Overlawyering April 9, 2019 5:53 PM   Subscribe

Should legal AskMe's be banned?

They are routinely practically shut down by lawyers or their Stans, portrayed as a maze of twisty passages where the only way out is through a lawyer. Yes, legal issues are fact- and jurisdiction-specific, but that a) isn't always the only information to offer; and b) doesn't require sucking all the air out of threads. Everywhere else on the site people are corrected by others, all day long, somehow without tacking on an "and STFU."

Tech people don't come to your answers and tell you the way you type is going to give you RSI, "learn to touch-type on a Kinesis or say goodbye to hugging your loved ones without pain ever again," just because you said you like your post-2015 Macbook, or that suggesting the use of email means you're promoting identity theft, but that how many legal threads seem to go.
posted by rhizome to Etiquette/Policy at 5:53 PM (61 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

To answer the question above the fold: no, we aren't gonna ban legal questions.

To address the stuff underneath: I think people can do varyingly good and bad jobs of presenting a "here's why I think you're gonna want to talk to a lawyer about this rather than depend on pop advice" angle on an answer. To the extent that people don't always thread that needle well, it's fine to flag it (maybe with a note to let us know specifically what's up) and we can look at it mod side.
posted by cortex (staff) at 5:55 PM on April 9, 2019 [9 favorites]

Yes, legal issues are fact- and jurisdiction-specific, but ...

The thing that makes legal threads particularly weird isn't that they're fact specific, but that lawyers are mostly unable to participate in them.

If a lawyer gives actionable advice about a person's problem (even after saying "this is not legal advice"), that can create a lawyer-client relationship, and the lawyer-client relationship comes along with legally-enforceable duties to the client, and those duties are pretty much impossible to meet given the info in an Ask.

That means lawyers get standard advice to steer clear of Ask Metafilter-type situations. For example: "lawyers who answer fact-specific legal questions may be characterized as offering personal legal advice, especially if the lawyer is responding to a question that can reasonably be understood to refer to the questioner’s individual circumstances. ... If you disclaim that you are providing legal advice then do what you say you are going to do and don’t provide it."

In practice no one is super likely to be sued or disbarred for an AskMe answer, so you do see lawyers answer sometimes, but they're doing a thing they've been explicitly warned not to do with real risks attached.

The analogous tech situation would be, like, you can freely ask "how would someone hypothetically write this PHP program?" and get expert answers. But if you say "I'm going to write a PHP program and I want to know how to ...," then you've crossed a line and literally the only people who are legally allowed to write PHP programs professionally will be forced to skip the question and not answer. It would be wild and counterintuitive and frustrating, but that's the situation we're in with legal threads.

It's hard when threads go by that are explicitly asking for legal advice someone intends to act on -- using phrases like "What is the law in NY" and "What are her rights in this?" Questions like that are going to have a weird blind spot that isn't obvious if you don't know the rules lawyers are working under. I think that's what leads to the background radiation of, hey, you need to know that you're particularly unlikely to get a solid answer to your question as posed here without talking to a lawyer.

At the same time someone might be much better off having advice via Ask (including from lawyers and law-adjacent folks who choose to participate!) than no advice at all -- so some sort of ongoing tension between "here's the limits on the advice you can get in this forum" and "here's what I would do in your situation" is probably the best we can do.
posted by john hadron collider at 7:43 PM on April 9, 2019 [38 favorites]

Does it have to involve such insufferable condescension?
posted by rhizome at 8:47 PM on April 9, 2019 [6 favorites]

There are at least 2 lawyers with relevant experience giving good advice in the thread, to my eye. So, I don't think anything is being shut down and I don't think anything needs to be banned.

This is usually the way legal threads go - a few lawyers or other people with relevant experience offer some good advice, many people tell the OP to see a lawyer, some people offer bad advice, and some people say that the OP should never follow legal advice on the internet. On balance, I tend to think that OPs get a few helpful pointers and a clear message that they should seek advice from a lawyer in the relevant jurisdiction if they want more.

So, while some people are overly-enthusiastic in warning OPs about the potential risks of off-the-cuff internet advice, I don't think there is any actionable issue here.

See also this thread from 2010.
posted by Mid at 8:56 PM on April 9, 2019 [3 favorites]

The same sort of thing happens in threads asking for medical advice. Or other specialized advice for that matter.

A la "Go see a doctor" type answers.

See this meta from 2014 as an example. I spoke up a bit then insofar as I see those type of responses as being akin to trivial, 0 = 0 type solutions of equations. Sometimes there's reasons why folks are asking here rather than pre-following the sometimes helpful, sometimes not, sometimes 100% kneejerk advice of "Get thee hence to thy doctor, lawyer, structural engineer, bookbinder, accountant, carriage maker, antiquarian, or MaytagTM repair-person".

Also, as Mid just mentioned, there were/are (?) a few M.Ds. that were answering medical type asks and those folks are treasures and the same goes for any specialized professionals who are kind enough to take the time to type to us folks here on the site.
posted by RolandOfEld at 9:07 PM on April 9, 2019

We got really really into arguing about legal Asks in 2010.
posted by Mid at 9:19 PM on April 9, 2019

These types of Metatalks are collected on the Get a lawyer page, fyi...
posted by Little Dawn at 9:47 PM on April 9, 2019 [2 favorites]

somehow without tacking on an "and STFU."

Also, where in the thread you linked does anyone say "and STFU"?
posted by Little Dawn at 10:02 PM on April 9, 2019 [5 favorites]

Should legal AskMe's be banned?


