Free Legal Advice – Great success or successful sham?
When push comes to shove, all law professors, librarians, students, and clients are looking for is an answer – the right one, that is. For some, the process is more important than the result, the how, and the why are more important than the what; there’s certainly great value to be had in that. But in my experience as a student and working with clients, I realized that many could care less about the process you took and the reason for that answer, they just want the answer itself.
Legal scholarship and legal advice are two interrelated, yet distinct concepts. And while they are both important (one could argue that legal scholarship influences legal advice, though for examples of the opposite, see here), in my very humble opinion, it is unlikely that the masses of public opinion care much for academia. What the public does care about are results. Many newspapers and popular magazines have legal columns devoted specifically to answering questions from wondering subscribers and addressing issues of particular concern (see, e.g., Men’s Health, N.Y. Times). But even at a dollar or so a day, newspapers cost money, and there is often a time delay between submitting a question and having the response published. Legal advice forums take out the time delay, and in most instances, any extra cost to the consumer. As long as you have an Internet connection, you can have many of your legal questions answered on the fly! While legal advice may not qualify as the type of research most students and jurists are interested in, it is certainly something of interest to the wider community.
Up until this point, I was not very familiar with the online world of legal forums, but to my surprise, there are a multitude of free legal advice forums, offering both general and targeted advice toward specific issues, such as divorce or adoption. I focused on two general legal forums, LawGuru and FreeAdvice. Both websites are fairly well organized, with browsable categories (LawGuru offers a search function) and an easy-to-use interface. Both sites are also heavily-visited, with dozens of queries and answers posted within the past 24 hours alone. The popularity of certain topics is difficult to figure out on LawGuru, but FreeAdvice has a handy post counter, so one can see which topics receive the most posts and the most views. I was surprised at the diversity of legal areas included on this forum, some with thousands of posts. If FreeAdvice is any indication, child custody issues take the lion’s share of questions, followed by landlord/tenant issues, traffic DUIs, auto accidents, and wrongful termination claims. As a law student, it is fairly easy to get sucked into the “law school bubble” and lose sight of what the majority of American citizens are concerned with, so this was a refreshing reality check for me. After entering the fray and clicking on one of the posts though, I quickly realized the difference between the two sites: FreeAdvice is a true forum, in that anyone can register as a member and post potentially misleading information. Members then create threads, which contain individual posts. But here is where people tended to get bogged down in minutiae. Of the few threads I looked through, many of the posts involved clarifying tangential issues that could have been covered in an easy 10-minute phone call or a private e-mail.
LawGuru, on the other hand, does not offer a true forum experience, but instead fields questions from users and has attorneys post responses. Many of the responses, however, give a general or incomplete answer, and ask the user to contact the attorney for help with a case. While I can appreciate the desire to seemingly protect people’s confidentiality, it does sound more like a sly tactic to drum up business. Overall, I was left feeling quite unsatisfied with LawGuru – a site purported to be run by attorneys. It seems more like a way to reel in clients than a site dedicated to answering questions. The “guru” in question is actually off-line, and it may take more than filling out a quick form to get a proper answer. Men’s Health wipes the floor with this site! While some LawGuru responses were understanding, sympathetic, and even helpful, many felt purposefully vague. This bothered me more than I expected, since realistically, how else would an attorney solicit clients through the Web? Also, most of the questions posed truly did require the individual attention of a specialist in that field. It would be naive, to say the least, to submit a question and expect the attorney to do all the legwork in resolving the matter, which might be what users expect. FreeAdvice seemed much better to me, for while it may be difficult to find answers to your question by searching the forum, it is filled with a community of people who have had varying experiences with the law (some members claim to be attorneys, police officers, and other law enforcement officers) and at the least, functions as a support group of sorts, with some legal advice mixed in. I was actually mildly pleased to see members linking to free legal resources on the web, such as state rules and guides explaining court procedures.
In sum, it does not appear as if these two sites offer for free what many people (and even myself) assumed they do. There may be another legal forum that provides more accurate and direct answers, maybe even going so far as to connect potential clients with attorneys, providing a sort of personalized counselor. What that may mean for the future of the legal profession and client interaction remains to be seen, but for now, I’m slightly relieved that attorneys don’t conduct all of their business through faceless forum posts.