Free Legal Advice? Online Promises and Realities
By Aaron Larson
September, 2004; Last Reviewed Jan. 2011
- The Quest for Free Legal Advice
- Legal Advice Versus Legal Information
- Why Lawyers Rarely Offer Free Legal Advice
- Risky Business - Getting Legal Advice from Non-Lawyers
- Perseverence May Pay Off
Due to the high cost of legal assistance, unless people are lucky enough to have insurance, there is a strong incentive to try to find cheap or free legal advice. Many people turn to online sources, such as legal websites, to try to obtain free legal counsel.
Some websites conflate "legal advice" and "legal information", as if they are the same thing. They are not. There is a great deal of legal information available online, from a wide range of sources. Many of those sources are highly reliable, and offer analyses prepared by lawyers or government employees to assist people with a very broad range of legal problems.
But a document or FAQ on a legal subject, meant to provide a broad base of information to the public at large, is not "legal advice". "Legal advice" is legal counsel tailored to an individual's specific situation and legal needs. For example, reading an informational document about your state's divorce procedure may answer a lot of your questions, but it falls significantly short of having a lawyer analyze the actual facts of your case and advise you as to what is likely to happen when you go to court.
Lawyers are in the business of selling their services to clients. A lawyer's ability to analyze your situation within the context of the relevant laws and legal precedents, then provide you with advice, is a valuable commodity. Just like at a grocery store, where you might get a free sample to entice you to purchase a product, a lawyer may provide a free initial consultation or answer some basic questions. But past that initial point, a lawyer makes his living by selling his services, and cannot realistically be expected to give them away for free.
There are quite a few advice sites on the Internet, which may offer detailed analysis of your specific situation, sometimes for free and sometimes for a fee. Many of these sites entertain legal questions. Please do not confuse the type of information you can obtain from a service of this type with true legal advice. Most such services disclaim that the advice they provide is not from lawyers, and that you cannot rely upon the advice you receive.
The advantage of obtaining advice from a licensed, practicing lawyer is that you can rely upon the advice, and you have recourse if the advice is provided in a negligent manner. When you get advice on a legal subject from a non-lawyer, the non-lawyer may not even understand the issues under discussion, or how a court would treat those issues. That is, you may be getting "advice" that is nothing more than an uneducated guess. And you typically have no recourse or remedy when that advice turns out to be worthless, or where it is actually harmful.
An enormous number of attorneys offer websites, and virtually all of those websites have email links. Some law firms have a relatively liberal policy about answering legal inquiries, within the confines of what is possible over the Internet. You may be able to get some online legal advice that is both helpful and free, if you find several lawyers in your state who practice in the relevant area of law, and contact them with your questions.
Be careful, though - if your case is presently in litigation, or may soon be in litigation, you should not randomly contact lawyers. You may accidentally send your inquiry to the opposing counsel (the lawyer for the "other side"), or to a lawyer who will forward your inquiry to the opposing counsel. Also, read the websites carefully. Don't send your questions about your personal injury to a lawyer or law firm which only works for the defense.
Some situations are simply too complicated for a lawyer to provide a meaningful answer to a question posed by email, so don't be offended if the lawyer you contact suggests that you come in for an in-person consultation. But for some questions, you just may get a helpful reply by email. And it may be that you decide that it is worth your while to retain an attorney who replies, to provide a complete analysis of your legal situation.
Copyright © 2004-2011 Aaron Larson. All rights reserved. No portion of this article may be reproduced without the express written permission of the copyright holder. If you believe you may lawfully use a quotation, excerpt or paraphrase of this article under the Fair Use exception to copyright law, except as otherwise authorized by the author of the article, you must cite this article as a source for your work and include a link back to the original article from any online materials that incorporate or are derived from the content of this article.