I've found them useful. I've also found marijuana and LSD useful. Your mileage may vary.
posted by philip-random at 10:51 PM on April 9, 2019 [11 favorites]

On the one hand, following bad legal advice on the internet can ruin people‘s lives, unlike most tech advice. And due to the complexity of the topic, and the lack of information included in the question, how can legal advice ever be sufficiently not-bad?

On the other hand, I‘ve rarely seen a legal question end in anything but disagreements. Like, as in the referenced thread, people are responding in very different ways and offering contradictory bits of information.

I feel like anyone who chooses one particular answer on which to base their actions and ignores all the others would have to be pretty...wilfully naïve at this point.

So in conclusion, these threads seem pretty useless when it comes to defining ones legal strategy, but useful/interesting in pointing the asker to aspects of his case that may or may not be relevant and that he/she may otherwise never have thought about.

In most threads, the only conclusion I‘d manage to arrive at is „The majority seems to think I have a case but if I’m going to pursue this, I’ll need a lawyer.“
posted by Omnomnom at 11:47 PM on April 9, 2019 [4 favorites]

Were some early responses deleted? I don't see anyone saying that your friend "definitely" doesn't have certain rights or would "definitely" lose.
Lawyers don't work for free and answers suggesting a legal fight against someone who regularly flies by private jet and can afford to house their mistresses in NYC apartments doesn't seem a good idea. The value of AskMe are the personal experiences and diverse perspectives in the answers, along with researched citations and links - plenty of which are given in the thread. Just saying "this is a scary legal thing, pay a lawyer" really isn't helpful.
posted by JonB at 1:43 AM on April 10, 2019 [4 favorites]

or their Stans

Lee? Tucci? Laurel? Kubrick? I am so lost with you kids and your crazy jive lingo.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 2:43 AM on April 10, 2019 [21 favorites]

Possibly Kazakh?
posted by deadwax at 4:18 AM on April 10, 2019 [8 favorites]

posted by Omnomnom at 5:03 AM on April 10, 2019 [12 favorites]

Lawyers don't work for free

Lawyers can work without direct cost to their clients, including legal aid, pro bono, and contingency fee cases. That's pretty much exactly why I spend time trying to direct people in AskMe to free and low cost resources.
posted by Little Dawn at 5:17 AM on April 10, 2019 [18 favorites]

IMO saying something like "STFU" is often the only responsible way to counter uninformed / unfounded legal advice.

I feel like it's kind of unprofessional to tell people to "STFU" if they're not going to take your advice.

I don't think people saying "get a lawyer" is objectionable at all, it's good advice, but the tone of "oh my god the sun will fall out of the sky if you don't get legal advice this minute, you absolute moron" is not helping anyone.

Many people posting legal threads are:

a) too poor to access a lawyer
b) need advice on what KIND of lawyer to get instead of getting slapped down with "get a lawyer," which is an unhelpful generality in some cases
c) interested in solutions that don't involve the law for various reasons

So, just a little awareness of how people's situations might be different might improve these threads.
posted by coffeeand at 5:20 AM on April 10, 2019 [14 favorites]


Superfans (no value judgment intended). From the Eminem song.
posted by box at 5:34 AM on April 10, 2019 [4 favorites]

Wait, what? Lawyers have stans/people stan for lawyers? Why would that even be a thing? Why would that be an insult? I am so confused.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 5:40 AM on April 10, 2019 [3 favorites]

Huh, thanks for those links about "stan", I'd been curious. It feels like it's all over the place suddenly, but the song's like two decades old.
posted by lucidium at 5:41 AM on April 10, 2019 [9 favorites]

Like.... I posted an AskMe with legal aspects a few months ago. If I had followed the advice of people telling me to get a lawyer, I would still be embroiled in a very stressful situation which I've since resolved without a lawyer. In fact I took the advice of someone else on that thread who had a decidedly non-legal approach and it worked beautifully. Sometimes you need the chaotic good answer instead of the lawful good.
posted by coffeeand at 5:43 AM on April 10, 2019 [26 favorites]

Like.... I posted an AskMe with legal aspects a few months ago. If I had followed the advice of people telling me to get a lawyer, I would still be embroiled in a very stressful situation which I've since resolved without a lawyer. In fact I took the advice of someone else on that thread who had a decidedly non-legal approach and it worked beautifully. Sometimes you need the chaotic good answer instead of the lawful good.

Um. With all due respect, the question you're talking about (I'm assuming it's the "I tried to help this woman by giving her a place to stay for a few weeks, and now it's been six months and I want her out" question? I remember reading it, reading the first few answers after the initial volley of "lawyer NOW", grimacing in horror, and closing the thread) is probably the single most clarion beacon of "ban legal AskMes" that I've ever seen. That thread is chock full of terrible, illegal advice, couched as friendly suggestions to just get you over the finish line. Selected texts from the answers:

IMHO, there is no shame in using dirty tricks to end this quickly. In fact I would compare it to ripping off a band-aid. You can deal with this in a direct manner, or you can be sneaky. You are justified whatever you choose. Does she do drugs? Does she have a jealous lover? Has she ever been busted for a DUI? These are all things that you can use if you are careful and creative.

pack her things up wait for her to leave and change the locks. Yeah it isn’t legal but cops aren’t stupid and will get what’s going on

This isn't a vampire situation - she is trespassing and MO is a stand-your-ground state. She's lucky she didn't find you waiting there with a shotgun.

