong assumptions about the ways in which something might evidence itself.

Appropriately, Mid - who I'm guessing is a paralegal or legal secretary - makes the mistake of providing a lay interpretation of the law when he cites to 47 U.S.C. § 230. It provides some limitations on liability for web sites, and some courts (in fact, the majority of circuits) have interpreted it as a broad liability shield. That's what you'd get out of Section 203 if you read the news and techie sites ("We've known for years that website operators cannot be held responsible for their users' content thanks to the broad immunities created by section 230 of the CDA. That's old news.").

A lawyer would tell you that the "broad immunity" has carveouts, notably for intellectual property. A lawyer would also tell you that, if you're a website that avails itself (I don't know by what standard - constitutional elements of civil procedure never were my strong suit, especially as applied to Internet cases, and I don't really feel like busting out Zippo and progeny right now) of users in Illinois, Indiana, or Wisconsin, you might wanna be more careful, because the Seventh Circuit has explicitly rejected the "broad immunity" interpretation of Section 230, choosing to interpret the definition section as, well, a definition section, meaning that the website won't be deemed to be the publisher of that legal advice, but leaving open the possibility of liability on other grounds.

So. Case in point, and kinda meta (hey that's kinda meta! (hey that's kinda meta!)). Does Matt want to take the chance that someone gets prosecuted for UPL and he's implicated by accomplice law in a jurisdiction where §230 doesn't shield him? Does he want to take precautions to shield him from liability (incorporating metafilter? encouraging non-lawyers to only relate personal anecdotes and not summary conclusions of what the law is?)? Setting aside liabilities, what does he think is the most helpful use of AskMe? Or maybe he uses criteria aside from helpfulness, what is the otherwise best use of AskMe? Who are we on AskMe as a community?

Dismissing the legitimate concerns with handwaving by non-lawyers isn't doing anyone any favors. And with that, I have to take my leave. Big-time depositions coming up on Monday and Tuesday. Ciao.
posted by jock@law at 1:11 PM on January 5, 2010


On the point of not finding anything, I think the problem with your argument that these misdemeanor cases come up all the time and they're such small fish that nobody talks about them is that if someone were convicted of what we're talking about, giving legal advice on an internet forum, I think it's pretty certain that the Corey Doctorows of the world would have picked it up and it would have had its news cycle by now. I believe that makes that type of small fish prosecutions are qualitatively different from a DWLS prosecutions.

Also, you're still running along with the assumption that Matt hasn't done anything to shield himself from legal attacks, which may or may not be true, AFAIK.
posted by craven_morhead at 1:20 PM on January 5, 2010


Oh, and good luck with the depos. Don't forget your funnel.
posted by craven_morhead at 1:21 PM on January 5, 2010


So why isn't there some magical database you can search that gets you results of all court rulings ever? It's the year 2010 and shit. It would be cool if I could easily find out what arguments/defenses/excuses around here worked for getting out of red light camera tickets.


Floam: they only report the interesting (from a legal point of view, not a factual one) cases. If someone challenged a driving ticket on some unique or obscure grounds, and won, it would possibly be reported. Cases where you go to court, plead guilty and pay a $100 fine don't get reported.

Depending where you are, maybe only 1% or so of cases get reported - that's the figure for New Zealand, I'm unsure whether it's higher (or lower) in the USA, but certainly the majority of cases aren't reported.

The cases that are reported, they're in databases. The main ones are Lexis and Westlaw. If you're really interested, a lot of cases are online for free at worldlii.org and its subsites.

(I am not a lawyer, I am a legal librarian).
posted by Infinite Jest at 1:27 PM on January 5, 2010


Legal threads full of lawyers talking in long sentences and focusing on the meaning of one word in a huge long run-on like sentence make me want to scratch my eyes out. And the national members association of optometrists isn't going to like that one bit. Cease and desist immediately! (I thought something magical would happen once I typed that; nothing happened. What gives? Do I need a cape?)
posted by anniecat at 1:32 PM on January 5, 2010


Yeah floam, it's both an issue as to the amount of data that would need to be generated if everything was reported, as well as a profitability issue. I don't want to pay Westlaw to find me 10,000 DUI cases that all have the same holding when all I need is one good case to cite to that has the holding in it. However, cases involving new or developing areas of the law, like whether a lawyer is liable for advice given in an internet posting, are generally appealed and published. For example, if an intermediate court of appeals hears a case where neither they nor their supreme court has dealt with an issue, their decision on that case will likely be reported.
posted by craven_morhead at 1:32 PM on January 5, 2010


Dude, you've mischaracterized my arguments multiple times over. Jessamyn asked a very specific question -- are there any real world examples of prosecutions for unlawful practice of law in connection with internet comments. Nobody has any examples, including you. For that reason, and others, my own sense is that the real world risk of such a prosecution is very very low. You have said nothing to suggest that I am wrong.

The "logical fallacy" you keep trying to spring -- that the lack of evidence of any such prosecutions does not necessarily mean that there are no such prosecutions -- doesn't really do the trick. We are not looking for anti-matter. We are looking for what I think you would acknowledge would be a groundbreaking, important, and unusual case -- a prosecution of a lawyer based on internet "helpline" comments. It is not unreasonable to expect that such a prosecution would be noted somewhere. I suppose you can choose to believe that there are such prosecutions and there just isn't any affirmative evidence of them, but I would submit that this is not a very good risk assessment method.

As to Matt and Section 230, I said expressly that it would make sense for him to talk to a lawyer. I don't know what your point is, though "accomplice liability" for a UPL charge is quite imaginative.

By the way, I'm a lawyer and I'd be willing to put my credentials against yours any day of the week. I didn't think it was germane to this discussion, but since you keep trying to dismiss my comments as "lay opinion," I guess we all have to whip out our badges.
posted by Mid at 1:34 PM on January 5, 2010 [5 favorites]


Bad legal advice happens here all of the time.

Sheesh, ftfy.
posted by fixedgear at 1:36 PM on January 5, 2010


jock@law: Mid - who I'm guessing is a paralegal or legal secretary ... handwaving by non-lawyers isn't doing anyone any favors ... Big-time depositions coming up ...

Jesus Fucking Christ, how tone deaf can you be? So, you "really don't feel like busting out Zippo and progeny right now"? Spare me.

Here's a tip: do not treat non-lawyers like children. Also, insufferable smugness is a poor way of getting your point across.
posted by lex mercatoria at 1:37 PM on January 5, 2010

Jarndyce and Jarndyce drones on. This scarecrow of a suit has, in course of time, become so complicated that no man alive knows what it means. The parties to it understand it least, but it has been observed that no two Chancery lawyers can talk about it for five minutes without coming to a total disagreement as to all the premises. Innumerable children have been born into the cause; innumerable old people have died out of it. Scores of persons have deliriously found themselves made parties in Jarndyce and Jarndyce without knowing how or why; whole families have inherited legendary hatreds with the suit. The little plaintiff or defendant who was promised a new rocking-horse when Jarndyce and Jarndyce should be settled has grown up, possessed himself of a real horse, and trotted away into the other world. Fair wards of court have faded into mothers and grandmothers; a long procession of Chancellors has come in and gone out; the legion of bills in the suit have been transformed into mere bills of mortality; there are not three Jarndyces left upon the earth perhaps since old Tom Jarndyce in despair blew his brains out at a coffee-house in Chancery Lane; but Jarndyce and Jarndyce still drags its dreary length before the court, perennially hopeless.
-- Dickens, Bleak House.

Oh, and as for Matt shielding himself, I'm pretty sure that somewhere around user number 50,000, he instituted a notice along with the $5 sign-up fee that you agree to be held personally liable, jointly and severally, for the debts of MetaFilter™. So, uh, you might want to talk to a lawyer, all you post-50kers. HTH.
posted by chinston at 1:40 PM on January 5, 2010 [4 favorites]


craven_morhead: I'm gonna guess you're a newborn lawyer too.

(clicks on profile)

Yep.

Look, this has been done to death. Metafilter isn't going to be creating a protected class of questions because a couple lawyers with new legal hammers understandably now see the world as a collection of nails. Ikkyu2, an extremely valued member of Mefi, felt the same way about medical questions because he is a doctor. He threatened to quit over it. Mefi didn't change, and he left. That is a loss for Metafilter, but not as much a loss as kowtowing to professional service providers because those services tend to be highly paid and competitive.

So, yeah, I think continuing to harp on this is a little egocentric. Metafilter is a community. In a community people talk about stuff. Sometimes that stuff concerns medicine, or the law, or any other topic.
posted by Justinian at 1:42 PM on January 5, 2010


And with that, I have to take my leave. Big-time depositions coming up on Monday and Tuesday. Ciao.
posted by jock@law at 1:11 PM on January 5


fuckin lol

*slams brew*

sorry I can't play with you little NERDS any longer i gotta go BANG twenty SUPER-HOT BABES
posted by Optimus Chyme at 1:46 PM on January 5, 2010 [10 favorites]


The worst advice I ever saw on AskMe was someone who had a dead tree in their yard, and it was suggested they just go buy a chainsaw and cut it down. Horribly dangerous suggestion.
posted by Rumple at 1:47 PM on January 5, 2010


I have no doubt the same things are seen by engineers, ... chemists, pharmacists, ... etc ad nauseum in their respective professional areas all the time.

Yes. This. I agree that the cure for misinformation is better information though. The arguments above are strikingly similar to the arguments given by the College of Physicians and Surgeons in Ontario in opposition to the implementation of Telehealth Ontario. This is a phone line run by nurse-practitioners to answer simple health questions from the general public. Some doctors fought it hard, calling it unprofessional, uninformed medical advice. In contrast, it's been a success in reducing the number of (expensive) GP visits on our public system.

A question for the lawyers saying that speech should be curtailed and questions deleted:

Is it good for the general public to be uneducated about the law, unknowing of their rights and responsibilities and unable to access answers for less than $100/hr? Is it better to educate with general advice, arm them with helpful questions they can ask a professional and smooth their passage through the law?
posted by bonehead at 1:47 PM on January 5, 2010 [3 favorites]


**(original comment removed upon preview.)

Mavri:"There were a slew of "change her locks" comments. Now, it's possible all those people are familiar with New York City's illegal eviction law, saw that the person had only been there a few days, and accurately assessed that the OP would not be in danger of running afoul of the illegal eviction law if she changed the locks."


I knew! I knew! And boy was I glad when I got to Mary's comment/link in the thread - saved me the trouble of posting myself. Also, I'm not sure how many people even know a long-term guest can claim legal residency under certain circumstances, so in my eyes it was cool people were talking about that, even if it wasn't exactly relevant to the ask.

-----

In short, I think it is valuable to be able to poll a bunch of strangers on the green concerning legal or medical questions, especially when folks describe their own similar experiences and what they learned. It helps me to know which way to turn instead of blindly believing the first bloke with a business card and snappy outfit.

For this reason.... I would hate hate hate for someone to read my question, know the answer, and not write in for fear of breaking a taboo on MetaFilter concerning advice "better given by a professional."

That would suck.
posted by jbenben at 1:50 PM on January 5, 2010


Justinian, I think you're ignoring the fact that we're generally on the same side here. I'm not advocating that mefi create a protected class of questions, or ban legal questions or legal answers or anything of the sort. My small point was that your argument that giving legal advice is exactly like giving all other types of advice is wrong, because the giving of legal advice is governed by a different set of rules.

I think that people have a lot to gain from legal advice on MeFi, if it's given and used carefully. I, like others, was just pointing out that the giving of legal advice brings with it different baggage than other topics. Some of the baggage, like the hazards of wrongful advice, is carried by all types of advice-giving, from RelationshipFilter to wiring.
posted by craven_morhead at 1:58 PM on January 5, 2010


> There are lot of theoretical legal risks in life.

