Law Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for legal professionals, students, and others with experience or interest in law. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

We've all seen it: you ask a law question (a classic being "Am I violating X's copyright by doing Y?"), but they refuse to respond and instead tell you that you should be asking a lawyer, not them.

I have seen this happen all the time: even when the other party is confident in their judgment, they often refuse to give you any and instead direct you to a lawyer.

Obviously, this is beneficial for the other party... it means less liability, time, and energy for them.
But that doesn't explain why this seems to pop up so often for legal questions and less for others, and I don't understand why that's something that would be beneficial for me.
So my question is: on my end, why would I ever find it beneficial to go get a lawyer when asking a question if I suspect that some non-lawyer might be able to answer it as well?

Here are the answers I've ruled out:

  1. ...because other people might not know the answer.
    Well yes, but that's not the question. I'm asking about those cases where people do know the answer, but still tell you to go get a lawyer.

  2. ...because they don't want me to sue them for giving wrong legal advice.
    Except that when this is the case, people do try to help, but with a disclaimer such as "I am not a laywer", "this is not legal advice", etc.

  3. ...because it will give me some kind of legal protection in the case of wrong advice.
    But does it? Can't a lawyer give me a wrong legal opinion too? What legal recourse do I have when that happens? How is it any better than a random person giving me their opinion?

  4. ...some other reason I can't think of.
    What might it be?

share|improve this question
3  
I don't know how you would know the other person knows the answer without them telling you the answer. – Dawn Mar 26 at 15:52
    
@Dawn: You can't be 100% sure, but quite often the lack of "I don't know", the simpleness of the question, the fact that others with a lack of experience still answer it, etc. heavily suggest they are refusing to give you information they know. Here's one example, here's another. – Mehrdad Mar 26 at 16:16
    
While suggestive, those examples don't rule out your option 1. – Dawn Mar 26 at 16:22
2  
@Dawn: Uhm... maybe we think differently then. When I see hundreds of suggestive cases like these, I don't think "Gee, I guess none of those guys knew the answers!" But rather, I think, "Gee, this is funny, why is it that when I ask an engineering question, no one tells me to ask an engineer, but when I ask a question with legal aspects so many people tell me to ask a lawyer? Something is going on that I don't understand, and it's not that they don't know the answer." – Mehrdad Mar 26 at 16:34
2  
Yeah, my reaction is more "wow, these answerers don't at all realize the subtleties and nuances in the question". It also happens in engineering and technical fields. When a question requires expert (PhD level) knowledge, many less experienced people will not realize that and answer anyway with a not so correct answer. – Dawn Mar 26 at 16:54

11 Answers 11

Another possible answer: The legal profession is a cartel, protected by laws. "Unlicensed/Unauthorized Practice of Law" is a big enough issue that its acronym (UPL) is well known among people who discuss law. Non-lawyers may decline to provide legal advice because they don't want to be charged with UPL.

Likewise, as a matter of policy (at least in the U.S.) most government agencies and many employers in businesses that frequently receive requests for legal information instruct their employees to avoid giving anything that could be construed as legal advice. Which policy employees might cite to avoid helping with requests for even the most basic legal information.

share|improve this answer
3  
"cartel" has a generally pejorative connotation that implies a purpose of controlling prices or limiting competition. Is that what you mean to say? – Dawn Mar 27 at 0:42
31  
@Dawn: What's the polite term for a cartel? – feetwet Mar 27 at 0:44
2  
lol well, if you meant to say it's a group that limits membership with the purpose of controlling prices or limiting competition, then you did mean to say cartel :) But if you just meant that participation is tightly controlled without implying a motivation, I would suggest saying something like "Participation in the legal profession is restricted (controlled) by law." – Dawn Mar 27 at 0:47
21  
@Dawn - You're a good sport. Yes, I'm intentionally indulging in a bit of punditry with that. Though I think it's funny that the first comment wasn't a cartel complaining about being compared to lawyers ;) – feetwet Mar 27 at 0:57
2  
This is the best answer, and is the main reason why non-lawyers will not dispense legal advice - because they can't, without breaking the law. The other answers are valid too, but miss the main point. If anyone could give legal advice, then they'd effectively be lawyers themselves (albeit perhaps of a lower quality than a qualified lawyer). – JBentley Mar 28 at 13:24

Confidence in one's opinion does not necessarily imply correctness. I would not assume that people know the answer as frequently as you seem to think they do.