There were also a chorus of suggestions that you lock her out and pretend it's the landlord's fault. If you'd followed those, and the woman (or her social worker, or her pro bono attorney) had had any notion of tenant rights, you personally would have been liable for thousands of dollars and most likely evicted.

You ignored the advice to get a lawyer, and you got lucky. Good for you! (Not being facetious here; I'm glad your situation worked out, that sounded really stressful and it wasn't your fault) . In the high likelihood that it HADN'T worked out, and you still had an unwanted roommate and were being sued by both your landlord and your newly-acquired tenant, I'm not so sure you'd be happy with all the horrible advice you were given. I also don't think MetaFilter benefits from the continued existence of this question, because it makes the community look like it sanctions legal advice given by people who are completely ignorant of legal processes.
posted by Mayor West at 7:18 AM on April 10, 2019 [9 favorites]

IFDS - I don't have any serious quarrel with what you say, but I think this type of circumstance is extremely rare: "I would absolutely hate for someone to lose their home or owe tons of money or, god forbid, commit a crime because someone gave them an overconfident answer and they didn't realize that it wasn't right or that they should check it with another source."

We can all examine the record of legal Asks, but in my experience it is extremely unusual (to the point of never) that: (i) someone posts a high-stakes legal question; and (ii) someone who identifies themselves as possessing legal expertise responds with definitive and incorrect advice. Much more typical is something like "you should really see a lawyer, but here are a few thoughts" type of thing. Askers can take or leave that type of advice the same as they can take or leave advice on other important topics like health issues, finances, etc.
posted by Mid at 7:19 AM on April 10, 2019

I would absolutely hate for someone to lose their home or owe tons of money or, god forbid, commit a crime because someone gave them an overconfident answer and they didn't realize that it wasn't right or that they should check it with another source.

I feel like we basically agree here: the stakes are high, and people who ask these questions should not take one non-lawyer's opinion as legal advice.

But while laypeople preface their opinion with "IANAL, you should probably get one" I also feel like lawyers should also preface their position with a disclaimer like, "I have a hammer, sometimes every problem looks like a nail to me, etc." Just to acknowledge there may be other perspectives. That way the whole thread doesn't turn into a back and forth between one or two people who are arguing about how necessary a lawyer is or isn't.
posted by coffeeand at 7:27 AM on April 10, 2019 [2 favorites]

There were also a chorus of suggestions that you lock her out and pretend it's the landlord's fault. If you'd followed those, and the woman (or her social worker, or her pro bono attorney) had had any notion of tenant rights, you personally would have been liable for thousands of dollars and most likely evicted.

Yes, there was definitely some bad advice on that thread. However, if everyone had changed the topic to shouting down the bad advice, I would have never heard the good advice that ultimately worked, which was "give her a lump sum of money to move out, and she will move out quietly because she likes money, and then you will not have to involve cops and lawyers and other things which she would have read as a direct threat to her and taken as a cue to escalate her behavior very, very dramatically."
posted by coffeeand at 7:32 AM on April 10, 2019 [11 favorites]

To put it more clearly, abusers--like the one in the thread that inspired this MeTa-- do not suddenly go, "Oh, you're right, the thing I'm doing is illegal," once the victim gets lawyers involved. In fact, usually their behavior gets much worse. And then the victim has legal costs and a trial to deal with on top of it all.
posted by coffeeand at 7:38 AM on April 10, 2019 [4 favorites]

As a lawyer, I try to keep myself out of threads involving legal issues because of the overwhelming temptation to say either “get off the internet and get a lawyer” or “don’t ever sue, do everything humanly possible to keep yourself out of litigation,” regardless of circumstances. Thus, I am not helpful in these threads (except to the extent that people really should often consult a lawyer instead of listening to online legal advice!!!!! but there I go again...).

It’s just...reading the questions and responses to some of the legal AskMes, it’s clear that the askers and responders sometimes don’t even know the right questions to be asking, let alone the right answers. It gets worrisome. :-/
posted by sallybrown at 8:39 AM on April 10, 2019 [8 favorites]

One of the insights I had a few years ago is that lawyers tend to only deal with the obtuse or unclear cases in the law. The cases that are clearly in favor of one party tend to be settled without involving the lawyers. The cases that are clearly hopeless are abandoned prior to going to a lawyer, or at worst, lawyers contacted will refuse to take the case. The typical legal case is:
  • right in the ambiguous middle (since it's not clear who is in the wrong or what the law/social norms expect).
  • tend to have two parties that have both have good arguments for their side (otherwise an ethical lawyer providing initial consultation would push the party towards settlement).
  • tend to have two parties that are sufficiently funded and willing to take the case further down the legal track (otherwise the parties would not bother going to a lawyer).
These sorts of cases seem to indicate to many lawyers (or lawyer-wannabes) that lawyers are universally helpful and that all cases are of that form. I think it's quite similar to engineer's disease, for which I will claim personal infection.