Yes, and I get the impression that what lawyers really want is for us all to go around with a lawyer (on retainer, of course) permanently attached to us, advising us at every turn about every potential legal trap involved with everything we do. "I wouldn't pick up that phone, you could be getting yourself into a situation where you'd be liable." "Don't sign that credit-card receipt until I check the relevant local statutes." "Don't answer that question." "Dude, this is a date and she just asked if I liked fish!" "Your response could constitute a blanket endorsement; if she then ate fish and got sick, you'd be on the hook for her hospital bill. This kind of thing happens all the time." And our entire paychecks would go to our lawyers, and everyone would be happy. Well, the lawyers would, and that's what counts.
posted by languagehat at 2:00 PM on January 5, 2010 [11 favorites]


Shake me up, Judy!
posted by floam at 2:17 PM on January 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


Goddammit, craven_morhead, fight with me already. Fight!
posted by Justinian at 2:20 PM on January 5, 2010


SOMEONE IS WRONG ON THE INTERNET.
posted by craven_morhead at 2:23 PM on January 5, 2010


Some people would say that this just shows no one should ever give legal advice on the internet because you get told to change the locks in a city with an illegal eviction law. But, I think people need a way to get legal advice--or maybe I should say legal information--sometimes, even if they can't afford it (or in this case, maybe don't even know they need it.) And how to enforce such a rule? This question, not explicitly a legal question, is going to by its nature lead to "change the locks" answers. Is it best if an attorney who knows that this could be bad advice just ignores it?

Mavri's comment was the most thoughtful here. Part of the issue is that I'm a cleaner--I litigate, so perhaps I am more inclined to overestimate the issues related to it, because it is a trainwreck when I get the case.

But I really cannot see the value of letting persons unaquainted with the facts of the case making conclusory statements regarding the proper course of legal action. Because it is the provable facts that are being ignored in this context. Where I see the amateurs tripping up is in just assuming the facts are as presented, or not thinking about corallary facts that are critical in providing legal advice. Yes, people can look up the law. But the danger is in the overestimation of understanding of the questioner's situation which presents the greatest danger. A good attorney figures out what he or she has to know before looking at the facts in detail. The calls being made by people are often flat out wrong or at best unhelpful.

The danger is real. Because I know the consequences, I sure as hell think really hard about what the right course of action is before I advise my client. I spend a lot of time and do a lot of research first, to know if I have it right. But commenters on AskMe don't do that. They plop down any answer that strikes them in a flash of an eye. They overestimate their actual knowledge of the situation by taking on faith what the poster says as being the only facts needed to know. Without training and experience, it isn't really possible to do that.

Nor do they feel the pressure of having their ass on the line the way a lawyer does. I think that it is a proper thing to have to feel before just answering shit. That's because the person asking does have their shit on the line.

That's why I think these questions are bad news.
posted by Ironmouth at 2:26 PM on January 5, 2010


Okay, but who is getting billed for this time?
posted by found missing at 2:30 PM on January 5, 2010


Seriously.
posted by Mid at 2:31 PM on January 5, 2010


God, I wish I practiced an area of law that was even vaguely useful in a social context.

I think the problem as presented by Ironmouth - "conclusory statements" - is (a) a small percentage of answers compared to caveated general statements/advice, and (b) is easily pointed out and damage negated simply by saying that the person making the statement seems very sure of themselves in what is a complex situation (I recall this being done to me once on AskMe and I did sort of deserve it).
posted by patricio at 2:32 PM on January 5, 2010


Okay, but who is getting billed for this time?
posted by found missing at 2:30 PM on January 5 [+] [!]


I am, but I am going to pay you in hugs and sandwiches.
posted by yarly at 2:43 PM on January 5, 2010


So here is the "unauthorized practice of law" law for my state (CT), which prohibits this list:
(1) Practice law or appear as an attorney-at-law for another, in any court of record in this state,
(2) make it a business to practice law, or appear as an attorney-at-law for another in any such court,
(3) make it a business to solicit employment for an attorney-at-law,
(4) hold himself out to the public as being entitled to practice law,
(5) assume to be an attorney-at-law,
(6) assume, use or advertise the title of lawyer, attorney and counselor-at-law, attorney-at-law, counselor-at-law, attorney, counselor, attorney and counselor, or an equivalent term, in such manner as to convey the impression that he is a legal practitioner of law, or
(7) advertise that he, either alone or with others, owns, conducts or maintains a law office, or office or place of business of any kind for the practice of law.
I'm curious which number would cover giving legal advice. It seems like this list is pretty explicitly aimed at people pretending to be lawyers.
posted by smackfu at 2:43 PM on January 5, 2010 [1 favorite]



That's why I think these questions are bad news.


Let us consider the damage done to the thousands and thousands of people caught up in the legal traps spun by one set of lawyers who then cannot afford to spend hundreds of dollars per hour to hire a different lawyer to extract them.
posted by Rumple at 2:48 PM on January 5, 2010


I'm not a Connecticut Yankee lawyer, but a quick google search brought me to this:

"The practice of law consists in no small part of work performed outside of any court and having no immediate relation to proceedings in court. It embraces the giving of legal advice on a variety of subjects and the preparation of legal instruments covering an extensive field." State Bar Assn. v. Connecticut Bank & Trust Co., 145 Conn. 222, 140 A.2d 863 (1958) (holding that a non-lawyer who ran a legal document business was in violation of Conn. Gen. Stat. Ann. §51-88) (emphasis added).
posted by jock@law at 2:51 PM on January 5, 2010


who I'm guessing is a paralegal or legal secretary ... handwaving by non-lawyers isn't doing anyone any favors ... Big-time depositions coming up ...

Wow, this metatalk thread is super-long but super boring. It's not about anything but trying to figure out who has the biggest law-cock, or if law-cocks should even be swinging around outside of mefite's britches. It reminded me of the "I know more about this than I think you can imagine" thread and I hate that bullshit on metafilter. It's just a bunch of no-body internet people trying to snidely insinuate that they are actually really important. No you aren't. You are arguing on metatalk.

Listen to me! I am an expert in law -- breaking the law.
posted by fuq at 2:52 PM on January 5, 2010


Smackfu, what does it mean to "hold [yourself] out to the public as being entitled to practice law"? Does it require advertising? Or can you just announce you are a lawyer? Or fail to correct someone's assumption you are a lawyer? I would assume that it's not just advertising, because (6) calls out advertising by itself.

And snakes alive, what does it mean to act "in such manner as to convey the impression that he is a legal practitioner of law"? If you state definitively that the law is XYZ, does that give the impression that you are a lawyer? Have there been any recent cases or administrative rulings on this? What does the CT bar association think? Have they issued any directives on point?

Also, what does "assume to be an attorney-at-law" mean? I assume I'm an attorney, but I haven't double checked recently. I assume I'm not a lawyer in CT. I also assume I am a good kisser.

I'm not trying to have a go here--but those are just a fraction of the questions I would want to know before I told someone that they are not in violation of that rule--and that's just based on the short quote from the statute/regs/whatever it is that you posted.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 2:54 PM on January 5, 2010


I'm no lawyer, but I think that holding yourself out to the public might, at least, draw disapproving looks.
posted by found missing at 2:57 PM on January 5, 2010


Even on Big Gay Tuesday?
posted by Admiral Haddock at 2:59 PM on January 5, 2010


Wow, this metatalk thread is super-long but super boring. It's not about anything but trying to figure out who has the biggest law-cock, or if law-cocks should even be swinging around outside of mefite's britches. It reminded me of the "I know more about this than I think you can imagine" thread and I hate that bullshit on metafilter. It's just a bunch of no-body internet people trying to snidely insinuate that they are actually really important. No you aren't. You are arguing on metatalk.

I don't understand why this has degraded into an "Lawyers suck lolz" conversation. I have said at least, oh, 6 times that my concern was protecting Askers from harmful advice. I know it's fun to bash lawyers (until you need one...) but that's not relevant here.
posted by yarly at 3:12 PM on January 5, 2010


I have said at least, oh, 6 times that my concern was protecting Askers from harmful advice.

The only way to do that is to shut AskMe. People give bad advice on every topic known to man. Eating spoiled food and DIY electrical work by untrained people are probably far more immediately hazardous.
posted by GuyZero at 3:15 PM on January 5, 2010


I have said at least, oh, 6 times that my concern was protecting Askers from harmful advice.

And at least 6 people have said that since people will ask and be answered regardless, the best way to protect them is with more, better, advice. That lots of lawyers are ruling out the possibility of such answers is partly what's leading to "lol lawyers suck amirite"
posted by bonaldi at 3:16 PM on January 5, 2010


I have said at least, oh, 6 times that my concern was protecting Askers from harmful advice.

quotable
posted by found missing at 3:17 PM on January 5, 2010


I have said at least, oh, 6 times that my concern was protecting Askers from harmful advice.

The solution to problematic speech is more speech, not banning speech.
posted by Justinian at 3:18 PM on January 5, 2010


And at least 6 people have said that since people will ask and be answered regardless, the best way to protect them is with more, better, advice. That lots of lawyers are ruling out the possibility of such answers is partly what's leading to "lol lawyers suck amirite"
posted by bonaldi at 3:16 PM on January 5 [+] [!]


Ok, well I guess we're going in circles, because you're not hearing that there are serious, extremely well-established reasons that lawyers can't do that, that have been discussed extensively too. It's not like we're making this stuff up or that it's just our opinion. These rules are, like, the fundamentals of the practice of law.
posted by yarly at 3:19 PM on January 5, 2010


Ha. I did some more research on CT law and my conclusion is "who knows what they are currently interpreting that law to mean but at least the penalties are tiny".
posted by smackfu at 3:20 PM on January 5, 2010


I am not a lawyer, but I want you to piss on my face. Piss on my goddamn idiot face, fill my throat with urine, then hit me with an open fist across the cheek, hard, or even just punch me in the throat. Punch me in the mouth over and over and then make me gargle your piss, mixed with my blood and loose teeth, and make me try to sing a stupid song while I'm doing it, make me sing a country western song, then attach a chain to my dick and attach the other end to a cement block then push me off the top of a building onto a row of spikes. Perform a fatality on me and unlock new courses in Time Trial mode
posted by Damn That Television at 3:25 PM on January 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


because you're not hearing that there are serious, extremely well-established reasons that lawyers can't do that
What I hear is disagreement between lawyers about just exactly how broad those reasons should/can be when applied to advice on AskMe. You have an opinion at one end of the spectrum, but it's not conclusive, as far as I can see. It feels like you're not even hearing the other opinions, you just keep repeating that attorney-client applies and that general legal answers simply can't be given.

To make new AskMe rules about legal advice as if one side of an undecided disagreement was gospel is a bit of an ask, especially when those rules would be hard to apply and potentially counter-productive.
posted by bonaldi at 3:29 PM on January 5, 2010


"There were a slew of "change her locks" comments. Now, it's possible all those people are familiar with New York City's illegal eviction law, saw that the person had only been there a few days, and accurately assessed that the OP would not be in danger of running afoul of the illegal eviction law if she changed the locks."

Well, I'm in NYC and had a problem with an established tenant who got all rude and disrespectful and destructive. Police were called, they said an eviction would be required. Then they came into her room, saw how crazy it was, saw how she was acting, told her to take what she needed for the night and leave, then told me they had broad discretion, that they would not object if I changed the locks, and asked me to call them if she attempted to re-enter.
posted by StickyCarpet at 3:36 PM on January 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


For clarification, when you lawyers say you are not my lawyer, how do you know for sure you are not my lawyer? If you say you aren't my lawyer, but you really are my lawyer, aren't you violating some Connecticut law?
posted by found missing at 3:38 PM on January 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


Ironmouth writes "Where I see the amateurs tripping up is in just assuming the facts are as presented,"

There sure is a real Jekyll and Hyde thing going in AskMe in this regard and some of the most contentious threads have been where the "The poster presented all the relevant facts in a 100% unbiased manner" answerers have clashed with the "Reading between the lines you are a bad person and you have presented a horribly slanted and spun version of the truth" answerers.
posted by Mitheral at 3:45 PM on January 5, 2010


You have an opinion at one end of the spectrum, but it's not conclusive, as far as I can see. It feels like you're not even hearing the other opinions, you just keep repeating that attorney-client applies and that general legal answers simply can't be given.

I agree that I tend to be more conservative, but I don't think there was one lawyer who posted in this thread who thinks it's ok to give specific legal advice on askme the same way you would a client. Mavri came the closest, but even she qualified that her advice would be hedged as generalized, and that she realizes her position is controversial. If you took a poll of US Mefi lawyers and asked, "Is it ok to give legal advice on Askme?" I can guarantee you that the vast majority would answer no. The question that's much more difficult to answer is "what constitutes legal advice on the internet for professional ethics purposes?"
posted by yarly at 3:47 PM on January 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


Then they came into her room, saw how crazy it was, saw how she was acting, told her to take what she needed for the night and leave, then told me they had broad discretion, that they would not object if I changed the locks, and asked me to call them if she attempted to re-enter.