Lawyers generally need to conduct a more extensive interview in order to really understand the facts of a case and spot the legal issues.

While a layperson or lawyer in casual conversation might be able to give a reasonable first guess at a generic legal analysis, anything you get in that type of setting should be not relied upon to apply to the specific facts in your case.

Even lawyers will avoid giving specific legal advice without having done the necessary work. It's not solely about lawyer vs non-lawyer. It's also about taking the time to get an answer that is likely correct in your specific circumstances.

share|improve this answer
    
If it helps, take my statement as more "statistically, I'm 95% sure that some M of these N people who referred me to lawyers knew the answers to my questions" instead of "I'm 95% sure this particular person knows the answer to this particular question". Also, note that a lawyer's confidence doesn't imply they're correct either, so I'm not sure why that's so different for laymen. – Mehrdad Mar 26 at 16:24
    
Your certainty is also not necessarily indicative of the actual frequency with which people know answers yet withhold them. – Dawn Mar 26 at 16:30
5  
Also one of my points is that even lawyers will often nswer this way. And that the main crux is whether the person has done the necessary interviews and work to be sure enough of their answer, no matter whether they're a lawyer or not. – Dawn Mar 26 at 16:32

I'm a high school student.

I've written around 43 answers so far, but there's a couple reasons I wouldn't want to answer the question...

  • The situation is too specific

    There's too many details to consider, and lots of precedence that may change my thought

  • Different jurisdictions

    Canadian law (which I know lots about), can be very different from Dutch, or French law.

  • I'm expected to provide a definite, final answer.

    In the earlier stages of this site, I felt uncomfortable providing an answer, since I knew that people may take what I say may be used as the answer. As a high school student who has barely taken any law courses, that didn't settle well with me. With the disclaimer around, I felt a little more comfortable, but I still don't answer a lot of questions even when I feel fairly confident as to what the answer is.


I also want to respond to one point:

...because it will give me some kind of legal protection in the case of wrong advice.

But does it? Can't a lawyer give me a wrong legal opinion too? What legal recourse do I have when that happens? How is it any better than a random person giving me their opinion?

A lawyer can give you a wrong legal opinion, but the courts will see that differently. They will see that you went to a supposedly trusted person to provide you with an opinion. Considering that you provided them with all the information, then you should be in the clear.


Aside from all that, I like answering these sorts of questions. I'm still undecided as to what I want to do in the future, but I might go into law, or city planning or something like that.

share|improve this answer
6  
Do you have anything to back up the claim that "the courts will see that differently"? A citation would be nice. – Mehrdad Mar 26 at 16:21
3  
@Mehrdad if your lawyer says you are respecting copyright, the owner sues you and wins, you can in turn sue your lawyer for malpractice and recover the fines. More in general, the court may assume you acted in good faith, since you had certified by a professional that what you did was legal. – Davidmh Mar 26 at 18:45
4  
@Mehrdad I'll try and find an example when I've got time, but generally, the court will see that you've done your due diligence in getting proper legal support for something. Pretty sure this is most prominent in criminal cases involving criminal negligence - if you screw something up legally, you could present as a defence that you consulted legal counsel, and made your decisions based on that. That's a fairly accepted defence - after all, if you need legal advice, you're going to find a certified lawyer. – Zizouz212 Mar 26 at 20:38
7  
It is also prominent relating to enhanced damages for patent infringement. If you have an opinion from legal council stating that you are not infringing a patent, if it later turns out that you were, the penalty would be limited to actual damages because you were not "willfully infringing". – Dawn Mar 26 at 23:38

There's a few reasons, and I'm not sure that they've been covered thoroughly. Also, note that this relates to common law and an understanding of Western societies, rather than civil law systems.

  1. We live in an incredibly litigious society

    Making it clear that you should ask a lawyer, in the minds of those saying it, dispels the notion that you might infer a legal relationship between the answerer and asker. If we had a policy of explicitly forbidding such caveats, it would likely lead to far fewer answers.

    Whether or not this is effective is, as far as I know, an unsettled matter of law in all jurisdictions. Does it really matter whether it's effective if we don't know that it's not effective, though? At best, more people are answering and they won't be legally liable. At worst, more people are answering and they will be just as legally liable as if they'd not said anything of the kind.