In the broader sense, I think the more people are willing to explore conflict resolution without involving the law, the better. A lawyer friend of mind described the legal system as "a vending machine that takes $10,000 tokens and a good part of the time, your case gets stuck in the machine and doesn't come out as you expect". So, I provide answers in the form "does your case have the characteristics that make spending money on a consultation or further engagement with a lawyer worth it?". At some point, the question-asker needs to make a bet - is spending money to go to a lawyer worth the possibility that nothing happens? This is a trickier question that whether the question-asker is either legally right or has legal avenues to solve their problem. However, it is the reality of the question-asker's situation.
posted by saeculorum at 8:44 AM on April 10, 2019 [19 favorites]

Metafilter: Sometimes you need the chaotic good answer instead of the lawful good.
posted by Melismata at 9:40 AM on April 10, 2019 [10 favorites]

or “don’t ever sue, do everything humanly possible to keep yourself out of litigation,” regardless of circumstances. Thus, I am not helpful in these threads

I can immediately think of two good friends who basically had their careers ruined because they didn't get this advice. So yeah, I'd define it as helpful indeed, potentially anywaay.
posted by philip-random at 10:01 AM on April 10, 2019 [3 favorites]

Some questions are well outside of the realm of Metafilter, and "get a lawyer" is the answer. But very often, people don't know that ahead of time. Sometimes the asker has no idea of the knowledge required to even ask, so it's unclear to them if it's a legal question.

Analogously: if someone has no plumbing experience, how do they know if the answer is "call a plumber," or "that's super easy to fix, here's the part and here's the how-to."

So yeah, sometimes what might appear to be a complex legal question has actually been well-trod, and there's a form to fill out and file at the local court or city hall.

If legal questions are categorically banned, people will be afraid to ask questions that turn out to have easy, non-lawyer answers.
posted by explosion at 10:14 AM on April 10, 2019 [10 favorites]

Lawyer here, and one who not infrequently posts in legal AskMes.

In just the last two years, I have made answers about class action settlements, one about Condo bylaws, a super-long one about what to look for in an NDA, one about wills, one about foster care visitation (which was more from my experience as a foster parent, but still), some issue-spotting in a family loan question, advice about documenting a hostile work environment, more advice about a family loan, some landlord-tenant contract interpretation, citation to California unemployment law interpretation, citations to guidance on COBRA election timing, and some conjecture about cross-border jurisdiction in a lawsuit. I am a proper expert in few if any of these categories, and approached my response more from my general ability as a lawyer to understand complicated legal stuff or find the source of the answer online.

I am sure that the ABA or whoever would say "OMG you should NOT be posting about these" but (a) I feel like in each of those cases I actually had something pertinent to offer, (b) (I hope) the response was given respectfully, and (c) with a community like AskMe, I think we can/should be able to rely on the good faith of the people asking that they will not assume a broadly stated question on an internet board and a freely-provided general answer creates an attorney-client relationship or completely addresses the situation.
posted by AgentRocket at 10:28 AM on April 10, 2019 [32 favorites]

Speaking as a random nobody (in legal terms), lawyers are really expensive and intimidating, and there's really very few resources for even knowing what to expect when you consult a lawyer. A lot of people like me have never had to deal with the law in any meaningful way, and have no perspective on literally any aspect of the legal system besides having seen My Cousin Vinny a couple times. I'd be scared to consult a lawyer and rack up fees for even just an initial visit, or to be shepherded into a trial I don't actually want or need, and I have no confidence in my own judgment on these matters.

Despite all this, I actually tend to appreciate the people who say "I can't give advice on this, please consult a real lawyer." I'd rather have that than people just making best guesses without knowing everything they need to know. Obviously, this creates some tension. Would it be helpful if, in general, there were more resources for non-lawyers to understand the basics of consulting a lawyer? Not that every lawyer needs to walk through the whole process every time, but just some kind of background? Because "talk to a lawyer" is about as opaque to me as saying "buy a condo" -- I know it's done, I just have no idea how to do it or what to expect. I wonder if that's where some of the frustration comes from. As advice, it can feel like vague handwaving, even if it truly, practically isn't.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 10:35 AM on April 10, 2019 [6 favorites]

The question is posted by a friend of the person's sister, and doesn't have sufficient information for great answers. Issues of eviction require local legal expertise. NYC is pretty big, so no one can answer Call Queens Tenants' Rights Advocates (not real, probably) or whatever.

I don't get the negativity from the answers. They seemed repetitive. Rhizome, I didn't feel the condescension. Many repliers do not identify themselves as lawyers, yet give confident responses, which is not great. I would, and did, recommend legal assistance. and therapy.
posted by theora55 at 11:04 AM on April 10, 2019 [1 favorite]

that suggesting the use of email means you're promoting identity theft

Let me suggest a better example that comes closer to something that could really happen: Somebody comes onto AskMe explaining anonymously that they are a web developer at a small startup in the medical field that recently got some big funding, but that they are overwhelmed until more hiring happens and don't have people they can ask for help, and that they need help figuring out how to implement authentication in this web application.

Now imagine that people showed up in that thread and said that you could just store the password as a string on the user table, it's fine and way easier to set up than most of the alternatives.

Somebody who actually knows what they're doing sees multiple places where this is a big problem: You shouldn't do that with passwords generally! There's a lot of money involved! Some kind of app related to medicine could involve a lot of personal information! People who know only a little bit about this, though, could see "ah yes you can store data in a database and you can match user input against that" as being perfectly reasonable. The bad solution looks plausible unless you have specific experience that tells you why it isn't.