This doesn't surprise me. I always warn tenants who are concerned about being locked out that the police might not enforce the law. But if your tenant had brought an illegal lockout case in court you would have had to let them back in (assuming they had a lease and/or had been there 30 days and could prove it).
posted by Mavri at 3:48 PM on January 5, 2010


Well, I'm in NYC and had a problem with an established tenant who got all rude and disrespectful and destructive. Police were called, they said an eviction would be required. Then they came into her room, saw how crazy it was, saw how she was acting, told her to take what she needed for the night and leave, then told me they had broad discretion, that they would not object if I changed the locks, and asked me to call them if she attempted to re-enter.
posted by StickyCarpet at 3:36 PM on January 5 [+] [!]


See, I think that's a great contribution, perfect example.
posted by yarly at 3:51 PM on January 5, 2010


I agree that I tend to be more conservative, but I don't think there was one lawyer who posted in this thread who thinks it's ok to give specific legal advice on askme the same way you would a client.

For what it's worth, I don't think bonaldi is asserting that lawyers in here have said they think it's okay "to give specific legal advice on askme the same way you would a client", just that opinions about what is okay fall on a spectrum between that specific extreme and what he's characterizing as the opposing extreme of "it is never okay for legal professionals to discuss legal matters in askme".

Correct me if I'm wrong there, bonaldi.
posted by cortex (staff) at 3:55 PM on January 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


if your tenant had brought an illegal lockout case in court you would have had to let them back in

The point was moot because they said they would arrest her and give her a new place to stay. She committed several crimes in their presence. Her father was a lawyer, and he was happy to get her out without charges being pressed.
posted by StickyCarpet at 3:55 PM on January 5, 2010


but I don't think there was one lawyer who posted in this thread who thinks it's ok to give specific legal advice on askme the same way you would a client.

But is this really happening on AskMe? I think no, or at least not very much. Instead, there is a bunch of plainly "off the cuff" advice, usually clearly marked as such, and usually from people who expressly identify themselves as not-your-lawyer or as a non-lawyer. This seems pretty much OK and low-risk to me. Is there a theoretical risk to someone, somewhere? I suppose, but that's always true. Is there some big risk here that we should worry about so much that we change something about the site? I think not, but clearly others disagree.
posted by Mid at 3:58 PM on January 5, 2010


I don't think there was one lawyer who posted in this thread who thinks it's ok to give specific legal advice on askme the same way you would a client

No, I don't think any laymen here think that either. The discussion seems to be about just how far answers can go before they become specifically legal advice, and whether or not lawyers can engage up to a point without endangering themselves and the askers, what risks laypeople put themselves at with their phrasing, etc.

Your particular conservative take seems to make it difficult for lawyers to say just about anything at all on AskMe, but that stymies progress a bit because then the only answers will be from laymen, errors will go uncorrected and AskMe will be all the less useful.

On preview: what Cortex said
posted by bonaldi at 4:00 PM on January 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


See, I think that's a great contribution, perfect example.

Not sure what that means, but I'm not giving advice just a counter-factual example.
posted by StickyCarpet at 4:02 PM on January 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


But is this really happening on AskMe? I think no, or at least not very much.

I was bringing it up not in the context as a current problem on AskMe, but in answer to the proposal that bad non-lawyer advice could be countered by good real lawyer advice. I agree with you that the actual risk of getting in trouble for this would be low, but I personally (and I think most other lawyers here) at some point would get very uncomfortably laying out the specifics. And when you start arguing about the facts and the law, that's where you start getting real specific.
posted by yarly at 4:02 PM on January 5, 2010


But Mid, wasn't this the particular issue with the particular comment cited in this particular MeTa? Random person just states (without any disclaimers about not being a lawyer):

"She has not lived in your dwelling long enough to have any renter's rights so you do not need to get a lawyer as someone suggested. Since you are in New York, here is the law stating this."

It's got the one-two punch of 1) not saying that the poster is not a lawyer, and 2) affirmatively telling the OP NOT to consult a lawyer.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 4:03 PM on January 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


Not sure what that means, but I'm not giving advice just a counter-factual example.
posted by StickyCarpet at 4:02 PM on January 5 [+] [!]


I mean that it was a great example of good and useful non-lawyer answers. You're relaying how the system worked for you with a lot of detail -- it's not legal advice, per se, but it's really helpful.
posted by yarly at 4:04 PM on January 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


it's not legal advice, per se, but it's really helpful

ha
posted by found missing at 4:06 PM on January 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


Admiral - I agree it is not one of the better examples, and perhaps not typical of what I usually see on AskMe and have in mind when thinking about this problem. BUT -- I'd be really interested in knowing if the advice was wrong before I judged the comment. Has anyone suggested that the comment was wrong?
posted by Mid at 4:09 PM on January 5, 2010


You're relaying how the system worked for you with a lot of detail

Well if you put it that way, here's the best detail: I indicated a pile of books that she had packed in a suitcase, that belonged to me. The police asked if they belonged to her, she said they did. With their permission I retrieved one and showed them a personal inscription to me from the author on the first page. That pretty much changed the tone of the interaction.

The original question about the previously homeless person seemed like it might be headed in that direction.
posted by StickyCarpet at 4:19 PM on January 5, 2010


But I really cannot see the value of letting persons unaquainted with the facts of the case making conclusory statements regarding the proper course of legal action. Because it is the provable facts that are being ignored in this context. Where I see the amateurs tripping up is in just assuming the facts are as presented, or not thinking about corallary facts that are critical in providing legal advice. Yes, people can look up the law. But the danger is in the overestimation of understanding of the questioner's situation which presents the greatest danger. A good attorney figures out what he or she has to know before looking at the facts in detail. The calls being made by people are often flat out wrong or at best unhelpful.

I am not a lawyer. I studied US legal history and Japanese legal history at the graduate level. The complexities of the law are astounding, especially in the US with its many jurisdictions and in Japan with its combination of continental law and US-imposed constitutional law and piecemeal reform of its continental law. To become a competent legal historian, I would have had to go to law school to learn how lawyers approach problems on top of doing phd work in history.

That might seem tangential to the discussion at hand, but having studied the law in a context that was not law school, I think Ironmouth has a very good point in the quote above. Codes and statues are relatively meaningless until you put them in a very specific context. Knowing how to pick the context that matters is what you learn in law school.

On the other hand, the good thing that comes out of a lot of legal threads are links to advocacy groups who can help you do that without spending tons of money on a lawyer. Tenants' rights or disability rights are two types of advocacy that come to mind. Legal threads that point the OP to those resources in addition to reinforcing the need for a lawyer probably have a place on Metafilter.

I have no dog in this fight.
posted by vincele at 4:28 PM on January 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


I'm not a Connecticut Yankee lawyer, but a quick google search brought me to this:

"The practice of law consists in no small part of work performed outside of any court and having no immediate relation to proceedings in court. It embraces the giving of legal advice on a variety of subjects and the preparation of legal instruments covering an extensive field." State Bar Assn. v. Connecticut Bank & Trust Co., 145 Conn. 222, 140 A.2d 863 (1958) (holding that a non-lawyer who ran a legal document business was in violation of Conn. Gen. Stat. Ann. §51-88) (emphasis added).


I thought you had to go bang your super-hot babes on Monday and Tuesday?
posted by Kwine at 4:42 PM on January 5, 2010


Mid--no idea whether it's right or wrong, and no one has suggested either way. But who cares, when we've got this perpetual motion machine of a thread going?

In any event, I would love if we could all agree that people should disclose when they have no particular knowledge on a topic other than googling--regardless of whether it's related to the law, medicine, mechanics, or plumbing. It just establishes context in a helpful way. I'm not a plumber, but I just changed the faucet on my sink / I'm not a doctor, but this sounds like what I had last year / I'm not Hodgman, but that is all.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 4:58 PM on January 5, 2010


yarly, you won't even tell us what you think is wrong with the thread in question. Even the lawyers agreeing with you on your general points are willing to give some citations and analysis related to the question of whether advice-givers or MetaFilter itself would be liable for bad advice in AskMe. I think you have an extremely restrictive notion of what lawyers can say in public forums.

I can't believe you can't phrase a comment here that would sufficiently convey that you're not advising the asker, given that you're here in MetaTalk, talking to a whole big group of people, not the asker, and that you're not telling her what to do.
posted by palliser at 5:26 PM on January 5, 2010


I'm sorry, I'm just not comfortable doing that. Suffice it to say I think there's bad advice there. Exactly why I think it's bad isn't actually relevant.
posted by yarly at 5:30 PM on January 5, 2010


Only if we have implicit faith in your estimation that the advice is bad. If, on the other hand, we were to consider your reasons and decide that the advice is actually A-1 awesome, your whole point would be undermined. Interesting, though, that the possibility that you could be wrong about the advice being bad hasn't occurred to you.
posted by palliser at 5:59 PM on January 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


This thread is a monument to the virtually unlimited self-regard of lawyers. Well done, my brethren. We've done the profession proud today.
posted by chinston at 6:01 PM on January 5, 2010


Exactly why I think it's bad isn't actually relevant.

It may not be here, but tt sure is in thread.

Look, it may or may not be wise to offer specific advice, but it is certainly possible to add a not of caution that some of the specific advice of other may be less than useful. The questioner doesn't always know that. Well phrased, constructive negative responses are minimally helpful, but still valuable answers.

Better, provide a general explanation of options available, if possible, without being too specific. Consider questions that the client might usefully ask their lawyer, for example. Consider some discussion of the relevant statues with reference to the texts themselves. These are at least three possible responses that could help without being overly specific.

Askme is as much about educating the asker about their options as it is about answering a specific question. If you can rule out certain approaches and suggest others, then you're doing a service to the community. The best recourse to bad answers is more answers, not non-participation or calls for deletions.
posted by bonehead at 6:01 PM on January 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


I've been riveted by this thread because I am yet another lawyer, and have been for over two decades.

I have a lot of respect for Ironmouth, because although he doesn't practice in my jurisdiction, I have noticed that his comments on this site are thoughtful, careful, well informed, and insightful. I take his concerns seriously.

However, I think Matt has enough information now to decide for himself if he wants legal advice on potential liability for what other people say on AskMeFi. He can also decide to strip out legal advice threads -- it's his site. But that is his call.

As for the great debate above about whether there is real risk of liability for poor legal advice on AskMeFi ---In my jurisdiction, I know of UPL cases, but they are rare, and have involved people actually holding themselves out as lawyers to get money, not anyone commenting on an Internet site. I think prosecution under some state UPL statutes is certainly feasible, because many are very broadly worded, but frankly I don't think it is very likely, now or in the future. I could be wrong about that. Internet sites that give legal advice aren't exactly a long standing phenomenon, and I know of no decided cases either way on the issue.

I think also that some folks here don't understand why lawyers are leary of giving legal advice, anywhere outside a real, intended attorney client relationship. But maybe it would help to imagine being an MD or other health professionals on this site who sees seeing a question about a medical issue. As a service professional, you want to help. But the rules of ethics for your profession -- which we would hope practitioners take seriously -- generally bar giving such advice. Nor is it really likely to be good advice. Would any of us really want a doctor who was willing to hazard medical diagnoses or treatment recommendations without any exam, tests, or even face to face contact? Lawyers have the same issues. We have ethical responsibilities we take very seriously, plus we know that bad legal advice is often worse than none at all.

Here in the US we have a very law bound society, and therefore of course many people are hungry for some basic legal information. For example I know that there are a lot of people like floam, who said much earlier in this thread,

Are there any sites out there where you can ask actual legal questions, get answers from people smart on the subject, without all the tap-dancing or holding-back?

Not all these people can afford to pay a lawyer for advice . . . though almost always that is the best and most advisable route. For one thing, your own lawyer can explain to you that the hedging lawyers do is because legal decisions are so fact dependent, as well as often dependent on the current state of the law in the particular local jurisdiction. Sometimes the law is unclear, undeveloped, in flux or contradictory. And also, lawyers need to hedge because one of their most important roles is to identify risks for clients, and where possible, counsel risk avoidance.