  2. It likely doesn't protect you

    It probably doesn't give you any more legal protection. Lawyers can be wrong, and the way that they discover that will be the same way that you would discover that a random person's opinion can be wrong - a judge will tell them.

  3. They are confident in the answer based on the facts that you have provided and nothing more

    In these cases, directing you to a lawyer is usually the best option. Why? Let me answer that question with another question - would you perform surgery on yourself based on instructions you found on the internet, based on limited and almost certainly insufficient information?

    Trying to navigate the law is just as complex as surgery - if you've ever had to undergo surgery you'll know that they ask you dozens of questions about your health, your medical history, and so many other related topics to give you the best possible chances of surviving the operation.

    Even in those cases, the surgeon is never 100% certain, but at the very least, they can be more confident in themselves because they've asked you as much information they think is necessary (which is often different to the information that the patient thinks is necessary).

    In the case of legal information, why would you be confident in an answer that some unknown person on the internet has given you? If you're confident in it, then that's fine - take them on their word, but refer to #1.

  4. Maybe they are a legal practitioner - but why should they work for free?

    This reason is a little bit selfish, but let's not kid ourselves - people are a little bit selfish at least some of the time.

    Assume that the person answering your question is a lawyer, and is giving you the information they would give someone who was paying for their services. Notwithstanding #3, why should they do more work for no benefit? Remember, sites like Law Stack Exchange are free, and in the case of Stack Exchange, people answer for free, in their spare time.

    If they want to spend more time asking you more questions to arrive at legal information tailored to your specific circumstances, that's their prerogative. But they're not under any obligation to do so, and telling you to see a lawyer might be shorthand for saying "I can see that this situation is far more complex than I'm willing to give you information on, and I know that if you hire a lawyer you will receive information that will likely be superior to and more thorough than information you'll receive here, so you should consult a lawyer".

  5. You will almost always receive better legal advice from a lawyer you pay than from some random person on the internet. Almost always.

    A lawyer is generally bound to work on your matter with due diligence, and to the best of their abilities. A random person is generally bound to answer your question with as much effort as they feel like.

    A lawyer has access to tools and information, and the knowledge of how to use those resources, that the general public do not. Do you know how to look up legislation? Can you find cases/precedents where that legislation was cited? Can you find subsequent cases that may have overturned/held those findings? Do you know how to interpret these cases? Did you know that not all of a court decision is binding of future subordinate courts, but only the ratio? If you answered "yes" to all of those - or even the first three - trust me, you're in the overwhelming minority of people.

    A lawyer is more likely to know what further information is required in order to reach a more sound conclusion.

    A lawyer has had years of legal training in legal principles. A layperson's understanding of the law may approximate that of a law student if they have studied the law thoroughly, they are still streets behind an actual lawyer. And, a layperson's understanding of the law is very often but not always clouded by issues of social justice, how they think the law should operate, and a general "seems right" approach.

You've also said statistically, in 95% of cases the person saying "talk to a lawyer" must know the answer. Sure, okay. Are you comfortable with those odds? Your reasoning is based on some shaky premises and inductions, namely:

  1. People are answering
  2. Someone is not answering and telling me to see a lawyer
  3. Those people answering must be correct; and
  4. That person telling me to see a lawyer must have some ulterior motive

Again, it's entirely your choice if you want to roll the dice on the basis that your logic holds up.

In short: it at least comforts those providing answers, and at best legally protects them; it doesn't protect you; they are giving answers based on limited and incomplete information; and there's no obligation for them to seek out and consider the information, if it's required.

share|improve this answer
    
Great analogy with the surgery. You've got a pretty darn good answer over here :) – Zizouz212 Mar 27 at 16:35
    
In your first point, maybe explain that by "we" you mean those of you who live in the United States of America. – tripleee Mar 29 at 7:29
    
@tripleee as someone who doesn't live in the United States of America, nor is familiar enough with the statistics specific to it, I don't think I'll make that statement. – jimsug Mar 29 at 7:34
1  
There's another parallel to surgery: if some detail was missed, the surgeon (at least a good one) has a lot of knowledge and tools to bring to bear on the problems that arise from it. Similarly, a lawyer (at least a good one) has quite a bit of knowledge about processes and precedents to help work through the problems that arise from whatever was missed. – jpmc26 Mar 30 at 0:30

The law is way more complicated than the layman fully comprehends. You didn't specify which country, but in the U.S. the legal system is full of precedents: previous case decisions from which a lawyer can argue your case or against your case. A non-lawyer will not know all the loopholes that may be important to your case, and they may not understand the strict legal wordings to give you less-than-perfect advice in a legal manner.