A lot of legal stuff is like that. (And tax stuff, and medical stuff, and so on.) If the question is really minor, nobody's going to get cranky about best guesses or amateur suggestions. A lot of questions theoretically have legal implications but they're really unlikely to be a big deal. On the other hand, some questions scream "this could ruin somebody's life", if you know what you're talking about, and I think it's entirely understandable that people in those cases recommend professionals and discourage best-guess kinds of answers.
posted by Sequence at 11:20 AM on April 10, 2019 [16 favorites]

what to look for in an NDA

It's YOU! OMG thank you! You totally saved my butt just not too long ago! I was presented an NDA a few weeks ago as a "standard formality" with the total expectation that I would sign it without really looking at it, which I didn't and usually don't. But due to your great answer *this time* I had a better idea of what to look for, and right away I noticed the IP language included in it, which led me to notice other things in the NDA you had mentioned that set off a bunch of alarm bells - and I ended up not signing it. I realized later it was the tip off to a growing idea about the organization maybe being kind of toxic and treating their employees like shit. I ended up turning down the job because I just cannot work in another toxic environment ever again. And someone else just last week confirmed for me that I made the right call. Without your advice about the NDA I might not have started looking for some of the little details that, once observed, led to my eventual conclusion/decision. But to my chagrin I had read your great advice a month prior to that event and could not for the life of me remember where. Thank you so much, AgentRocket!

Would it be helpful if, in general, there were more resources for non-lawyers to understand the basics of consulting a lawyer?

I've had to look for some legal advice regarding employment law twice, and also volunteered to get advice when our entire neighborhood wanted to know our rights in regard to something happening in our area. All three times, I found the Get A Lawyer MeFi Wiki which Little Dawn mentioned earlier tremendously helpful in this regard, as well as helping to figure out which kind of lawyer, where to find a qualified, decent attorney, and what to do, process-wise. I don't hang out in legal threads enough to know how often this resource gets mentioned in them - if it doesn't already get linked to frequently, should we make more effort to do so? (If it does get mentioned all the time, great! And never mind.) Anyway, thank you to everyone who has contributed to that, as well!
posted by barchan at 11:55 AM on April 10, 2019 [28 favorites]

Good to know! The Wiki really is very helpful, and I should remember to look at it more often.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 12:45 PM on April 10, 2019

General question about lawyers (I'm not one, obviously) answering questions: is it ok to do a little issue-spotting and describe what the law SAYS but WITHOUT applying it to the facts, making a prediction, and suggesting actions other than "discuss with your lawyer"? Basically, the I and R of IRAC, but without the A and C.

Sometimes I feel like it would be helpful or at least lessen people's panic somewhat to give them something to read and some expectations of what their lawyer is even going to be looking for, what the real questions are going to be. (while not answering those questions).

Like, can you say, well, the elements of fraud are usually 1), 2) and 3), so your lawyer is going to have to determine if your facts are likely to meet element 3? (In your state, etc.) That seems like merely stating a fact, not providing legal advice.
posted by ctmf at 4:53 PM on April 10, 2019 [1 favorite]

It's also the case that a large part of what lawyers do is tell people that they have no business going to court (for example) and should try doing X, Y, or Z instead.

They do not do this for free. Advising people that any question that at all involves the law requires consulting a lawyer at $300/hour is silly, at best. Correspondingly, I'm fine with saying that some home plumbing work can be done without a plumber. I imagine at some point in your life you have replaced a wall outlet plate without hiring an electrician.

I'm still comfortable telling people they should not try to extort other people into over half a year of free rent. If you're not comfortable doing so, that's alright.
posted by saeculorum at 5:50 PM on April 10, 2019 [3 favorites]

Many legal issues posted on Ask are not that complicated, are not high-stakes, and/or involve non-legal practicalities such as a low likelihood that anyone will ever file a lawsuit over a relatively low-dollar-value issue. While it is true that some areas of the law are complicated and lawyers can issue-spot and argue over nuances all day long, for most everyday issues much of that is not relevant. Is there a risk that Askers will receive bad advice and act on it? Yes, but it's hard to see why that risk is more significant with respect to these types of legal questions than other important areas of life such as money, health, family relations, etc.

For legal questions that are truly "you might ruin your life"-level important, perhaps a different calculus applies - but I can't think of any questions like that that have appeared recently, and, if such a question does appear, I am sure that several people would state very clearly that the issue is high-stakes and the Asker should see a lawyer. For those types of questions, I would be extremely surprised if someone who claims to have legal expertise is showing up and offering definitive-sounding-and-wrong legal advice. It seems to me that much of the concern in this area stems from this potential set of high-stakes questions and definitive-sounding bad advice, but I don't think that combination is frequent (or even infrequent?) on the site.
posted by Mid at 7:10 AM on April 11, 2019

Lawyers don't work for free

There is no "free" legal advice. There can be legal advice provided at no cost to the client.

While we're on the topic: I really wish people would stop confidently informing Askers that they can consult with a lawyer for free. Lawyers get paid for their time and their knowledge, and there's no reason they should give their time and knowledge away for free any more than an artist should give away their work "for the exposure."
posted by holborne at 8:10 AM on April 11, 2019 [1 favorite]

Lawyers get paid for their time and their knowledge, and there's no reason they should give their time and knowledge away for free any more than an artist should give away their work "for the exposure."

I mean I don't have a dog in this fight really but...this is not really a fair comparison. If the most important word here is should then yeah, okay I guess. But there are plenty of reasons that lawyers do give away time and knowledge, and those reasons are often pretty damn good ones: unequal access to resources, systemic discrimination in the legal system, etc etc etc. Lawyers doing pro bono work for folks that can't afford them is pretty great, and has a quantitative and qualitatively different impact than the artist in your analogy.

Clients who demand art in exchange for exposure are exploiting the artists. Poor folks aren't exploiting pro bono lawyers. The analogy is kinda gross.
posted by lazaruslong at 8:22 AM on April 11, 2019 [12 favorites]

>There is no "free" legal advice. There can be legal advice provided at no cost to the client.

