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Does “answering legal questions” constitute “giving legal advice”?

May 03, 2009 By: John Kindley Category: Uncategorized

From Above the Law comes the hilarious saga of Bert J. Van der Werff, a self-described “experienced law student” who posted an ad on Craigslist offering to “answer your legal questions” for $5 per question. The Above the Law commentariat had a field day with this ill-advised enterprise, calling Mr. Van der Werff a doofus and worse for his audacity in thinking he was qualified to answer legal questions when he apparently didn’t even know that it is illegal for non-lawyers to do this kind of thing. When readers of Above the Law loudly called this to his attention, he posted a public apology and withdrew the ad from Craigslist.

I don’t have much sympathy for Mr. Van der Werff, partly because it appears that he is not in fact even a law student, but at most an undergrad “student of law,” having been a party to some sort of litigation or other. I really could care less about people practicing law without a license, but false advertising and the misrepresentation of credentials to prospective clients is a whole different matter.

This farce does, however, illustrate the artificiality and the ambiguity of the line between providing legal information (which is apparently okay for a non-lawyer to do) and providing legal advice (which is apparently not okay for a non-lawyer to do). Statutes and case law are a matter of public record, as they damn well should be. It certainly isn’t illegal for a non-lawyer to read these sources and try to determine from them what the law requires, which, depending on the issue, may require some fairly sophisticated legal analysis. I’m also pretty sure that it’s not illegal for the non-lawyer to share with others the results of his research and analysis, and indeed there are many websites which contain such “legal information,” with abundant disclaimers stating that nothing on the site constitutes legal advice. What happens if a reader of such a website has a particular legal question which he communicates to the non-lawyer operator of the website, and the non-lawyer “student of the law” is intrigued enough by the issue to research and write about the issue? Suppose the reader doesn’t ask the non-lawyer “what should I do?”, which would too-explicitly call for legal “advice,” but merely asks what laws govern a specific fact situation (which just happens to coincide with the fact situation facing the reader). What the reader should do would presumably emerge from the analysis provided, assuming it was competent, even though the analysis isn’t styled as “advice.”

Whether the non-lawyer “student of the law” charges the reader for his research and writing would seem to be an unprincipled basis by which to identify this speech as the unauthorized practice of law . After all, legal writers for various newspapers and periodicals are presumably paid for their efforts.

The law belongs to the people, not just the lawyers.

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