When one is asking a legal question, one is really asking, "What are the repercussions of doing X?" Of course, since that is a very difficult answer to give, the question tends to get reshaped as you mention it, "Is it legal to do X," with the implication that, if the answer is "yes" one can go forward with abandon.

A wise person asking such a question would understand that the answer they get from a layman is really just something to go on, not a definitive answer. However, in modern society, we have a lot of people who don't understand that. We have a lot of people that, once they believe "X is legal" it will be extremely difficult to convince them otherwise before its too late. They may find themselves subject to millions of dollars of settlements for which they have no way of paying (the peer-to-peer lawsuits brought on by the RIAA are an excellent example of unreasonable lawsuits brought on through the court system).

It is this high level of risk that encourages people to send you to a lawyer to get the "right" answer rather than risk giving you a wrong one. The pattern may make more sense in analogy. Consider a revolver, of which I am quite confident is unloaded. I spin the cylinder and hand it to you. You ask "is the gun loaded?" I'm rather confident it is unloaded, but rather than tell you that it is unloaded and risk you doing something stupid, I say, "if you need to know if it is unloaded, you should check yourself."

share|improve this answer
2  
If someone asked me if a gun were loaded, I would say "Per the first rule of gun safety, all guns are always [assumed to be] loaded." In doing a cost/benefit analysis, the cost of saying "this is not legal advice; ask a lawyer about your specific case" has the benefit of refusing to accept any liability for failure to appreciate some nuance of the particular circumstance, and has no cost whatsoever. Therefore, it's a no-brainer to add boilerplate CYA. [The previous comment is not legal or gun advice. Consult the appropriate expert about your particular case.] – Monty Harder Mar 28 at 17:36
    
@MontyHarder awesome, and your comment is great as an answer as well. – Don Hatch Mar 30 at 10:56

As a layperson who does (unfortunately) have a bit of experience in one specific area of law, I do get questions from other people. I will cite the law, but I never give legal advice.

Why?

I do not want the moral burden of someone following my advice and the situation ending poorly.

Lawyers are trained in the law: reading codes, old cases (precedent), etc. and they are authorized, by virtue of approval by a bar association, to represent other people in a court of law. There is a lot of "stuff" that goes into giving legal advice and representing others: the other answers do a good job of explaining this.

When people ask me about legal matters that they know I have experience with, I have no problem telling them about my experiences and what the law says. I always say, however, that they need to talk to a real lawyer for specific legal advice. Let the person who is trained and certified assume the risk of guiding the person toward a legal resolution.

Legal problem? Here is some basic info, talk to a lawyer.

Car trouble? Here is some basic info, talk to a mechanic.

Medical problem? Here is some basic info, talk to a physician.

There is precisely one area (Computer Science) where I speak with authority, and that is backed up with a graduate degree and over a decade of experience. Anything else? Talk to a real authority on the topic for advice, because I do not want the guilt and anguish that would come from someone following my advice and ending up in jail, or with a heavy monetary judgment levied against them.

share|improve this answer

Of course, lawyers and non-lawyers can both make mistakes. But there are some other reasons why you might prefer to ask your question of a lawyer (who you have hired to advise you) instead of a non-lawyer. (Some of them may or may not apply in various jurisdictions.)

  • Suppose you pose your question to me, a non-lawyer. I might intentionally give you an answer that I know is wrong, just to be mean, or because I think it's funny, or because it somehow benefits me. Or I might just take a wild guess without doing any research. There are no legal consequences to me for doing so. But if your lawyer did this, they would be committing legal malpractice. They could suffer punishments including disbarment, or they could be liable to you for damages. So a lawyer has a stronger incentive to take your question seriously and answer in good faith.

  • Suppose your question somehow incriminates you ("I just robbed a bank; do I have to declare the proceeds on my income tax return?"). If you ask the question to me, I could be ordered to testify in court about our conversation, and reveal the incriminating question you asked me. But if you ask your lawyer, you are protected by attorney-client privilege; your lawyer cannot be ordered to testify against you.

share|improve this answer

Why would I ever find it beneficial to go get a lawyer when asking a question if I suspect that some non-lawyer might be able to answer it as well?