Ultimately, I think all the lawyers here have to make their own call. But there are good reasons why lawyers may not be willing to provide much information about an inquiry that raises legal issues, or even to say much to correct apparently inaccurate advice from non lawyers.

I myself take a slightly different tack. I am personally most in sympathy with this comment from lex mercatoria (an attorney) on this thread:

I will continue to respond to questions that raise legal issues, as carefully as I can. People affected by the legal system have every right to learn about the system, and who better to provide an explanation than the people who work within it?


That's my goal too. But I have a lot of respect for the concerns and different positions voiced by other lawyers on this thread. I hope everyone else does too.
posted by bearwife at 6:02 PM on January 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


I hope everyone else does too.

Oh, we do. Big-time.
posted by palliser at 6:20 PM on January 5, 2010


Only if we have implicit faith in your estimation that the advice is bad. If, on the other hand, we were to consider your reasons and decide that the advice is actually A-1 awesome, your whole point would be undermined. Interesting, though, that the possibility that you could be wrong about the advice being bad hasn't occurred to you.
posted by palliser at 5:59 PM on January 5 [+] [!]


The fact that I might be wrong is central to why I won't give legal advice online. That's kind of the whole point of this discussion. And the fact that the advice might be correct is also not totally relevant -- another point is that any legal advice (right or wrong) given in public by a lawyer could breach the attorney-client privilege.
posted by yarly at 6:33 PM on January 5, 2010


A big-time breach?
posted by chinston at 6:48 PM on January 5, 2010


Yarly, I'm with you--but how can there be any privilege in a public forum? This is not a rhetorical question; I don't litigate.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 6:50 PM on January 5, 2010


I'm not going to strip out legal advice. This is why I have liability insurance and a lawyer.
posted by mathowie (staff) at 7:01 PM on January 5, 2010 [12 favorites]


The fact that I might be wrong is central to why I won't give legal advice online
I think we get that you won't give legal advice online, but is that all there is? Let me ask this another way: is it possible that you (or other lawyers, in your opinion) could make posts that touched on legal topics without actually giving legal advice? Does becoming a lawyer preclude you from ever talking to other people about the law and its application without automatically making them your clients?

The alternative is all people are asking for, I think. The legal equivalent of a doctor posting "You need to see a doctor about this, because other cases have turned out to be X and Y/issue Z can be a factor and it's important that a doctor makes this judgement for you" would be very helpful in threads where erroneous legal answers are being given.

But reading you it sounds like any lawyer saying something anything like similar would in your opinion be giving "legal advice" to a particular client. Is that right?
posted by bonaldi at 7:02 PM on January 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


Shorter yarly: If you don't know, I'm not going to tell you.
posted by Justinian at 7:04 PM on January 5, 2010


Cortex shines again (and I just absolutely love how he has gone from goofy to eloquent, yet has not lost the lovely goofiness, this is really good)!

Yes Virginia, both lawyers and non-lawyers can provide helpful information in AskMe without too much fear. There are some common sense guidelines and perhaps jock@law provided one of the best templates but yes, these forums do provide valuable information, with some caveats. Some lawyers here have taken things to the extreme not recognizing that intelligent people can seek legal information without seeking legal "advice" and that legal information is a good thing. It makes a better client when they talk to a lawyer, it helps them find the right lawyer, it helps that lawyer focus in on what is important more quickly (thus saving money) just like all the medical information on the net makes patients much better consumers of medical services. Things can be distorted etc. but in general more information is better than less information. People who would restrict your sources of information solely to professionals are often professionals looking out more for the economics of their profession than people or professionals looking out for the clients, and they often do not even realize their bias. They just cloak it in paternalism. uggghh. If I ask a legal question I want the most knowledgeable people, hopefully the lawyers, to respond. I know they are not my lawyer, that they are not rendering a "legal opinion" to me. It works the same way with the doctors, and frankly with all the rest of the professions. Sometimes the non-lawyers, the non-doctors, etc. have the best information because they have had the same problem. People who ask these questions are not seeking legal opinions to be relied upon as many of the chicken little lawyers seem to think, they want information. Yes, some of them through ignorance or lack of finances will probably rely upon that information, potentially flawed (and it is not as if real lawyers do not provide potentially flawed info either, just that they have the resources to minimize that and hopefully characterize well what is ambiguous). On the whole, the mefi population is better served with more information, even if it might be flawed, than less or in the case of some chicken littles, none. All too often the real answer is to hire a lawyer, but even then, having some background on all the pitfalls you might be facing makes that decision easier than going in blind.
posted by caddis at 7:10 PM on January 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


how can there be any privilege in a public forum? This is not a rhetorical question; I don't litigate.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 6:50 PM on January 5 [+] [!]


you lose the privilege & confidentiality protections you would have had by disclosing it in a public forum.

does becoming a lawyer preclude you from ever talking to other people about the law and its application without automatically making them your clients?

yes, pretty much. anyone I give tailored advice to, based on their particular situation, is my client for certain purposes, most important being duty to give informed advice, and protect privilege and confidentiality. when I meet somebody at a party and she starts telling me about being sexually harassed at work and I engage her about it, I consider her my "client" in some respects. I definitely have professional obligations towards her if I start applying my knowledge of the law to her situation. I would never disclose what she told me.

I feel totally ok with saying "you need to consult a lawyer because you're getting bad advice here" and discussing hypothetical situations, though.
posted by yarly at 7:12 PM on January 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


This is ridiculous. It's not legal advice for you to say here, to the people reading this MeTa thread, what's wrong with that AskMe thread. You are not creating an attorney-client relationship with 100,000 people.

You keep failing to engage the point here, by replacing "saying what's wrong with the AskMe thread" with "giving legal advice and thus creating an atty-client relationship that would otherwise be subject to privilege." That's the whole issue here, that a whole lot of people think you're completely off-base with regard to whether the first implies the second.

When your friend tries to tell you about her impending divorce over lunch, do you hand her a waiver to sign?
posted by palliser at 7:16 PM on January 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


It's not legal advice for you to say here, to the people reading this MeTa thread, what's wrong with that AskMe thread.

there's no practical difference between saying what's wrong with the Askme thread here or in the Askme thread, at this point. I can understand that it's frustrating, though. I didn't really hear anyone say I was "off-base" for my concerns -- no lawyers, anyway. Even the lawyers who are less cautious understand my perspective, I think. We're arguing a bit around the margins about what constitutes "legal advice," but nobody disputes that it's a concern.
posted by yarly at 7:32 PM on January 5, 2010


If there was a NYTimes story about a potentially legal situation, would commenting on it and discussing the specifics with other commenters be causing any problems? How about a Seattle Times story? A Huffington Post story? A Metafilter post? A Metatalk post about a Metafilter post?

At what point does this boolean can't-touch-that attribute flip?
posted by floam at 7:35 PM on January 5, 2010


Yarly: Is it your position that virtually all of the posts at, say, The Volokh Conspiracy amount to legal advice of some sort? The guys there are fairly recognizable lawyers posting their opinions on various laws, legal topics, court rulings, and saying how they believe the law applies to very specific situations.

It seems to me that you are seriously claiming that Orin Kerr, Eugene Volokh, David Post, Johnathan Adler, and a host of others have all exposed themselves to serious legal jeopardy. and yet none of them seem the least bit concerned. The best conclusion I can draw is that these lawyers would not willingly put themselves at significant legal risk and, thus, that you are out to lunch here.

All the posts at law blogs are significantly more detailed in terms of legal analysis than anything in the thread in question here. Dealing with nitty-gritty details of law.
posted by Justinian at 8:04 PM on January 5, 2010


yup, I am perfectly happy commenting on articles, public affairs, ongoing court cases, whatever. there's no individual there who I am communicating with, so no problem.

the Askme thread was a single person, asking questions about her situation, and answering her would have been some sort of direct communication. That's really different from me saying "David Letterman engaged in sexual harassment."
posted by yarly at 8:05 PM on January 5, 2010


But you are arguing that posting in this thread is the same as posting in the AskMe thread. How is posting in this thread any different than posting on another blog. Volokh, for instance. Neither Volokh nor this thread are communicating with the person in the AskMe thread any more than a post on Volokh with regard to Heller is communicating with Heller or a post with regard to Kelo is a communcation with Susette Kelo.

Legal analysis of a situation you aren't party to is legal analysis of a situation you aren't party to, whether that situation is Kelo-vs-New London or a random AskMe thread.
posted by Justinian at 8:10 PM on January 5, 2010


I have to say that it must be hard to live constantly in fear of one's own shadow, afraid that the slightest inadvertent misstep could entangle one in legal jeopardy.
posted by Justinian at 8:11 PM on January 5, 2010


there's no practical difference between saying what's wrong with the Askme thread here or in the Askme thread, at this point.

Nonsense. The AskMe thread is posted by the questioner, who then fields responses. You, a lawyer, are talking to her, the advice-seeker. Far greater potential for confusion.

Here, in MeTa, we're talking about the law and its consequences for MetaFilter, the site. You're calling out bad advice elsewhere on the site for the purpose of illustrating the potential problems, not in order to give advice to an advice-seeker.

I also think you should stay in tomorrow, as your chances of getting hit by a bus are far greater than your chances of anything bad happening to you as a result of commenting on the AskMe thread in this thread.
posted by palliser at 8:11 PM on January 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


yup, I am perfectly happy commenting on articles, public affairs, ongoing court cases, whatever. there's no individual there who I am communicating with, so no problem.

the Askme thread was a single person, asking questions about her situation, and answering her would have been some sort of direct communication. That's really different from me saying "David Letterman engaged in sexual harassment."


Oops, should've previewed. Here you explain exactly why you're wrong about this thread being no different from the AskMe thread. Well-spotted. Now tell us what's wrong with the advice there.
posted by palliser at 8:13 PM on January 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


155
posted by mlis at 8:43 PM on January 5, 2010


155?
posted by stoneweaver at 9:11 PM on January 5, 2010


Wait, so the standard for callouts has now been lowered to "I think it's bad but I don't want to tell you why"?

Looks like I've got some work to do.
posted by one more dead town's last parade at 9:11 PM on January 5, 2010


I think prosecution under some state UPL statutes is certainly feasible, because many are very broadly worded, but frankly I don't think it is very likely, now or in the future.

It's still very hard for me to imagine how a statute could be enforced against one private citizen offering layman's legal "advice" to another with no commercial element at all or any claim to be an attorney that would not also render illegal private citizens discussing the consequences of a recent Supreme Court decision or private citizens discussing the effects of actual or proposed/in-process legislation, or render undergraduate and law-school moot courts criminally prosecutable.

I mean, what would the relevant difference be? I can tell you what I think a statute means, or what a court opinion means or how it should be interpreted, under some circumstances, but not others?
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:35 PM on January 5, 2010


yeah stoneweaver, overall 155. Some of the comments are 175, maybe a 179.
posted by mlis at 9:51 PM on January 5, 2010


MLIS, are you being deliberately cryptic or do you think we know what you're talking about?
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 9:56 PM on January 5, 2010


jessamyn, fair enough, it's late and I am off to sleep.
posted by mlis at 10:04 PM on January 5, 2010


It's just that bird law in this country is not governed by reason
posted by allen.spaulding at 10:38 PM on January 5, 2010


not deliberately cryptic and I think most of the people carrying on here as if they were on a certain law student board know what I am talking about. Explaining it ruins it.
posted by mlis at 10:41 PM on January 5, 2010


ROU_Xenophobe @ 9:35. Exactly. There is no difference between this and talking to some schmoe at the local tavern.

Being a lawyer doesn't mean everyone else has to stop talking about the law. It just means you are licensed by your state to practice law, and are held to a higher standard with regards to giving legal advice. With great power comes great responsibility.

Or, to put it another way: I cannot practice the trade of locksmithing because I am not licensed by my state. That doesn't mean I can't tell my neighbor his doorknob is loose. Or answer a question from my mother about her key sticking. My neighbor has no expectations of quality lock advice because I'm not a fucking locksmith.