Only a lawyer would say this
posted by cotton dress sock at 8:27 AM on April 11, 2019 [17 favorites]

Poor folks aren't exploiting pro bono lawyers.

I should have been clearer, but I wasn't referring to pro bono lawyers. I was referring specifically to situations in which the Asker is told to consult a lawyer, who will render her services for free. Btw, it's not as easy as people seem to think to get a lawyer pro bono; you can't just walk into Legal Aid and say you'd like to avail yourself of their services. That isn't how pro bono legal entities work.

Only a lawyer would say this

And someone who's very likely never needed a lawyer would say this. I sure hope you can find one if you need them, but maybe you should make clear your boundless contempt for them first. That'll help.
posted by holborne at 12:34 PM on April 11, 2019 [2 favorites]

Whoa, sorry! There’s no contempt. I didn’t mean to undercut your point that the professional knowledge and experience behind an attorney’s answer is inherently valuable (which of course it is), I just couldn’t resist a wee crack at the idea that lawyers make fine distinctions the average Joe wouldn’t. (I know a couple of lawyers, including my favourite aunt, I think they’re great.)
posted by cotton dress sock at 12:53 PM on April 11, 2019 [2 favorites]

Hi, I'm a lawyer. I end up answering questions about things in my field, which is disability law. Most of my answers are "go here for resources, expect this" kind of answers and I always try to tell people to get a real lawyer who is local to them. I am always conflicted about posting anything because I have a history of getting in more trouble for things than my peers who do the same shit I do, but it's really hard not to try to help.

I don't know that there's any practical way to ban legal asks even if that were a possible outcome here, because there are so many situations where people don't realize that their post is going to get a "holy crap you need an attorney" response. I'd be into talking to the other lawyers on here about whether there's a substantive ethical concern though.

Anyway I wish I'd seen this a few days ago, April 9 is Be Kind To Lawyers Day.
posted by bile and syntax at 1:14 PM on April 11, 2019 [5 favorites]

I had a legal issue hanging over me for a few years (nothing at all juicy, sorry!) and we finally located and went to a proper lawyer (which working-up-to felt like torturous torture of the most torturing sort!), and then we we went. And consulted. And the whole deal was taken care of faster, easier, and for far less time and money than we had imagined. I remember the unbelievable relief of being able to get out from under that weight and put it in the hands of someone qualified who saw it as pretty much a nothingburger, easy to dispatch ... and of riding home in the cab afterwards, our euphoria, and looking at my husband and saying "Wow. Wow. Wow. This is what rich people feel like all the time."

So I think there's a lot to be said about people who feel like lawyers are not a luxury for such as them, and how to share information that could be helpful about that, and how to distinguish between "here's some stuff that can help you make sense of what you are facing, and what that might entail," and how to get the right help, and how to find resources if one cannot afford help, and "here's my armchair lawyer advice stated with absolute authority and confidence even though I only ever watch law shows on TV and just feel like I would have been a really good lawyer."

Some people are annoyingly forceful and absolute about their non-expert thought-about-it-for-five-minutes opinions, and I agree that this is a bad thing, but not always avoidable on an open internet, though we try to curb the worst of this on mefi. The tradeoff is that we also have very smart and thoughtful members who have the knowledge and ability to provide people with a lot of help about how to approach a problem, even if they decline to offer a bow-wrapped solution based on a paragraph of text by someone usually feeling pretty anxious and scattered.
posted by taz (staff) at 1:31 PM on April 11, 2019 [11 favorites]

I am a lawyer. I have no problem with non-lawyers offering up legal information/analysis/whatever that is specific to the jurisdiction the question is about and founded on something. I have a hard time not facepalming when confident answers like "you do/do not have a claim" or "change the locks!" are offered without reference to what jurisdiction that person is even basing their answer on, let alone anything to back it up.

I suspect a fair number of the "get a lawyer" comments (the ones with the "STFU" vibe, which I have definitely seen) offered without any other qualification are not lawyers? If I tell someone to get a lawyer on AskMe there's a really good reason for it and I'll try to explain why (e.g. above advice may be dangerous, this is a complicated area, etc).

If something really doesn't require a lawyer, I'll try to point to reputable sources of information specific to the jurisdiction in question if I can. This is the case for a lot of landlord/tenant questions. I tend to side-eye comments that a tenant or small-time landlord needs a lawyer for every question related to their tenancy and I'd expect to see a reason why. Most jurisdictions have good information and services available to landlords and tenants.

On the other hand, I don't think anyone should take family law legal advice from AskMe without also consulting with someone qualified to help them. That isn't to say that these questions can't be helpful - when you have limited resources, understanding as much as you can and framing your questions well can help you make the most of whatever free legal services are available.

If there are pro bono/legal aid options I will try to point to them if I know them. However, these are very locally specific and its hard to offer any useful advice other than in the city I actually live in. There may be better places than AskMe to find those resources (e.g. local societies, religious organizations, etc).
posted by lookoutbelow at 2:34 PM on April 11, 2019 [1 favorite]

[Note this is a US-perspective answer] So I used to be a lawyer with clients. Now I'm a lawyer who tries to force the courts and the profession to be accessible for everyone. This is a very complex problem with the simpler moving parts ranging from educating legal consumers; changing professional rules about what is and is not "practicing law"; designing and offering self-help tools that don't make things harder for judges to sort out the issues and the more complex ones including things like convincing governments to have courts running sometime other than 9-3:30 Monday to Friday or providing court-based legal services. And then there is uphill battle of educating attorneys that sometimes their job is tell potential clients that while they could sue, it's the worst possible way of resolving their problem. And forget convincing large firms to let their attorneys count pro bono hours toward billable requirements or regulatory agencies to count pro bono toward mandatory (and very expensive) CLE requirements--two things that would really increase the number of low cost hours available to legal consumers.

