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This question leads me to a much wider one: are questions on legal advice, whether we have a disclaimer or not, acceptable?

There's a big difference between "Out of curiosity, how does this legal concept work or what laws apply to that hypothetical situation?" and "What am I legally obligated to do in this situation I've found myself in?"

I understand that the point of Stack Exchange sites is to have experts answer questions on a particular topic, expert in this case can't mean licensed lawyer if we want the site to have any practical value. The majority of even the most knowledgeable users will be armchair lawyers at best. There's nothing wrong with that, but we need to draw a line.

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I think that at the very least, application of the law to a specific individual's situation should be off-topic as being too localized. The Stack Exchange platform works best when questions are likely to be useful for more than just one person (AFAIK, Code Review doesn't do that, but that's the one real exception).

5

This is an extremely important topic. The legal community does not take kindly to dispensing legal advice. It is important to note the distinction between legal advice and legal information.

Legal advice is generally defined as the assessment and application of principles of law to a particular factual situation. There are many elements that can go into determining whether what is presented is legal advice. For example:

What Legal Advice Is Advice from friends or family does not constitute legal advice. True legal advice forms an agreement [the act of distributing the advice forms this agreement] between an attorney and his or her client based on a particular legal matter the client is experiencing.

In a nutshell, legal advice has the following characteristics (not necessarily all of the following):

  • Requires legal knowledge, skill, education and judgment

  • Applies specific law to a particular set of circumstances

  • Affects someone's legal rights or responsibilities

  • Creates rights and responsibilities in the advice-giver

Unlike legal information - such as information posted on a street sign - legal advice proposes a specific course of action a client should take. For instance, it's the difference between telling someone what to do (legal advice) as opposed to how to do it (legal information). Examples:

  • Selecting, drafting, or completing legal documents or agreements that affect the legal rights of a person
  • Representing a person before a court or other governing body
  • Negotiating legal rights or responsibilities on behalf of a person
  • Speculating an outcome (based on specific facts)
  • Selecting or filling out specific forms on behalf of a client

Specific legal advice questions may include: Should I file for bankruptcy? Does my disability qualify for federal assistance? What kind of recovery can I receive for my accident?

Legal Information is simply a statement of what the law is, without any application to your particular situation, leaving up to you the decision of how to proceed.

Legal information is indicated in many more situations. If you have a question of whether or not a certain act is legal in the abstract, without regards to your specific situation, legal information will probably suffice. Legal information is typically general and devoid of any application to a specific problem.

Examples that do not constitute actual legal advice: - Legal information obtained from free online legal websites, including a law firm or attorney's own website - Advice from friends, family members, or former clients of a lawyer - Information you hear on the radio - Information you read on social media websites - Information you see in news periodicals or on billboards - Responses to legal questions posted in online Q&A boards, even if provided by a licensed attorney - Printed materials listed in a "how to" guide - Legal "self help" forms

Specific legal information questions might include: - Where can I find the Federal Medical Leave Act? - What does the acronym EEOC mean? - What are the gun laws in my state?

As a law student and future attorney, my concern is with whether the question is specific to a person and concerned with actual consequences. (The resolution of this question will seriously impact whether I stay in this community.) Satisfying a curiosity is fine, but telling someone what their legal liability is in a specific situation very much not ok. I have seen arguments that people come here for answers so we should help them. Well, if we allow questions for legal advice, those will not get answers from lawyers, and can drive away members who might actually know how the courts interpret law. I do not think it would be helpful to anyone in this community if no attorneys answer questions.


I propose we adopt a rule similar to that on Christianity.SE. On that site, they strictly limit requests for pastoral or spiritual advice. Similarly, here we should strictly limit requests for legal advice

  • You touch on another critical meta question: meta.law.stackexchange.com/q/79/10. Are you suggesting that the mere presence of legal advice on a site such as this would preclude the participation of practicing attorneys? And if so is that because (as I have seen argued) the legal cartel has a policy of boycotting "competition" when it can't readily eliminate it in the courts, or is there some other rationale? – feetwet Jun 26 '15 at 23:54
  • Not the mere presence, but if that becomes more dominant then yes. And not because of boycotting, but because they would open themselves to legal liability. If an attorney distributes legal advice then they automatically enter into an atty-client relationship with the recipient. They also lose atty-client priv. for anything posted. If the information is wrong, the recipient has a right to sue the attorney. Legal Information (as described above) does not open the atty to liability. If legal advice is dominant, attys will not participate for fear of being sued. – Andrew Jun 27 '15 at 0:06
  • Yes, the particular professional obligations of attorneys are well understood here. But isn't each individual accountable for his answer? How does the fact that some person is clearly engaging in UPL in their answers affect or color the content of any other answer? As an attorney can't I safely post legal information even if I am surrounded by others dispensing legal advice? (And, of course, that is an extreme example, since in practice requests for legal advice here are generally rebuffed, and credible answerers don't seem terribly inclined to dispense "very clear" advice.) – feetwet Jun 27 '15 at 0:18
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    Because an attorney wouldn't want to be associate with that. Putting aside the UPL is illegal and can quickly draw the ire of the ABA, the quality of responses of legal advice would be impaired. These sites are about quality. When a minority know if an answer is right or wrong but cannot say anything it defeats the purpose and ability of the site to self regulate. – Andrew Jun 27 '15 at 0:24
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    I'm in favour of limiting questions that ask for legal advice, so long as the criteria for determining what would fall into that category is clear and available to users before they ask questions. The worst thing, even worse than no lawyers being active on this site, would be people being too worried their question is going to be closed as asking for legal advice based on some secret, or changing, criteria. You can't have a Q&A site without Qs any more than you can have it without As. – jimsug Jun 27 '15 at 0:27
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    It is really easy to change a question from specific to general though. "He did y. Can I sue him?" could be "If person A does y against person B, does B have legal recourse?" – Andrew Jun 28 '15 at 1:28
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    @andrew This is true. It's crucial that with new users we make an effort to comment as well as just close, if we think the question can be salvaged. We don't want to drive people away but we also want to still nurture the types of questions we want (ie, ones that experts in the field can actually answer without exposing themselves to liability unnecessarily). – jimsug Jun 28 '15 at 2:14
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How do we draw a line on this, though? I believe that users will be able to vote on answers to show their worth, and this should weed out those writing bad answers. But questions will be voted up/down and closed if they are out of scope or off-topic. I guess that's the real question, whether it's on-topic or not.

