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Friday, August 8, 2014

The Self-Denying "Legal Advice" Subreddit

Earlier today I came across a subreddit for "legal advice" where users post various legal questions and other users submit answers. You can browse it here.

I was amused by the "Guidelines" page for the legal advice subreddit. On one side of the guidelines page (and on every page accessed under the subreddit) are standard disclaimers that one may usually find on law firms' websites, or other websites that discuss legal topics. Here are some of the disclaimers:

  • Any advice found here IS NOT legal advice. Reddit is not a substitute for a real lawyer.
  • Please only use responses as guidelines to better prepare yourself for when you meet with a lawyer. 
  • Lawyers everywhere usually offer low-or-no cost consultations.
 . . .
  • Please do not delete your post after you've received help. If you're worried about your identity, create a throwaway. We want to help as many people as possible, and that includes those who may stumble upon your post later.
 . . .
  • Posts containing primarily negative comments, and lacking in advice, will be summarily removed without warning. Users who are consistent problems will be banned. Post to help, not to flame.
After reading these disclaimers, it is difficult to tell whether the "legal advice" pages contain legal advice. On one hand, the later posts indicate that non-advice posts will be removed and that posts should not be deleted so that other people can use them. But on the other hand, the first bullet point indicates that material on these pages "is not" legal advice -- and in bold, capitalized letters no less.

Maybe some of this confusion can be cleared up by looking at the guidelines themselves. Here are some of them:

1. /r/legaladvice is here for simple questions and basic understanding about the law. Your best bet is always to get a local attorney and give him or her the full set of facts in your case.

2. /r/legaladvice is primarily read by legal professionals from the USA. As such, questions about other countries can be difficult to answer. Do not take this personally; laws differ wildly when you cross borders, and none of us want to give bad advice.

3. /r/legaladvice will tell you what the proper legal answer is. You may not like that answer. You may disagree with that answer. Heck, we may not like or agree with the answer. But it's the correct one for our legal system. If you want to debate the law, there are other subreddits for that.

4. /r/legaladvice is not your lawyer, and never will be. We do not have a full command of the facts in your situation. We will not appear for you in court, write you letters, or do hundreds of hours of legal research for free. We're here to help clear up some of the mystery and confusion surrounding the law, and to help people better understand it.
These guidelines appear to indicate that no lawyer-client relationship is formed, but essentially assert that /r/legaladvice provides legal advice, with guideline number three claiming that these pages will give the "proper legal answer."

While it is nice to see this subreddit disclaiming that no lawyer-client relationship is formed, it is somewhat unsettling to see these pages repeatedly assert that they are giving legal advice. While each page contains a disclaimer that no legal advice is provided, this claim is contradicted by other disclaimers and by the /r/legaladvice guidelines.

While I would hope that most people would not trust legal advice from reddit users, I suspect that there are some out there who would still think that the advice is reliable. Moreover, since most states make it a crime to give legal advice without a license, I suspect that many people who are posting answers to other users' questions are technically committing a crime (see, e.g., California's law against the unauthorized practice of law). While it may normally be difficult to enforce laws banning the unauthorized practice of law, by placing all the questions and answers online, this subreddit allows users to post their legal advice online, which both broadcasts it to the world, and which immortalizes it on the internet.

Reddit could try to mitigate some of these concerns by changing their guidelines and disclaimers to uniformly disavow the notion that legal advice is being provided. But I doubt that this would successfully change the pages' content from being legal advice since the entire premise of the subreddit is to give answers to legal questions.

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