I'm not sure what the problem is, has there ever been an instance when someone on metafilter confused text on a screen with the advice of an actual lawyer?
posted by gjc at 10:51 PM on January 5, 2010


When you ask questions here, you sort of have to take the google approach of determining that a bunch of similar answers are probably the right ones, that no one is your lawyer or your doctor, and that statements made assertively and confidently may be totally wrong.

This should become the general disclaimer.
posted by five fresh fish at 10:52 PM on January 5, 2010


not deliberately cryptic and I think most of the people carrying on here as if they were on a certain law student board know what I am talking about. Explaining it ruins it.

Oh, I get it! You're pretending you're the LSAT scoring body and you're commenting on the lawyerliness of various posters! That's incredibly witty.

Do I win anything? PLEASE I NEED A NEW TV LET ME WIN ONE OF THOSE
posted by barnacles at 12:20 AM on January 6, 2010


sigh. Go read autoadmit you moron.
posted by mlis at 12:41 AM on January 6, 2010


MLIS you and I now have an attorney-client relationship and I, as your client, FIRE YOU.
posted by Justinian at 12:55 AM on January 6, 2010


Go read autoadmit you moron.

I'd rather people didn't. Also, maybe the thread shouldn't be an insult-match. It's gotten heated enough already.
posted by jock@law at 12:56 AM on January 6, 2010


180
posted by mlis at 12:58 AM on January 6, 2010


I have been advised by counsel, via PM, to STFU and this sounds like good advice.
posted by mlis at 1:00 AM on January 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


The danger is real. Because I know the consequences, I sure as hell think really hard about what the right course of action is before I advise my client. I spend a lot of time and do a lot of research first, to know if I have it right. But commenters on AskMe don't do that. They plop down any answer that strikes them in a flash of an eye. They overestimate their actual knowledge of the situation by taking on faith what the poster says as being the only facts needed to know. Without training and experience, it isn't really possible to do that.

The funny thing, Ironmouth, is how much you are doing this exact thing right here in this thread. You site a few examples that are -- and this is using my "everybody needs a hug" filter set on eleven -- tangentially related to the issue being discussed here. Then you site a couple of basic principles that strike your mind as relevant. Fact is, however, you haven't actually done the research to back up your conclusion. Your just using a lawyerly version of 'better safe than sorry'.

Anyway.. I haven't read every single comment here, but so far I'm think that this question was addressed more accurately, more thoroughly, more concisely, and more forthrightly in the famous old ikkyu2 post, Where should I, a physician, draw the line at commenting on health-related posts in AskMe?
posted by Chuckles at 1:46 AM on January 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


Mitheral: I've seen electrical advice so wrong that houses would burn down at a minimum if followed and people could die with a little bad luck.

Have you? Mostly what I remember seeing is electrical advice that is way too over-cautious.

Actually, I feel kind of stymied by all the knee-jerk over-cautiousness, and that is one of the reasons I spend less time in AskMe. I want to answer some electrical question, but I start thinking about all the details needed to give a full and complete account, not because the asker really needs the details, but because the self appointed safety police are going to derail the conversation if I don't...
posted by Chuckles at 2:01 AM on January 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


Mavri: This question, not explicitly a legal question, is going to by its nature lead to "change the locks" answers. Is it best if an attorney who knows that this could be bad advice just ignores it?

The observation that this was not primarily a legal question is really important and interesting. In fact, in many cases people turn general life questions into legal questions as if every little thing is going to be aggressively prosecuted or sued over, and that just isn't true. I'd go as far as to suggest that the non-compete in California question qualifies in this manner. In the end, it isn't likely to become a legal issue at all, because nobody is ever even going to write a lawyers letter over it, let alone take it to court. More an issue of personal and business ethics.

Well, that might be too extreme a position.. Somebody hired a lawyer to draw up the non-compete after all. However, there are many many questions that get the old "hire a lawyer" which would be far more suited to general life advice irrespective of the law.
posted by Chuckles at 2:32 AM on January 6, 2010


However, there are many many questions that get the old "hire a lawyer" which would be far more suited to general life advice irrespective of the law.

I don't think the behavior complained about is questions being asked, or "hire a lawyer" answers which are given. I also don't think the problem is with "change the locks" per se. The problem, in my opinion, is "change the locks" coupled with an authoritative-sounding assurance that doing so is legal.

The effect is this: someone is telling someone what to do, and projecting apparent authority to do so, in a way that could really, truly, honestly hurt people. And they're doing it in a context that has a tendency for being, quite frankly, anti-intellectual in this regard. I would trust the whole "wisdom of crowds" thing on AskMe to protect against bad legal advice a lot more if the netroots (MetaFilter is not alone in this) weren't so incorrigibly contemptuous about how the law works in reality every time that reality conflicts with their ideals of what the law should be. Arguing that MeFites could get in trouble, or that they don't have the right to cure a perceived injustice in exactly the way they want, is like trying to tell Slashdot that EULAs are in fact enforceable.

This creates a potential for abuse that we should be vigilant against.
posted by jock@law at 3:41 AM on January 6, 2010


This creates a potential for abuse that we should be vigilant against.

But the question is what form should that vigilance take?

Some are arguing some type of ban on legal conversation. Others are saying more speech.

To my mind if someone says in a thread "noncompetes are unenforceable in CA" (for example) the best response to that would be "well, IANYL, or a CA lawyer, but I'm pretty sure there are some exceptions to that rule, so to protect yourself you should probably spend a couple of hundred bucks and consult an attorney."

Why is that not an adequate response, in your mind, or Ironmouth's, or yarly's?
posted by miss tea at 4:48 AM on January 6, 2010


Why is that not an adequate response, in your mind, or Ironmouth's, or yarly's?

I haven't taken that position. I'm not sure Ironmouth has either. My position is this: (a) there are considerations where that may not be sufficient, for reasons outlined above, to watch out for fellow AskMefites; (b) there are other solutions, like (i) putting something in the guidelines about legal/medical/whatever advice and/or (ii) mods trashing individual comments that are obviously UPL.
posted by jock@law at 5:08 AM on January 6, 2010


As far as I can tell, there have been four rationales advanced for the need to do something about law talk on AskMe:

1. The advice can be bad and, worse, can be bad and seemingly authoritative. But this is true of any advice on AskMe, including advice about other potentially serious topics like medicine, money, and dangerous home improvement projects. People know not to rely blindly on free internet advice in any field. If they don't, a disclaimer or check-box probably isn't going to help them. Personally, I am also not convinced that the advice we have seen in this thread has been so bad (the original linked comment seems correct!), but I suppose that is debatable. In any event, "bad dangerous advice" is not limited to legal issues, and the site already has its ways for dealing with this issue.

2. Law is special because the unauthorized practice of law is illegal. OK, but it is not clear that making general un-paid comments on a website would ever be treated as UPL, either as an abstract legal question or as a real-world matter of a prosecution or fine. The risk of prosecution seems very remote, for the reasons discussed above in great detail. You can always be "more safe than sorry," but that's always true of everything and does not help us assess risks. In any event, the risk of "getting in trouble" for UPL is borne by the commenters, who comment on the internet at their own risk, and, possibly (though I think very remotely), Matt and the site. Matt says he's OK with it.

3. Lawyers have special ethical duties not to do certain stuff. OK, but that's for each individual lawyer to figure out.

4. The questioners themselves may be harming their own legal interests by discussing their problems on the internet because of a "privilege waiver." This seems to me very unlikely and probably wrong in almost all cases.

At the end of the day, I'm just not seeing something that requires a policy change.
posted by Mid at 5:45 AM on January 6, 2010 [3 favorites]


But this is true of any advice on AskMe, including advice about other potentially serious topics like medicine, money, and dangerous home improvement projects. People know not to rely blindly on free internet advice in any field.

Except that in law, people are particularly likely to be blind about being blind. There are sufficient mechanisms to keep people from sawing their heads open to relieve the 'pressure' of a headache. What mechanisms exist to keep people from pleading guilty "just to get it over with" or countless other legal blunders people make all the time?

Ultimately maybe no policy change is warranted, but you sure are giving the issue facile treatment.
posted by jock@law at 6:28 AM on January 6, 2010


Except that in law, people are particularly likely to be blind about being blind.

Other than because you say so, why? There is no basis for either of us to say that in field of expertise X [law, medicine, electrical work] people are more likely to make serious mistakes. When you insist that law is somehow trickier or more opaque to the common man than other areas of expertise, it's hard to see any basis for it other than professional vanity.

There are sufficient mechanisms to keep people from sawing their heads open to relieve the 'pressure' of a headache.

Yes, if you make the medical question (or the financial question, or the electrical question) utterly stupid, then law does seem more nuanced and complicated. But if you compare equally complicated questions across fields (I assure you that there are complicated, nuanced questions of medicine, finance, and electrical work), then we are back to my first paragraph.

but you sure are giving the issue facile treatment.

You got me there.
posted by Mid at 6:48 AM on January 6, 2010


Other than because you say so, why? There is no basis for either of us to say that in field of expertise X [law, medicine, electrical work] people are more likely to make serious mistakes. When you insist that law is somehow trickier or more opaque to the common man than other areas of expertise, it's hard to see any basis for it other than professional vanity.

I dunno--I think this is illustrated by the exchange above with another poster (who may or may not be a lawyer (abridged, not trying to have a go at anyone's expense):

Poster: Here's my state's law on UPL, which seems explicitly directed at people pretending to be lawyers.

Admiral Haddock: There are at least three ways I don't understand the law, and I have no idea whether the post would be covered.

Poster: Ha. At least the penalties are small!

No one is going to assume they know how the human kidney works after reading a seven-item bulleted list. People may assume that they know how the law works after reading a seven-item bulleted list.

I don't think anyone is incapable of understanding the law; but what may not immediately apparent to people who are not lawyers is that you don't necessarily stop asking questions once you find the first authority that looks definitive. There is almost always more to uncover.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 7:08 AM on January 6, 2010


Yeah, from looking at citations, it turns out that the only important words in my bulleted list from the statutes are "practice law" in (1), which the court can read almost anything into if they feel that someone is acting like a lawyer ("the decisive question is whether the acts performed were such as ‘commonly understood to be the practice of law.’"). And I was looking at state Supreme Court decisions, so it's not like this was clear to anyone: people were forming whole paralegal firms to help in document preparation and then it was ruled illegal.
posted by smackfu at 7:35 AM on January 6, 2010


Legal analysis of a situation you aren't party to is legal analysis of a situation you aren't party to, whether that situation is Kelo-vs-New London or a random AskMe thread.
posted by Justinian at 8:10 PM on January 5 [+] [!]


Justinian, you're lumping these two things together in an incorrect way. When I answer a legal question on askme -- engaging in a dialogue with the person who has the legal problem -- then I may be in effect giving legal advice to that person. If I do that, I have a whole bunch of legal duties towards them that I've talked about in detail before -- I have to keep the exchange confidential, I have to protect the attorney-client privilege, and, most of all, I have to give a well-informed opinion. When I discuss a Supreme Court case with people who aren't parties to the case, that's a completely different matter. There is no relationship between me and the litigants and I can say whatever I want. I'm not giving advice, in other words.
posted by yarly at 7:52 AM on January 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


At the end of the day, I'm just not seeing something that requires a policy change.
posted by Mid at 5:45 AM on January 6 [3 favorites +] [!]


The suggestion I kicked this off with is that non-lawyers think about limiting their advice to discussing their own direct experience with the system or linking to self-help legal materials. Other advice coming from non-lawyers should be taken with a huge grain of sand. Askers should also realize that although there are lots of lawyers on mefi, most of them aren't going to be willing to answer in a detailed way for all the reasons we've been over exhaustively.


4. The questioners themselves may be harming their own legal interests by discussing their problems on the internet because of a "privilege waiver." This seems to me very unlikely and probably wrong in almost all cases.


I'm curious about why you think this. You're a lawyer - would you really want a litigation client posting specific, identifying details about her case on the internet and asking for advice? Whether it's a privilege waiver or no, it certainly seems like a Very Bad Idea.
posted by yarly at 7:58 AM on January 6, 2010


Oh man, if I had won the 100K user raffle I would have really considered "Bigdick Moneypower" or "Dr. Abcrunch von Priapus" as a username!