Most people who really need attorneys for their perfectly routine problems will find it's going to cost them more than they can comfortably spend. That's a problem. Many of them have problems which could be resolved quickly and equitably with court-based resolution programs with one attorney for both side or administrative law judges who are permitted to give more guidance than a regular bench judge. How often do we see these solutions implemented? Not very.

And although most people will find that they can't comfortably afford the legal services they need, attorneys have to pay their rent (personal and commercial), staff, insurance, front the court fees, student loans and then, you know, pay themselves. Median salaries in Illinois (where I am) are pretty good but it is a highly-skilled demanding job (and if you do general civil practice, it's emotionally taxing--divorces, child representation, wrongful death, criminal defense, defending foreclosures--it's really brutal sometimes. And legal aid salaries are not that good--The national median is $48,000 for first-year legal aid lawyers; $50,250 for public interest; $56,192 for prosecutors; and $58,250 for public defenders. [Legal Aid Agency name redacted] here in Chicago starts lawyers at under $40k.

There are no simple answers to making the courts and legal remedies more accessible to everyone in the US. And sometimes there are some dangerously wrong answers from people who honestly have no idea what they are talking about in Legal Ask.Mes. But I don't know that we need to ban those questions. Not while Internet Esq. exists. Not while lay people are perfectly capable of helping people figure out their options. Not while licensed attorneys have some leeway to offer advice about approaching the problem or talking to an attorney about it.

I think it's past time to expand the body of legal knowledge and court-how-to knowledge available to the general public. Those are your courts; it's your government. It does not need to be as opaque as it is.
posted by crush at 2:36 PM on April 11, 2019 [19 favorites]

shapes that haunt the dusk:
Because "talk to a lawyer" is about as opaque to me as saying "buy a condo" -- I know it's done, I just have no idea how to do it or what to expect. I wonder if that's where some of the frustration comes from. As advice, it can feel like vague handwaving, even if it truly, practically isn't.

This makes total sense! "Getting a lawyer" is far more fraught than "get a therapist" or "get an accountant" or "get a plumber." I genuinely do think there are a lot of pitfalls to just contacting whatever lawyer. Not all law firms or lawyers are well-suited to help individuals in your position, may not be able to efficiently and cost-effectively deal with your issue, and may not be willing to admit this up front or even be aware of it themselves. Many lawyers are not useful to normal people. Lawyers are absurdly generalist in what they're allowed to do compared to other professions, making it difficult to find the appropriately qualified and least costly option. I think navigating this is actually an excellent use for AskMe.

Until I actually became a lawyer, I would not have known how to "get a lawyer." This is particularly true for general civil/property disputes. Getting a criminal, personal injury, family, workplace compensation, employment, or wills and estates lawyer may be a bit more straightforward as those lawyers are used to dealing with individuals, but you can still benefit from finding out what to expect and what questions to ask. "I have a small, somewhat informal business that I rely on for my livelihood and my business partner is screwing me" is a tough one that, despite being very consequential and really needing legal advice, there are likely to be few pro bono services for and little useful internet information. The way rich people do this is to ask their rich friends or their accountants or financial planners or whatever what lawyers they've successfully worked with. This is obviously not a privilege most people have.

I'm not exactly sure how to solve this, but advice from people who have been through it, people familiar with conditions in your local area, local organizations, or lawyers who practice in that area is likely helpful.
posted by lookoutbelow at 3:04 PM on April 11, 2019 [2 favorites]

Lawyers get paid for their time and their knowledge, and there's no reason they should give their time and knowledge away for free any more than an artist should give away their work "for the exposure."

Well and this is a weird thing about internet land is it gives people access to a bunch of professional types (doctors, lawyers, accountants, librarians) than they might not have in real life. So just like I could put a picture up of a rash in AskMe and someone could say "Wow that looks serious, see a doctor" and a doctor could say "Wow that looks serious, come see me" there's a different import to the second comment than the first. I wish this were truer for librarians than it is, but I understand there are levels of professionalism and I really do understand that lawyer-client privilege is a serious thing and important not to fake it.

And yes, when I went to sue Equifax i asked a bunch of my lawyer friends what they thought, and they gave me some advice for free. This is mainly because, like me, they are paid to do other things, whether it's teach or work in a start-up or work in another field of law, but they could give me some loose advice. And that loose advice was HUGELY helpful to me in making some early decisions. And I'm lucky as hell that I have lawyer friends. At the same time, when I needed to start up a small business. I asked a lawyer friend for help but also said we'd pay him for his time because that was SRSBZNS not internet grabass and I had to do it correctly (and he still made a few weird mistakes but we sorted them out).

The real trick is being able to separate when you really need only-a-lawyer answers (sometimes) and when you can get general "here are resources" advice (often). People's AskMes can often be good ways of getting advice from people as to which sort of problem you have. I find it rare that people are asking actual "I need a lawyer to advise me on a specific rule of law thing" questions and more often people will ask general questions, and other questions where people will be like "Lawyer now and have this whole thread deleted because you mention that you smoked weed once and you work in child care!" It's tricky. I get why any lawyer wouldn't want to participate in these threads, but I think they're important for the site to be able to have.
posted by jessamyn (retired) at 8:58 PM on April 11, 2019 [4 favorites]

IAAL, IANYL, and in fact, I don't even practice law (I do government policy work) but nonetheless, I have opinions on this subject. Which are remarkably similar to my opinions about medical questions, despite having no medical training whatsoever.

