How to Get Free Legal Advice Online, and What to Watch Out For

Due to the high cost of legal assistance, unless people are lucky enough to have insurance that covers their legal fees, 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.

Legal Advice Versus Legal Information

Some websites conflate "legal advice" and "legal information", as if they are the same thing. They are not:

  • Legal information is information that you can read and then use to analyze your own situation, to make legal decisions for yourself.

  • Legal advice involves somebody who analyzes your situation and advises you about what you should do in a specific legal situation.

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. However, a document or FAQ on a legal subject is designed to provide a broad base of information to the public at large, and is not "legal advice". 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.

In contrast, legal advice is tailored to an individual's specific situation and legal needs. When you seek legal help through an online forum, it is possible that you will receive information that is tailored to your situation without crossing the line into being legal advice, or may learn what others have done in similar situations and use their experiences to guide your own decision.

When looking for information in an online forum, you should not expect that somebody will advise you about what to do. Unless they're actively connecting consumers with lawyers or other professionals qualified to provide legal advice in the consumer's state, online services should not suggest that the information they provide is legal advice.

Why Lawyers Offer Only Limited Free Legal Advice

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.

Be Careful With Online Legal Q&A Services

You can find legal question and answer services online that promise that you will receive an answer from a lawyer. Some of these services are free, and others are paid. Be cautious while using this type of service. Having personally reviewed thousands of answers on legal Q&A sites, I have found that while many of the answers are helpful, many are also incomplete, misleading or incorrect. The risk is particularly acute when the service allows a lawyer from another state to answer questions.

These services also highlight the importance of a dialog between lawyer and client, in the form of an initial consultation. I have found many questions where the lawyer providing an answer misunderstood the question, or answered a question without noticing an ambiguity that could render the answer provided misleading or even dangerously wrong. I have also seen many questions where the person asking the question had a poor understanding of what facts were needed to provide an analysis of their situation, or where they shared far too much personal information in a post that ends up on public display.

Keep in mind, also, most legal Q&A services, and particularly the free services, do not screen participating lawyers for their competence. I have seen some lawyers whose answers are little more than ads for their own legal services, where the answers are cut and pasted without attribution from other legal websites, or where the lawyer makes mistakes that suggest a dangerous lack of knowledge with the legal issues raised by the question.

The Risk of Getting Legal Advice from Non-Lawyers

There are quite a few advice sites on the Internet that 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. Even if you are lucky enough to have a lawyer answer your question, the lawyer is not likely to be from your state and may be unfamiliar with your state's laws.

The dialogue from a forum discussion can be helpful, and sometimes it is particularly helpful to get insight from people who are not lawyers but who are otherwise knowledgeable about the subject under discussion. For example, you might find police officers, human resources directors, land surveyors, insurance adjusters, and similar professionals participating in a legal forum, and providing an insight into their industry or an answer that is every bit as good as one you would get from a lawyer. But you must nonetheless remember that some of the participants in online forums know little to nothing about the law.

The advantages of obtaining advice from a licensed, practicing lawyer who you have retained to advise or represent you is that you can rely upon the advice, and that 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.

Perseverance May Pay Off

Almost all lawyers and law firms have 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.

  • Don't be offended if you don't get a reply, or get only an automated response, as some lawyers are swamped with email inquiries that relate to legal matters outside of their state of practice or areas of expertise.
  • Your initial contact with any lawyer should be about whether that lawyer practices in the area of law involved in your case, and whether the lawyer might be able to represent you.
  • Don't send details about yourself or your case to a lawyer until you are invited to do so.
  • Be careful about contacting lawyers who may be, or may become, involved in your case. 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 before making contact. For example, don't send your questions about your potential personal injury case to a lawyer or law firm that 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, get a referral to a lawyer who can help you, or get directed to some useful legal information. And it may be that you decide that it is worth your while to retain an attorney who replies, so that you may obtain a complete analysis of your legal situation.

Copyright © 2004 Aaron Larson, All rights reserved. No portion of this article may be reproduced without the express written permission of the copyright holder. If you use a quotation, excerpt or paraphrase of this article, except as otherwise authorized in writing 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.

This article was last reviewed or amended on Apr 7, 2018.