The other thing is: what is and what isn't legal advice? I don't think prefacing a question with "Out of curiosity" or "Hypothetically" would necessarily negate the potential for answers to give what would be considered legal advice.

Also: Are licensed lawyers in all jurisdictions forbidden from commenting on legal questions? (see below)


I'm updating my answer based on a number of answers that have since been posted.

It's of the utmost importance that we encourage good, on-topic questions, especially in the early days of our beta. Consistency in criteria for closing questions is crucial to this - users shouldn't have to worry about their question being closed based on the quality of answers, and similarly, we shouldn't be leaving an off-topic question open just because it's got a good answer. The thrust of my point here is that the viability of the question shouldn't depend any particular answer.

Closed questions are shown as on hold for the first five days to encourage users to improve them, where possible - we should use comments to suggest that the user improve it in cases where its possible.

There's also nothing stopping a user with enough reputation from going in and editing the question itself - if you can make it compliant without changing the question too much (when the answers you expect to receive are very different to the original is probably too much change), just do it.

  • +1, since this is the key issue. Many posts in this SX forum will be asking for legal advice, and our response to such posts depends largely on what standards we're using, which are in turn based on what the nature of the question is. – jvriesem May 27 '15 at 22:14
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    +1; although I've been a stubborn proponent of discouraging legal advice, at least during private beta it's proven untenable to maintain a strict distinction as regards questions. I think a firm policy regarding answers, especially speculative nonexpert answers, may be the better solution. We can then apply the familiar policies to deal with questions that attract a lot of unacceptable answers. – Christian Conkle Jun 3 '15 at 19:16
  • even if the person asking the question never uses the answer to the question as legal advice some one can google search it and find the page and use it. people will take the information they find and compare it to other information they find and come to a conclusion of what is correct. This is true about the internet in general if everyone focuses on giving the most valid answer we should not care how that data is used. – Patrick W. McMahon Jun 15 '15 at 21:32
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Honestly, I think that a degree of legal advice might be a good thing to allow. This is especially true if the OP isn't sure whether or not he/she needs a lawyer.

Lawyers are expensive, and if your legal trouble is a routine one, such as a traffic violation, then you might not need a lawyer.

A good example is This Question which I asked on avvo over an expired driver's licence

Sometimes, it's the case that the OP doesn't think that he/she needs a lawyer, but actually does. In cases like this, it's probably quite useful for the OP to get an answer of "Go get a lawyer."


Lawyers are really expensive, and sometimes it's good for people to be able to do some basic research before actually deciding to spring for a lawyer.

  • Basic research would not be fact specific, which means it would not be legal advice but legal information, which is fine. The -only- legal advice a non-attorney is allowed to give without incurring liability is "Go talk to an attorney" – Andrew Jun 27 '15 at 0:08
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Since people are asking this of questions that already have answers I would propose the following non-exclusive safe harbor: If a question receives an answer, and the answer isn't deleted or scored worse than -2, then the question should not be closed because it "clearly asks for legal advice."

I don't think it will be helpful for the community to have people nitpicking over what is "legal advice," "clearly legal advice," "very clearly legal advice," etc.

Questions can often be interpreted as asking for legal advice, but then someone comes along and gives a generic answer that satisfies the asker and is generally informative. (Or maybe they just have such large cojones that they're willing to engage in Unlicensed/unethical Practice of Law ;)

We have already had to caution a bunch of new users in comments that they can't expect legal advice here, and that if they need it they should consult a lawyer. Some have deleted their questions in response to those comments, and some have revised them. Others have had their questions revised by helpful editors to conform better to the generic tone we prefer.

But by the time a reasonable answer is posted I think it's time to either accept the fact that the question was answerable or, if someone really thinks it's a problem, let them call the Bar and charge the answerer with UPL.

  • Hmm. I think it's dangerous to close questions - or not - based on the answers, because it leads to wild unpredictability, from the perspective of the asker, as to whether the question is a good one, because it places the burden of determining its worth on the answerers. I would caution against implementing such a custom/policy. – jimsug Jun 27 '15 at 20:08
  • @jimsug: This is just a proposed safe harbor, not a comprehensive criterion. I.e., it places no burden on anyone, but is a good heuristic: If someone has provided a good answer to a question, we need not examine the question for defects of this type, because the answerer already did so and found a way to address or bypass any. Frankly, I am baffled when I see Closed questions with good (and often accepted) answers (by other than the questioner). – feetwet Jun 27 '15 at 21:30
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    I see. I believe the tendency to close questions even when good answers have been posted comes back to reinforcing the behaviours and the types of questions that are desired on sites - just as we shouldn't close questions based purely on the answers that they receive, neither should we leave them open. This isn't the same thing as saying we should delete good answers, because closed questions with upvoted answers aren't subject to the deletion process. ... – jimsug Jun 28 '15 at 2:05
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    ... But closure is important, especially when they get a good answer to an off-topic question - it says "You got an answer this time, and that's great, and it's a good answer, but this just isn't the type of question we want to see on our site. – jimsug Jun 28 '15 at 2:06

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