I have been following this thread with some interest because I have been known to answer some medical questions and try to make it clear that I am speaking in generalities that may or may not apply to the asker. But I don't lose a lot of sleep over liability for my answers. It seems to me that there is a risk of getting seriously bad advice in any number of fields; not just law/medicine/skydiving/whatever. I thought this seemingly innocuous question about elevators was riddled with risk and said so, even though I am by no means an expert. So bad, even potentially lethal, answers can be given to a lot of questions, but at some point you have to assume some common sense or else the scope of AskMe would have to be limited to questions like "what color should I paint my walls?" and "where is a good place to eat in downtown Boise?" where even the worst advice is unlikely to cause any lasting harm.
posted by TedW at 8:10 AM on January 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


The questioners themselves may be harming their own legal interests by discussing their problems on the internet because of a "privilege waiver."

It seems more common that they harm their interests by accidentally admitting guilt in public. Like when someone posts "I was in an accident, here is what happened, who is at fault?" If the answer is "you", that wasn't really a good thing to post on the internet.
posted by smackfu at 8:15 AM on January 6, 2010


When I answer a legal question on askme -- engaging in a dialogue with the person who has the legal problem -- then I may be in effect giving legal advice to that person
I think Justinian's point was what about when you refuse to discuss that question here on Metatalk, where there's no relationship to the asker, a situation much closer to the Supreme Court discussion example.
posted by bonaldi at 8:22 AM on January 6, 2010


If this had been included in the original post, "[i suggest] non-lawyers think about limiting their advice to discussing their own direct experience with the system or linking to self-help legal materials [and avoid "interpretation of the law, and an application of the law to the specific facts"]" this thread would have been a lot different.

Protip: In Metatalk, just like in law, context matters. A lot. A whole lot. Seriously.
posted by nooneyouknow at 8:28 AM on January 6, 2010


I was just itching for this to be an interesting, noisy, not entirely cogent, but useful discussion regarding the relationship of lawyers to the lay community & the ownership of legal advice and the law (in the U.S., cause although how it works in the rest of the world is interesting to me, I don't practice in the rest of the world, I practice in the US). Alas.

It's troubling to see so much random and bad opinion on the law in ask.me (and yes, I've made assertions in ask.me which were not great, but it was opinion, not legal advice, which, you know what?, is generally nonactionable in my jurisdiction. I'm allowed to talk about my opinion of the law without it amounting to a professional act). As with any skilled profession, giving legal advice is not something you can do if you haven't been trained to do it. In ask.me, as much as in my law office, there is rarely enough information to give a really good assessment of the legal issues, preferred course of conduct, and probable outcome. In life, however, you really don't often face legal consequences of your daily decisions (with exceptions, notably: criminal conduct, immigration issues, probate issues, custody issues) because pursuing legal action is (and should be) cumbersome, expensive, and not the best was to resolve most problems between human beings.

Ironmouth makes several good points, but I ultimately agree with him less, rather than more. I think lawyers should be more willing to explain the process, the analysis, the rules, and potential impact of the law on a proposed solution to a problem. The profession should be more transparent. That won't change the skill-base necessary to practice law, but it will change how the profession relates to society, which would be a net gain. When people know more about their rights and responsibilities under the law, maybe they will take less advantage of each other. When people know more about the burdens and challenges of litigation, perhaps they will be more likely to reason with one another than sue one another. Yeh, I really should have stayed in public interest. Maybe then lawyers will be less afraid of saying "you have no case." Maybe then they will have more time to practice law well. Probably not. But maybe.

As someone noted above, please, throw a little money at a reputable, necessary legal services organization in your community. And if you are a practising lawyer, give them your time. And demand that your state bar require law firms to let their lawyers do pro bono work without taking personal time off to do it.
posted by crush-onastick at 8:38 AM on January 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


This is a bad sentence: In life, however, you really don't often face legal consequences of your daily decisions (with exceptions, notably: criminal conduct, immigration issues, probate issues, custody issues) because pursuing legal action is (and should be) cumbersome, expensive, and not the best was to resolve most problems between human beings.

What I mean is: most every-day decisions of people going about their lives and solving their problems will not lead to legal consequences (with notable exceptions in certain areas of life involving things like estates, immigration, child custody and criminal behavior). The reasons for this are manifold and sometimes unpredictable. So there is always the chance that your actions will bring about unexpected legal consequences, but life is random. Pursuing legal action should rarely be the first avenue and I don't think it's the prime consideration in all things. The barrier to entry is--I believe--necessary not to preserve the profession, but to keep society moving around in a civil and efficient manner. Legal action, I think, should be reserved for things that really matter or for things that simply can't be resolved any other way. I think people should try to resolve things extra-judicial-system first (and not with a shotgun).
posted by crush-onastick at 8:53 AM on January 6, 2010


Good points crush.

As for the whole issue of the asker blowing out their future privilege, that doesn't have anything to do with lawyers or non-lawyers answering questions. To remedy that problem, those questions would have to be nuked from orbit, which I think is an overly paternalistic solution. We could do the same for relationship questions that the SO may find, or job related questions that employers may find.
posted by craven_morhead at 8:58 AM on January 6, 2010


Regarding "privilege waiver," there is no privilege attendant to public internet comments, so there is no waiver problem there. The only possible problem could be a "subject matter" waiver on the basis of the internet comments that is found to pierce the privilege that would otherwise cover private conversations with a retained lawyer. I have had cases involving alleged "subject matter waivers" and my understanding is that they are extremely rare and disfavored. The chain of improbable events that would lead to an AskMe commenter finding themselves without a/c privilege with their own retained lawyer because they asked a question on AskMe is very very remote and unlikely. You'd have to have a court case, you'd have to have discovery, you'd have to have a motion to compel based on the "waiver," and you'd have to have a judge who reached the (harsh, novel) conclusion that there had been a complete subject matter waiver applicable to private discussions with a lawyer because of separate internet comments. Could it happen? I guess, but, again, I don't find "could it happen" to be a very valuable metric. Take the example of the linked post -- how likely is it that there will be litigation, discovery, and a motion to compel in this situation?

A person could blow privilege if they discussed publicly the actual legal advice they were receiving from their lawyer, but I don't think that's the problem we are talking about (i.e., that person is already being advised by a lawyer, who, presumably, has told his client not to discuss the advice publicly).
posted by Mid at 9:36 AM on January 6, 2010


Would it affect matters any if askers changed how they phrased their questions so they were more about academic points of law, and stayed well clear of any suggestion this affected them personally?

I'm thinking of something like the "it's for my novel" chatfilter defence.
posted by bonaldi at 9:40 AM on January 6, 2010


A person could blow privilege if they discussed publicly the actual legal advice they were receiving from their lawyer, but I don't think that's the problem we are talking about (i.e., that person is already being advised by a lawyer, who, presumably, has told his client not to discuss the advice publicly).

We take subject matter waivers really seriously in my law office and the fact that it would be "extremely rare" is not really much comfort. I absolutely do advise my clients based on "could it happen" scenarios when it comes to such things. I also don't put it past someone to discuss their own lawyer's advice on Askme. Privilege of course isn't the only issue - it's also all the admissions that they could be making...
posted by yarly at 10:01 AM on January 6, 2010


bonaldi, as I understand it, phrasing everything in the terms of a general hypothetical makes this much easier on everybody, especially on the side of the lawyers giving advice. Someone more experienced may want to chime in, but that's my understanding. From my personal risk/reward standpoint, I'm much more likely to give a detailed, fact-specific answer if it's in response to a hypothetical question.
posted by craven_morhead at 10:14 AM on January 6, 2010


I refuse to comment on the grounds that I might incinerate myself.
posted by Drasher at 10:18 AM on January 6, 2010


Chuckles writes "Mitheral: I've seen electrical advice so wrong that houses would burn down at a minimum if followed and people could die with a little bad luck.

"Have you? Mostly what I remember seeing is electrical advice that is way too over-cautious."


From a single page of google results see 1; 2 (life only); (3) life again, answerer actually advocates sticking fingers into electrical socket as safe under specific conditions that only occur in theory not in wide spread practice; 4, slight fire risk and more significant personal injury; 5.

Finally gas rather than electricity but the first comment in this thread, if followed up and followed verbatim, would have resulted in a potential *BOOM* down the road. This is a good example of how good advice can be dangerous because of different local conditions and experience (use of flare fittings instead of pipe thread). I've become more aware of potential differences in local standards over the years because of stuff like this.
posted by Mitheral at 10:39 AM on January 6, 2010


Okay, coming late to this party, but a good portion of my job amounts to a non-public version of LegalFilter AskMe. My department has a way we deal with this.

Some background: I'm in-house counsel for an insurance company. One of the value-added services we provide our insureds is the ability for them to contact Legal, i.e. me and my colleagues, for assistance on various legal matters. This presents a rather thorny problem, for two reasons. First, my client--my only client--is the Company, and the people calling in may at some point find themselves suing my client. So there's a potential conflict of interest. Second, I am only licensed to practice in the state in which my company is located, but we write business and take calls from insureds in almost forty states. So there's a possiblity of UPL. In essence, I spend a good part of every day trying to help people without violating two of the most important canons of legal ethics.

I think we do a pretty good job, overall, and I can explain how that happens. We get three main kinds of question:

- "Can you explain my policy to me?"/"Does our policy provide adequate coverage given these contractual requirements?" These we can answer pretty definitively, as they're our policies, and so are positioned to tell people with some authority what they've got.

- "We're getting sued." The answer to this one is basically "Call claims immediately," so there's no danger there.

- "We want to do x. Is this legal?" This is where the problems happen.

The problems are that 1) we know quite well that we don't know all the facts, 2) we have absolutely no confidence that the requester does either, and 3) even if we and they did, the two canons of legal ethics discussed above basically preclude giving definitive legal advice.

So what do we do? We point at give lots of uncontroversial risk management advice, e.g. "It is recommended that you not let known sex offenders work with children," and briefly discuss general principles of law, e.g. "Firing someone for making a workers' compensation claim is gonna get your butt sued off," and we direct them to local counsel. Basically, we tell them that they need to talk to a lawyer, but when they do, they should be thinking about x, y, and z. This seems to be a pretty good way of splitting the difference, and we have reason to believe that the state bar association thinks so too.

What we don't do is cite to specific legal authority. That starts to look too much like legal advice. We aren't confident in our own knowledge to give that detailed an analysis--we try to spend less than thirty minutes on each request--and we're even less confident that a layman would have the first clue what to do with specific legal authority if we gave it to them.

This is basically the approach I mostly try to take with AskMe. I usually try to avoid citing to specific laws where possible, and I always direct them to local counsel. I'm keenly aware of the risks to both parties that Ironmouth discusses--I think he's mostly right--but I'm also pretty confident that I can avoid any potential liability for myself or harm to the asker.

I think part of my issue with LegalFilter AskMe is that the mods--no offense--don't really seem to have a good take on the kinds of questions which can easily be resolved in the sort of casual environment to which AskMe is conducive and in which the approach I detailed above would be appropriate. There are some questions which are so basic and general--for a legal professional--that they can probably be disposed of pretty easily. Others are obviously lawsuits waiting to happen, if someone hasn't already been sued. For these latter, I would prefer them not to be posted at all, as the danger of someone acting on bad advice is real. But I'd like to see more of the former.

I guess I do have one suggestion. Perhaps someone could draft a field that would pop up on the New Question page whenever "law and government" is selected as a topic, emphasizing that nothing which follows is to be interpreted as legal advice. Maybe a list of boilerplate warnings, such as "If you have been served with legal papers, you need to contact a lawyer immediately." That sort of thing. CYA for everyone involved.

Working on a FPP on legal ethics. Getting stuff not behind the Westlaw/Lexis paywall is proving to be something of a bitch.
posted by valkyryn at 11:07 AM on January 6, 2010 [2 favorites]


valkyryn's experience and approach is right on, I think. My job is similar to his, and, though they hate it, when my (internal on behalf of external) clients ask "can they do x?" (or as likely, "they did x, how can they mitigate the clusterfuck that is about to ensue?"), my answer is almost always, "get (another/their own) counsel."

