Dishing Out Legal Advice on Q&A Sites


Any hope that the economy will recover soon appears to be waning. From the debt ceiling clusterfuck to the Dow Jones dive, many of us are once again dealing with financial uncertainty. These financial woes create a precarious position for attorneys who are contending with whopper student loans, less than consistent legal work, malpractice insurance costs, health insurance costs, contingency cases, etc. … while trying to create a steady income, or at least pay rent or a mortgage.

A dismal economy also means that potential clients lack money to pay for legal services. Not surprisingly, non-traditional legal models have emerged, namely unbundling of legal services and “ask an attorney” question and answer sites. Unbundling of legal services has been discussed ad nauseum, so I direct your attention to the burgeoning field of lawyer Q&A sites.

Avvo

Avvo has been around a few years, offering a lawyer rating and directory service. Little did you know that you are already listed on Avvo, which adds lawyer profiles from publicly available information. As part of its service, Avvo encourages lawyers to answer legal questions and provide legal resources to the public. Avvo does not charge people for participating, and plenty of lawyers are providing answers to legal questions, for free. Avvo now has its own section called “Free Legal Advice,” complete with legal guides and lists of answers to legal questions. One self-proclaimed law practice guru claims lawyers can “attract clients with a crappier Avvo rating,” in part by being stupid and answering questions with nonsense (e.g., “It really depends on your horoscope and whether you own an heirloom collection of Smurfs. Please fax me a copy of your Netflix queue and I’ll look into it.”). But attorneys who participate on Avvo are serious. And, from the looks of it, are seriously trying to attract business, with some listed attorneys having answered more than 5,800 questions and written nearly 750 legal “guides.”

JustAnswer

JustAnswer.com, boasts a plethora of questions and answers on topic areas ranging from car problems to legal issues. I tested out the site by asking a question about bankruptcy. I received a response within 24 hours by a bankruptcy attorney. The caveat: to retrieve the answer I had to pay $53.00. A portion of the money goes to the attorney answering the question and a percentage goes to JustAnswer.com as a fee (though it’s unclear how the “fee” is characterized). This model could support a symbiotic relationship between underemployed/unemployed attorneys and the public. The attorneys “moonlighting” to make extra money while serving people who cannot ordinarily afford to pay for high-priced legal services. But, at what price to the attorney?

Ethics and Liability

Participating in lawyer Q &A sites raises ethical and professional liability issues, namely:

  • Whether you establish an attorney-client relationship through the exchange of money for legal advice;
  • Answering questions from users in other states, otherwise known as potential multi-jurisdictional unauthorized practice of law;
  • Whether malpractice insurance plans cover this type of “practice;” and
  • Whether the Q&A site’s disclaimer and terms of service provide protection to an attorney or make any difference at all.

What are your thoughts? Are you moonlighting and dishing out legal advice on lawyer Q&A sites? Do you really make any money? Let us know.

(photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/crash-candy/2311427946)

Read more from Gianna Scatchell.

8 Comments

  1. Michelle Beth

    August 17, 2011 at 10:21 am

    So true. That is my reality in practicing “boutique” (ShitLaw). I have to hunt for every bit of crumbs and dupe the losers to pay however little they can afford.

  2. BigLaw Associate

    August 17, 2011 at 11:50 am

    Wow. This author is a LF 10+ and smart.

  3. Guano Dubango

    August 17, 2011 at 1:25 pm

    I was always curious about this. I have a law degree from the University of Ghana which is not useful for the practice of law in the US. However, I did secure an LLM from a very good US university, and was admitted to the Virginia bar. I believe I am able to give advice only in Ghana and Virginia, but not even in DC where I went to school.

    I do not believe it makes that much difference in the case of certain laws, like bankruptcy and tax, and I have had no need to look at Ghanian law for the last 5 years.

    The trust my Aunt Ooona has established for me is, however, subject to Ghanian law, so I need to comply with it if I am to properly draw my benefits thereunder.

  4. Alan T.

    August 17, 2011 at 2:21 pm

    Maybe I should consider a new focus on internet question and answer law. Some of these folks have answered more than 1,000 questions. At $50 a pop (and if they keep 50% of the fee, according to the site), that’s a healthy 25 grand for poking around on the internet in your pajamas. Yowza.

  5. Ellen

    August 18, 2011 at 6:41 am

    I think I could be good at this. I know alot about the law.

    The manageing partner at my firm wants me to get new CLIENTS.

    He does not even use the Internet, so mabye I can do this and he will give me a BONUS.

    I think I will tell him about the INTERNET this week.

  6. Christine McCall

    August 23, 2011 at 11:08 am

    I answer questions on Avvo almost every day. I find it a meaningful opportunity to interact with the public about legal issues. After 35 years of practice in at least five of Avvo’s subject matter categories, I find that I can offer short, practical and — I think — useful advice on a wide variety of issues. Issues of at will employment, government tort claims pre-requisites to suit, prima facie showings for libel and professional malpractice actions, and the rights of unwilling witnesses come up repeatedly. Other huge categories are questions about how to navigate child custody proceedings, drivers license administrative hearings re forfeiture or suspension of licenses, and the range of potential penalties for specific criminal charges. The plain fact is that most people in this country are required to interact with the legal system but don’t have a prayer of affording the necessary professional assistance to survive the experience. Legal Aid turns people away in droves. Public defenders offices are overwhelmed by the size of their caseloads, past the point of any warmth or personal connection with most clients. I can’t solve the critical mass that we have reached with our dysfunctional and obsolete system for the delivery of legal services; I don’t know who can. But sometimes, even a little bit of concrete practical information makes the situation a little less overwhelming and awful for the individual trapped in the system. If I’ve got a potentially useful bit of information in my head, I am happy to share it. Some people do cross-word puzzles; I answer questions on Avvo. I call it pro bono.

    I have been contacted for paid work by a dozen or so persons who read an answer by me on Avvo — not always the original questioner. I have never accepted representation in any of these matters. Bottom-line: is Avvo Q & A participation good for business? No, not in my experience. Is it good for me? Yes.

  7. John

    September 24, 2011 at 7:02 am

    Another issue raised by sites like JustAnswer is whether this activity violates Rule 5.4 by sharing fees with non-lawyers. Assuming, of course, that the site is owned/operated by non-lawyers as most likely are because they deal with questions from all fields.

  8. Denny Crane

    June 4, 2012 at 8:24 pm

    I answer questions on AVVO. Partly because I am so darn competitive that anything awarding me with “points” gets my attention. It’s like fantasy baseball.

    And I’ve had enough paying clients call, that is has proven worth the time spent. By way of example, a bland question about someone publishing photoshopped pictures to ridicule a former employee generated a $5,000 settlement (the client put a down payment on a new motorcycle). For questions not within my practice area, I offer to refer to others. That is were the real dividend can be had.

    The rating system makes no sense.

    But it is also satisfying to weed out questions from the truly destitute and guide them to useful information, like the weblinks for legal aid, and other pro bono organizations.

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