Because, when you do so, you may find that your suspicion is ill-founded and that your lawyer has, in fact, given you a higher-quality answer than you would expect to get from your friends and co-workers.

"Higher-quality" doesn't necessarily mean different in substance; it could be the same answer, but better supported both by background knowledge of the field and by research into the specific issue, supporting case law, and so forth.

(paraphrased) Why would other people (whom I've asked for advice) tell me to consult a lawyer if the question is a legal one, especially if they know the answer?

Given the potential consequences of getting the law wrong, a friend would certainly be doing you a disservice if he suggested that you take his word for it instead of obtaining professional advice. The only exception might be where the consequences of an error on your part are likely to be so small (e.g., a parking ticket) that the costs of consulting a lawyer would outweigh them.

share|improve this answer

A non-lawyer might have a lot of information and knowledge about the law. For that matter, if they've merely allowed their professional qualifications to lapse, they might conceivably be just as well-informed and skilled as they were when they were a lawyer.

So, a non-lawyer can make lots of true statements about the law.

However, "giving you legal advice" involves more than just making a true statement about the law that may or may not be all you need to know. It requires having enough of an overall view of the law in the relevant area to confidently assess a situation and consider all the various statute law, executive regulation, and judicial precedent that might be relevant.

When you pay a lawyer for legal advice, you not only have access to someone who makes a full-time job of maintaining an overall view of certain areas of law. You also create a fiduciary duty when they accept your money, meaning that the full force of regulation of the legal profession comes into play to encourage them to do a thorough job. You also have access to their professional indemnity insurance, which means if they mess up you might be compensated for their mistakes. So "receiving legal advice" idiomatically means rather more than just "somebody giving you their advice about the law or a legal situation".

So, when a non-lawyer, or a lawyer you are not paying, tells you what they think, and even when they advise you what they think you should do, it's accurate for them to say, "this is not legal advice".

As for why they bother to say this when it's pretty obvious anyway: personally I think it's because people are afraid of what happens when people mess up. They don't want you following their advice directly into a situation where you're going to lose badly.

I think lay legal "advice" is in many ways analogous to lay medical "advice". The more confident someone is of their advice ("if you have a headache, take an ibuprofen") the less likely they are to bother with caveats ("radical surgery sure dealt with my cancer, but you should ask your oncologist about your case!").

One issue with the law surely is that people are very rarely speaking from direct experience: I can look up the definition of "burglary" in law for a particular jurisdiction and quote it accurately with pretty high confidence, but I've never actually been involved in a court case for burglary in any way. I've had many headaches. There may also be a difference in expectation whether the recipient of the advice will "use common sense" before relying on it. Someone is more likely to add caveats if they're concerned that their opinion will be taken as a statement of absolute fact rather than a recommendation, or if they're concerned they'll somehow be blamed should it turn out to be wrong.

share|improve this answer

The main reason is that you would want an answer that you can reasonably rely on. Reasonable reliance is often a defense to a claim that you did something willfully.

For example, say I don't know whether or not I'm required to file taxes. Willfully failing to file a tax return is a crime. If my friend at work tells me I don't have to file taxes because wages aren't income, it's not reasonable for me to rely on that. But if I ask a lawyer, and he tells me that I don't need to file taxes, the case that I reasonably relied on his advice is more ... well, reasonable.

I am not an attorney. This is not legal advice. Do not rely on this. Wages are income under US tax law.

share|improve this answer

I see the diference between this question and another question posted here which affects possible misrepresentation issues.

For this question I can only answer based on my expirience whenever I give some advice/answer and use such an expression either on this or other forums.

My personal reasons for directing people to a lawyer are:

  • either I do not know the answer or cannot provide full details to substantiate it - but this example is rulled out by your question; or

  • even when i'm 100% sure that i'm providing the correct legal advice, my advice requires some sort of further action by the person asking the question. In these cases only a lawyer is qualified to act on your behalf in the right places and using the right legal instruments. In my oppinion, whenever someone gives an advice and that advice implicitly requires further legal actions (e.g. file a claim, press charges...) you should always contact a lawyer.

share|improve this answer
1  
Which is the other question on misrepresentation you're referring to? – feetwet Mar 29 at 16:03
    
Well, just notice it is not really that recent: USA: Is “I am not a lawyer” disclaimer generally necessary? – paul black Mar 30 at 8:01

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.