Basically, I think that these types of conversations happen all the time, everywhere, and the only reason people are getting angsty about them is because on Metafilter, they are written down and saved for posterity. I hear people have these conversations in restaurants, on buses, at work, on Facebook, and basically every place where people talk to each other. I literally listened to a conversation on the bus this morning in which one person gave the other person very bad advice on both computers and consumer protection law.

Bad advice is a thing that exists in the world. If you're a lawyer reading AskMe and you can clearly and safely point out where advice is wrong or dangerous without running afoul of the ethical obligations in your jurisdiction, feel free. If you feel the need to walk away from or never open those questions because the bad answers are crazy-making, feel free.

But banning legal questions from AskMe will not stem the tide of bad legal advice.
posted by jacquilynne at 7:13 AM on April 12, 2019 [10 favorites]

We litigated this a while back when... the doctor guy... I forget his name... got chuffy about medical AskMes, right? Although it occurs to me that at this point "a while back" could mean 15 years ago and now i need a drink.

But we did. Litigate the same issue.
posted by Justinian at 2:26 PM on April 12, 2019

As in e.g. AskMe screws the pooch
posted by box at 3:02 PM on April 12, 2019

An awful lot of 'well-respected' Mefites of the era did not cover themselves in glory that day.
posted by Pinback at 8:02 PM on April 12, 2019

Most of old MeTa was like that. In the 2010 threads I linked above it was basically the same discussion as this thread but with 1000% more rage.
posted by Mid at 6:14 AM on April 13, 2019

There's me agitating for a Terms of Service. Good times......
posted by jessamyn (retired) at 8:56 AM on April 13, 2019

This is kind of funny. I was super worked up about this in 2010 (I think I'm on my 3rd generation of MeFi usernames) but lo, these 9 years of legal practice later, I seriously do not give a f, and am just mildly amused at the idea that anyone stans for lawyers.

I think what's changed for me is that I doubt anyone is actually following legal advice given by anonymous strangers on the internet. For the person who is actually motivated enough to resolve their legal problem, asking online is likely the first step, and they'll probably go consult a better source eventually. For the person who is not motivated to solve their problem, it's just idle curiosity, no harm no foul.
posted by schwinggg! at 7:57 PM on April 13, 2019 [2 favorites]

We litigated this a while back when... the doctor guy... I forget his name... got chuffy about medical AskMes, right?

Omg I remember that. What was his name? Let's pour one out for the dearly departed.
posted by schwinggg! at 7:59 PM on April 13, 2019

I think this is pretty well-trod ground in that there's clearly no appetite to ban medical/legal/electrical/culinary advice based on the premise that people might be theoretically better-served by going to a professional.

IMO, what could improve how these questions go is if the questioners bear in mind things that will reduce the ability of professionals to answer a particular question. Though it seems (and is!) counterintuitive, you may get more and higher-quality answers if you do not frame your question as an actual, personally-specific legal question. Similarly, you may actually get better medical advice if you ask in the abstract rather than literally ask "what should I do about [this thing that is clearly happening to me right now]".

I have met very few lawyers or doctors (or electricians or chefs or...) who don't enjoy talking about their area of expertise—I mean, I'm sure there are exceptions, but by and large people generally like talking about stuff they know about. That they can get hamstrung by professional regulations that were dreamt up long before the Internet existed is unfortunate, but it's possible to meet them halfway.

Just like writing a MeFi post, sometimes it's all about how you frame things, in terms of the quality of the discussion that results.

Also... on the 'answering' side, I've personally always thought a good de facto solution to the hypothetical professional-liability concern is to just never claim professional expertise. We're all dogs on the Internet. Just because someone claims they're a lawyer doesn't make them a lawyer, and I'm sure there are plenty of experts who aren't interested in claiming qualifications that, in the context of a pseudonymous message board, can't ever be proven.

Given that we have no way to verify professional credentials, I think it's probably best to avoid arguments from authority to begin with. If you know what you're talking about, and cite sources, etc., you can let your advice stand on its own. (FWIW, I am sure there are times when I have broken my own rule here, but that doesn't mean I don't think it's a good idea. I'm all about aspirational goals.) E.g. if someone asks how to build a treehouse, you can tell them how to build a treehouse without telling them you're a professional engineer, even if you are a professional engineer. Nobody needs to know that; you could just be a treehouse construction enthusiast. And the person claiming to be a professional engineer could easily be a crank.

The onus is, as always, on the reader to critically evaluate the answers and decide what to do IRL.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:21 AM on April 14, 2019

Nobody should ask the internet a legal question

I'm all for closing the category.
posted by Ironmouth at 10:51 PM on April 14, 2019

Many lawyers are not useful to normal people. Lawyers are absurdly generalist in what they're allowed to do compared to other professions, making it difficult to find the appropriately qualified and least costly option. I think navigating this is actually an excellent use for AskMe.

My favorite example of this is the famous athlete who, in the midst of being accused (and later convicted) of multiple murders, first hired an attorney whose primary practice was shielding medical device manufacturers from liability with occasional forays into securities law, because it turns out that even millionaires don't really know how to navigate these systems without help.
posted by Copronymus at 10:59 AM on April 23, 2019

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