This is the key:
There are some questions which are so basic and general--for a legal professional--that they can probably be disposed of pretty easily. Others are obviously lawsuits waiting to happen, if someone hasn't already been sued.
posted by Pax at 11:36 AM on January 6, 2010


As a followup:

This relates to something I've been thinking about independent of this issue, but it fits here. There's currently a movement within the legal profession--mostly around the edges, and particularly among those who find that their legal degrees aren't worth what they they thought they'd be--to turn law school into something like a trade school, where rather than learning "how to think like a lawyer," you are taught how to file incorporation papers, draft motions, and complete forms.

I think this misses the point of law being a learned profession, the thing that separates law, medicine, (and historically divinity) from other jobs. Specifically, while all jobs require a certain amount of skill (techne, philosophical speaking), the professions rely not only on knowledge but upon discretion, judgement, wisdom even (sophia, as it were).

Some within the legal profession and many outside it see what happens mostly as a matter of techne, and as such, don't really understand why they couldn't do everything a lawyer could. In many cases, this is not an unreasonable assumption. Much of what lawyers do as part of the daily drudgery which accompanies any job could be done by a non-lawyer (though reading a couple of hundred pages a day takes practice, if nothing else). But those concerned most about the integrity of the profession understand that the reason lawyers have traditionally been protective of their profession, and they reason they have historically been paid what they have,* is because they bring something to the table which only experience and training can bring, i.e. a perspective which enables them to turn that techne into good decisions, i.e. sophia.

The idea here is that this isn't something just anyone can do. Which isn't a terribly egalitarian concept, making it unpopular in this age which refuses to be a respecter of persons. Our society is really uncomfortable trusting anyone's authority. We don't think that physicians can do anything we shouldn't be able to do ourselves, so we fire up WebMD, get our own facts, and reach our own conclusions. Well the ability to read a chart and medical journal isn't really what makes you a good physician. It's the ability to sort through bullshit and irrelevant data points on the fly, based on a the wisdom that can only be gained through experience and dedication. Lawyers are much the same. Sure, anyone can read a statute, but it's the ability to recognize good law from bad law, knowing which facts are relevant and which aren't, knowing how certain evidence is going to appear in court... that stuff you can't learn in a classroom. You have to get the hang of it by practice. Which is why both medicine and law are practices.

I'm currently working on finding sufficiently good and interesting sources on this subject for a FPP, but I think this distinction gets at the root of a lot of the disagreement here. Those arguing that giving unlicensed legal advice is dangerous seem to be coming from the perspective that legal advice represents a source of experienced wisdom that is inaccessible to the layman. Those arguing that this is no big deal seem to be coming from the perspective that being a lawyer is like being a plumber or carpenter--nothing too difficult about it, and lawyers trying to keep others from practicing law are elitist snobs. While there may be something to that, it's usually not entirely self-serving. Or at least it shouldn't be.

There also shouldn't be much doubt as to which side of the above debate I fall on, now should there?

*Until the mid-to-late twentieth century, being an attorney was a respectable, middle-to-upper-middle class profession. So was being a doctor. Somewhere in there, for reasons which I still do not think are understood, doctors and lawyers started getting rich. This is a tangent, but it should be recognized that it was not until very recently that any lawyers made a million dollars a year. They were comfortable, but not rich.
posted by valkyryn at 12:04 PM on January 6, 2010 [5 favorites]


I think part of my issue with LegalFilter AskMe is that the mods--no offense--don't really seem to have a good take on the kinds of questions which can easily be resolved in the sort of casual environment to which AskMe is conducive and in which the approach I detailed above would be appropriate. . . . Perhaps someone could draft a field that would pop up on the New Question page whenever "law and government" is selected as a topic, emphasizing that nothing which follows is to be interpreted as legal advice. Maybe a list of boilerplate warnings, such as "If you have been served with legal papers, you need to contact a lawyer immediately." That sort of thing. CYA for everyone involved.

It is funny how a bunch of lawyers keep offering the mods unsolicited legal advice about matters with which they have no particular expertise even after mathowie stated that he has in fact consulted a lawyer about this issue, and apparently decided he doesn't need to worry about it.
posted by otio at 12:07 PM on January 6, 2010


otio, deciding that he's okay bearing the risk is not the same thing as concluding that there is no risk. And I wouldn't say I have "no particular expertise" either.

Besides, that only really deals with one half of the discussion. This post and the resulting comments are about both how to keep MetaFilter from getting sued and protecting unsuspecting laymen from getting themselves in trouble, in approximately equal parts, as far as I can tell. Your quip only goes to the first part.
posted by valkyryn at 12:15 PM on January 6, 2010


we tell them that they need to talk to a lawyer, but when they do, they should be thinking about x, y, and z.

This is a good way to put it. I definitely take this approach IRL, but not on the internet.
posted by yarly at 12:55 PM on January 6, 2010


Besides, that only really deals with one half of the discussion. This post and the resulting comments are about both how to keep MetaFilter from getting sued and protecting unsuspecting laymen from getting themselves in trouble, in approximately equal parts, as far as I can tell. Your quip only goes to the first part.

As has been pointed out ad nauseum, these 'unsuspecting laymen' might get themselves in trouble by following bad electrical, plumbing, carpentry, culinary, relationship advice, etc. I haven't seen anyone offer a good reason why legal questions should be in a special class except the vain contention that practicing the law is so much more difficult than wiring or plumbing a house (professions which apparently require very little practice to become expert at!). But even if that were so, bad advice is bad advice and if it leads you to burn down your house or flood your basement I fail to see how that's less significant than the phantom legal troubles we're supposed to be so worried about here.
posted by otio at 1:03 PM on January 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


otio, you're taking the techne side of the argument then. Which is why I think you're wrong.
posted by valkyryn at 1:07 PM on January 6, 2010


Put another way, valkyryn is making an elitist (depending on your point of view, elitism isn't necessarily bad. I'm elitist when it comes to who can conduct brain surgery on me) argument, suggesting that doctors and lawyers are required to use a deeper, more nuanced discretion/judgment/wisdom than a plumber does. You're free to reject that argument, but that is the distinction he is making between lawyers and plumbers.
posted by craven_morhead at 1:14 PM on January 6, 2010


I haven't seen anyone offer a good reason why legal questions...

Flagged as derail. Please stop strawmanning. The problem as stated in the OP is not about questions at all. It's about a very specific kind of answer to those questions - the kind in which a non-lawyer presents their opinion as legal advice. If you'd like to discuss the rather different topic of whether the law can be discussed at all, please create a separate thread.
posted by jock@law at 1:22 PM on January 6, 2010


It occurs to me that it might be kind of fun to present my opinion as legal advice, just to piss off lawyers. Sue me.
posted by found missing at 1:30 PM on January 6, 2010


Justinian, you're lumping these two things together in an incorrect way. When I answer a legal question on askme -- engaging in a dialogue with the person who has the legal problem -- then I may be in effect giving legal advice to that person.

Yarly: I'm not talking about answering a legal question on AskMe. I understand your position with regard to the problematic nature of a lawyer answering a legal question there. I'm talking about your refusal to discuss it here in MetaTalk. Talking about a legal issue that comes up somewhere else here in Metatalk is no different than talking about Kelo or any other interesting legal issue.

Could you discuss it on a different blog? How about in person with a couple friends? If so, how is discussing it here any different? It isn't.
posted by Justinian at 1:30 PM on January 6, 2010


I definitely take this approach IRL, but not on the internet.
Why do you draw this distinction? Taking this approach on the internet is all a lot of people have been asking for. In all other respects, you've been treating internet public postings as if they're IRL chats.

jock@law: You are neither our mother nor our lawyer. Please stop playing thread police. If you don't want to answer questions or accusations, leave them be. Dodging them with "derail!" doesn't swing on MeTa. This is the place we take derails.
posted by bonaldi at 1:36 PM on January 6, 2010


found missing, other lawyers aren't going to sue you if you couch your opinion as legal advice. If you couch it that way, someone who reasonably relied upon it might, depending on lots of other things. You can present your opinion in iambic pentameter for all I care.
posted by craven_morhead at 1:36 PM on January 6, 2010


I shall take your advice and live on the edge.
posted by found missing at 2:00 PM on January 6, 2010


Valkyrn, I think your teche argument is probably not just un-egalitarian , but steps over the line toward inaccurately elitist.

Yeah, I agree that people Googling a statute and saying "here's the answer" (primarily because of the lack of context that is necessary to legal solution) is not a great idea, and that lawyers probably understand this better, having studied the jillions of ways the very specific facts of a case really matter, I just think that the "perspective that legal advice represents a source of experienced wisdom that is inaccessible to the layman" is not really what the lawyers here are arguing.

The lawyers here are arguing consequences (unkowingly committing a crime, UPL e.g.) due to training and experience (as you are) not some mystical intellectual superiority over carpenters (who, believe me, DO learn to be good carpenters in the techne/sophia way you describe of lawyers - a good carpenter DOES think conceptually and has vision above techne).
posted by Pax at 2:11 PM on January 6, 2010


This has been a really fascinating thread to read and I'm sorry I haven't had time to tangle it up with y'all. I am a lawyer and have "thought twice" about participating in some AskMe threads because of ethical concerns.

Mid wrote upthread:
1. The advice can be bad and, worse, can be bad and seemingly authoritative. But this is true of any advice on AskMe, including advice about other potentially serious topics like medicine, money, and dangerous home improvement projects.

Otio wrote:
As has been pointed out ad nauseum, these 'unsuspecting laymen' might get themselves in trouble by following bad electrical, plumbing, carpentry, culinary, relationship advice, etc. I haven't seen anyone offer a good reason why legal questions should be in a special class except the vain contention that practicing the law is so much more difficult than wiring or plumbing a house

I don't speak for any other lawyers, but it seems to me that many of the concerns voiced on this issue really focus on the fact that lawyers are really really reluctant to CORRECT bad advice in an AskMe response. Because lawyers are afraid of crossing the line between talking generally about legal concepts and providing SPECIFIC legal advice (which leads you down the road of creating an attorney-client relationship with some random poster).

So in the usual, non-legal context, AskMe threads have a pretty good back-and-forth, in which patently bad or incorrect advice is shouted down.

But in the legal context, however, the people who are best equipped and trained to identify bad advice (i.e., lawyers) are usually reluctant or unable to come out and post, "No, that's wrong."

Speaking only for myself, I have been reluctant to correct "bad" legal advice on AskMe because of a fear that making a specific comment about the application of the law to a particular set of facts comes too close to the lines of providing specific legal advice, which sends me down the path of (willingly or not) potentially having formed an attorney-client relationship with some random guy on Metafilter. Maybe this fear is unjustified, but that's been my attitude and judging from the reaction of other lawyers in this thread, I'm not the only one.

WAFFLING TIME: That said, I don't think anything needs to be changed. Lawyers on MeFi can (and should) police themselves and if there's really patently bad advice in a thread, the chorus of "I can't talk to you about this but get a lawyer to look at this NOW" is (and has been) the usual (and correct) solution.
posted by QuantumMeruit at 2:15 PM on January 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


Pax, I recognize that most other people weren't making that argument, but I suspect that such an argument lies in the background. Yes, the focus has been on consequences, but unless there is something different about the practice of law other than licensing statutes, otio is right.

The legal profession used to operate explicitly on the assumptions I laid out above. It does so less now, because society is not as willing to concede the point, but I'd be willing to argue that the same assumptions are still operative, if not discussed or recognized most of the time.
posted by valkyryn at 3:00 PM on January 6, 2010


I'm talking about your refusal to discuss it here in MetaTalk. Talking about a legal issue that comes up somewhere else here in Metatalk is no different than talking about Kelo or any other interesting legal issue.

Could you discuss it on a different blog? How about in person with a couple friends? If so, how is discussing it here any different? It isn't.
posted by Justinian at 1:30 PM on January 6 [+] [!]


It's because the asker might read Metatalk as well, so it's the same issue. I would feel comfortable discussing it in private, and in fact did send some memails to people about it.
posted by yarly at 3:06 PM on January 6, 2010


Here's a hypothetical for you: what if one of the recipients of your memail posted it here?
posted by smackfu at 3:21 PM on January 6, 2010


smackfu, clients breaching their own confidentiality is dumb, and lawyers advise against it, but it does not generally create any liability for their lawyers as such. Clearly, if the lawyer is doing something illegal, he can get in trouble for that, but neither clients nor the state can hold a lawyer responsible for clients breaching the relationship. So if someone publishes an email from an attorney containing legal advice for them, the attorney is generally not exposed to liability.
posted by valkyryn at 3:26 PM on January 6, 2010


Ah, Smackfu, but then IF

1) It's done with yarly's permission, would the intermediary be an agent? If so, yarly might still be liable.

