Online Advice

We’ll admit to a guilty pleasure.  Sometimes we surf over to Avvo and check out the questions people are asking criminal lawyers here in NY, and the answers various lawyers are providing.  It can be cringe-worthy, but once in a while it can be instructive.

We cringe when people ask for actual legal advice.  We cringe harder when lawyers venture to offer it.  We cringe the most when someone basically admits to a crime in posing their question, for all the internet to see.

We like it, though, when someone is looking for basic information, and they’re asking about something we haven’t come across in our own practice.  That happens often enough to keep us surfing back at least once a week.  There’s always room to learn, even if we’re only learning that we’re ignorant of something.  (And there are certainly areas of criminal defense where our ignorance is complete.)

Many of the questions, however, are just wasting space by asking the same thing that’s been asked over and over again.  The place really needs to put up a FAQ section.  Stuff like no, New York law does not provide for the expungement of criminal records.  Yes, having sex with someone under 17 is against the law.  No, there is no such thing as expungement here.  Yes, you do have to go to court.  No, we still don’t do expungement.  Yes, it would be a good idea to get a lawyer.  You’re not getting your record expunged.  And other things like that.

And far too many of the answers are just as much of a waste of space.  When the answer is obviously “go get a lawyer, your question cannot be answered here,” some lawyers will go ahead and offer some fluff instead about what law seems to apply, or just make a sales pitch.  Sometimes, though, there’s nothing more you can say beyond “go get a lawyer.”

We don’t answer many questions ourselves.  It’s usually not worth our time, frankly, and nothing could induce us to give actual legal advice to someone based on an incomplete query over a public forum.  But now and then we’ll see a question that (1) seeks basic information, rather than legal advice, (2) has been sitting unanswered for a while, and (3) we actually can provide a useful response.  That’s becoming rarer and rarer these days, however.  Mostly because there are fewer and fewer questions remaining unanswered.  Which is a good thing, all in all.

One thing that really bugs the crap out of us, however, is how Avvo sells this whole question thing as a way to “get free, personalized legal advice from experienced attorneys.”  That’s just not right.  Experienced attorneys may certainly give free legal advice, but no experienced attorney is going to do so over a public website, based on the necessarily incomplete and possibly irrelevant set of facts included in an online question.  Avvo really needs to change that.

It is a useful place to get general information — what does this statute mean, what’s the procedure in that courthouse, what is this piece of paper.  That is a worthwhile service to offer.  But it’s not a useful place to ask “what’s going to happen to me,” or “what should I do now,” or “how can I accomplish this goal.”  Avvo is extremely poorly suited for such things.  Even if a lawyer were willing to offer such personalized legal advice online for free, there is no way to develop the facts required before such advice could be given.  There is no way to have a dialog with anyone.  The advice seeker posts his question, and that’s it.  The only information you have to go on is what little they thought important to include in their question.  There’s no way to ask for more information, no way to develop ideas and context, no way to get personal information about the advice-seeker that would be relevant to any advice, no way to knock ideas around, no way to figure out what the relevant facts really are and what the actual goal ought to be.

The only way it could possibly work is if the advice-seeker knew enough, and was savvy enough, to provide precisely every relevant fact required for the provision of competent advice.  And such an advice-seeker is probably smart enough and savvy enough to recognize that Avvo — or any website, for that matter — is a terrible place to seek it.

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