2) It's down without yarly's permission, posting private MeMails is a dickish thing to do, and we've had MeTas about that before.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 3:27 PM on January 6, 2010


To be clear, that was a real hypothetical, not some veiled way to request people post it.

More abstractly: Lawyer A comments on non-client Criminal B's legal situation to Gossip C. Gossip C tells Criminal B what Lawyer A said.
posted by smackfu at 3:39 PM on January 6, 2010


To be clear, that was a real hypothetical, not some veiled way to request people post it.

More abstractly: Lawyer A comments on non-client Criminal B's legal situation to Gossip C. Gossip C tells Criminal B what Lawyer A said.
posted by smackfu at 3:39 PM on January 6 [+] [!]


Could be troublesome if there is any hint that Lawyer A got the information from Criminal B because Criminal B was seeking legal advice, even if Criminal B was not actually a client. The duty of confidentiality extends to people who don't become clients.
posted by yarly at 3:47 PM on January 6, 2010


It's because the asker might read Metatalk as well, so it's the same issue.

And Sussette Kelo might read Volokh Conspiracy, or Metafilter.
posted by Justinian at 4:16 PM on January 6, 2010


So, is this a good time to apply to law school?
posted by clockzero at 5:33 PM on January 6, 2010


We can all agree the answer to that is "God No!"
posted by smackfu at 5:46 PM on January 6, 2010


yarly, I find it impossible to reconcile the various positions you've staked out here. On the one hand, you've offered the following rationales for why it's okay to comment at length on pending cases in public forums:

I am perfectly happy commenting on articles, public affairs, ongoing court cases, whatever. there's no individual there who I am communicating with, so no problem....When I answer a legal question on askme -- engaging in a dialogue with the person who has the legal problem -- then I may be in effect giving legal advice to that person.

But then you give the following reason for refusing to post here in MeTa your reasons for disapproving the advice in the AskMe thread:

It's because the asker might read Metatalk as well, so it's the same issue.


They're directly contradictory. In the first statement, you're saying the distinguishing factor is whether you're "engaging in a dialogue with the person who has the legal problem," and so statements to the world at large on a public forum are not problematic; and in the second you're saying the distinguishing factor is access to the potential advice, and so statements to the world at large, which "the asker might read as well," are problematic.
posted by palliser at 7:00 PM on January 6, 2010


A great deal of advice given on AskMe is bad. I'm not sure why we're drawing a line at legal. People are either allowed to spout off their inane suggestions, or they aren't.
posted by bingo at 7:32 PM on January 6, 2010


Me, I'm horrified whenever someone recommends House of Leaves. That book is a colossal con-job.
posted by Artw at 9:59 PM on January 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


Aw, it's a perfectly nice book. It just needs to not be the only book you've ever read, and the occasional superfan seems to break that rule.
posted by cortex (staff) at 10:27 PM on January 6, 2010


Aren't you kind of giving mathowie legal advice in advising him to clamp down on legal advice given mostly by non-lawyers?
posted by anniecat at 7:08 AM on January 7, 2010 [2 favorites]


palliser and Justinian: It's the difference between providing legal information and providing legal advice. In the former, you're just speaking generally to the public. In the latter, you may actually be forming an attorney-client relationship between yourself and a specific person. I view Metatalk as an extension of Askme, in this case, so it's more like legal advice, which I try not to do.

Here's a really good explanation from the DC bar on point, entitled Lawyers’ Participation in Chat Room Communications With Internet Users Seeking Legal Information. (Mefi lawyers, this whole ethics opinion is really enlightening on this question! Kind of wish I found it before...)

"In light of these general principles, lawyers seeking to avoid formation of attorney-client relationships through chat room conversations would be well advised to avoid providing legal advice in such communications.14 The relevant distinction is that between legal advice and legal information. Providing legal information involves discussion of legal principles, trends, and considerations—the kind of information one might give in a speech or newspaper article, for example. Providing legal advice, on the other hand, involves offering recommendations tailored to the unique facts of a particular person’s circumstances. Thus, in discussing legal information, lawyers should be careful to emphasize that it is intended as general information only, which may or may not be applicable to an individual’s specific situation. ...

lawyers wishing to avoid formation of attorney-client relationships through chat room or similar Internet communications should limit themselves to providing legal information, and should not seek to elicit or respond to the specifics of particular individuals’ situations. Lawyers could, for example, explain general principles or trends in the law, or lay out the majority and minority viewpoints and/or the range of variation on particular legal issues across jurisdictions, or even describe a particular jurisdiction’s law. But lawyers should advise information seekers to obtain legal counsel to determine what law would be applicable to their unique circumstances. Likewise, lawyers participating in chat room exchanges could explain the approaches to certain legal problems lawyers typically consider, but should not purport to advise inquirers as to what to do in their specific situations. Where a communication is lengthy or otherwise might leave room for misunderstanding, lawyers should remind inquirers that the chat room communication is not a substitute for specific legal advice, and that the lawyer is providing general legal information only."

The Ethics Opinion goes on to give a specific example of the kind of wording it thinks meets this criteria:

"[Q: Am I in status with this visa situation?]

A: Generally, persons who are in the U.S. on non-expired visa waivers are in status. Such persons, however, may often find it difficult to change status from a visa waiver. They might try to apply for a non-immigrant visa, such as a student visa, but they would probably be required to leave the United States to obtain such a visa. Another possibility some persons in this situation explore is to apply for a non-immigrant work visa. I cannot give you legal advice on your particular situation, but if you would like to discuss your specific case with me, you may call me for a consultation. . . ."
posted by yarly at 8:05 AM on January 7, 2010 [4 favorites]


Aren't you kind of giving mathowie legal advice in advising him to clamp down on legal advice given mostly by non-lawyers?
posted by anniecat at 7:08 AM on January 7 [1 favorite +] [!]


No, I didn't do this.
posted by yarly at 8:08 AM on January 7, 2010


No, I didn't do this.

As your lawyer, I'm going to advise you to plead not guilty.
posted by found missing at 8:20 AM on January 7, 2010


the occasional superfan seems to break that rule.

They recommend it for everything. EVERYTHING.
posted by Artw at 11:35 AM on January 7, 2010


yarly, your quotation left out the scope of the ruling, which is very relevant here: The opinion is addressing "arrangements through which lawyers engage in interactive communications, in 'real time' or nearly real time, with Internet users seeking legal information." This would describe AskMe, where you know the poster is present and is soliciting advice. This doesn't at all describe the situation in MeTa, where the participants are talking to each other about the site, not giving advice directly to other participants. You are not talking to "a user seeking legal information"; you're talking to all participants on the site about the quality of legal information presented elsewhere on the site.

Further, even if it applied to your comments here, the ethics opinion would certainly permit you to say what's wrong with the advice given to the AskMe seeker, with wording in line with the example they give about the visa situation. You know -- "generally, someone staying in a house doesn't have tenant's rights after fewer than 30 days in a property. However, the methods of putting her 'guest' out suggested in AskMe raise some potential problems -- x,y, and z. She should consult a lawyer in her jurisdiction for further guidance." Or whatever your problem with the advice is.

Basically, you came into MeTa calling out another user -- accusing another user of behaving badly. And then, when asked what, specifically, was wrong, you refused to say. Either be willing to explain yourself when you call someone out, or keep it to yourself (or yourself and the mods, which would prevent the AskMe poster from ever having access to what you imagine is potentially actionable legal advice).

I still strongly disagree with your interpretation of "legal advice," as gleaned by reading through all your comments here, and find that the opinion you cite actually gives a whole lot of weight to Mavri's and bearwife's approaches of giving information relevant to the situation and then recommending that advice be sought from a professional in the jurisdiction. It's really what most lawyers here do already, and your more alarmist stance (if you don't know already I can't tell you) does not seem to be at all supported by the opinion you link.
posted by palliser at 11:43 AM on January 7, 2010


Just to clarify my first point: you were right earlier, yarly, when you said the important distinction between AskMe and legal blogs is whether the lawyer is engaged in a "dialogue" with an advice-seeker, versus speaking to some other audience about a legal question. The ethics opinion describes a secondary distinction that must be made once you're communicating directly with an advice-seeker: legal advice versus legal information, and how to give legal information in a way that makes it clear it's not legal advice.

That's very useful for helping lawyers to participate responsibly on AskMe.

But I'm afraid it doesn't at all explain why you haven't made the primary distinction here, and still refuse to explain here in MeTa what's wrong with the advice in AskMe.
posted by palliser at 12:01 PM on January 7, 2010


The dialogue began on askme; it could be continuing here. I consider this Metatalk to still be "interactive communications" with the poster; it came directly from her question. The fact that I'm talking to other people at the same time on a different page makes no difference - the OP could still be reading this trying to get advice. The law just isn't as formalistic as how you're seeing it. This may be a conservative interpretation, but it is quite reasonable, in my opinion. Just because we've moved the conversation to a different room doesn't change the fact that it's still a conversation.

As for whether I could make a statement conforming to the example of a general statement in the DC Ethics Opinion -- the only way you can "speak generally" and accurately about a legal subject is if you actually know a lot about it. I'm not an expert in landlord tenant law, much less NYC landlord-tenant law, so I'm not really qualified to "speak generally" about it. More importantly, in that askme, the conversation had already delved enough into the specifics of the law and the facts that "speaking generally" would not have been possible; I would have had to have made specific comments, which would have been legal advice. There's really no way to say "you're wrong about the law as applied to these facts" by speaking in generalities.

This is my interpretation of my ethical duties, which come from years of dealing with clients and taking my professional responsibilities very seriously. My interpretation may be conservative, but I'm comfortable that it's reasonable. I'm sorry you're annoyed at the way the thread unfolded, and I realize that the restrictions in what I can say somewhat inhibit communications, but there's no way around it. I think we got a lot of useful ideas out here, anyway.
posted by yarly at 12:24 PM on January 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


Artw: “Me, I'm horrified whenever someone recommends House of Leaves. That book is a colossal con-job.”

That may be your opinion, but any intelligent person must recognize that, at least in historical and literary terms, House of Leaves is a work of great importance. For decades, the dull people of the world have cried out for their own Finnegan's Wake. Now, finally, they have it.
posted by koeselitz at 12:53 PM on January 7, 2010


the dull people of the world have cried out for their own Finnegan's Wake

Do the dull people know the name of the thing is actually Finnegans Wake?

O SNAP.
posted by Justinian at 2:08 PM on January 7, 2010


"YOU, SMARTY-PEOPLE, MAKING LITTLE COLOR-SHAPES ON PAPER WITH YOUR POINTY STICKS AND CLICKY MACHINES! YOUR BIG OLD PAPER-STACK WITH THE WEIRDY-FUNNY WORDS THAT SOUND WRONG—YOU WILL MAKE US ONE OF THEM!"
posted by koeselitz at 2:19 PM on January 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


The fact that I'm talking to other people at the same time on a different page makes no difference - the OP could still be reading this trying to get advice.

This was such an intriguing notion of how the relevant legal principles work that I decided to test it. I wrote down some advice on NYC landlord-tenant law on a little scrap of paper that I ripped from yesterday's NY Times. Then I ate that piece of paper, crapped it out and submitted that piece of crap to the DC Bar, asking for an advisory opinion. And it's true - they told me that the crap was still legal advice because it was theoretically possible for the AskMe poster to reassemble the molecules of paper and thereby be legally advised. Just goes to show you can't be too careful.
posted by chinston at 3:49 PM on January 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


That cannot possibly be the last word!
posted by Mid at 2:48 PM on January 8, 2010


You're one to talk!
posted by palliser at 7:28 PM on January 8, 2010


That's fair.
posted by Mid at 9:57 PM on January 8, 2010


i've always thought that cornflakes look a bit like people.
posted by UbuRoivas at 4:24 AM on January 9, 2010


IANYL= I am now your lawyer.
posted by anniecat at 10:19 AM on January 11, 2010 [2 favorites]


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