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Legal Advice Sites – Will They Affect the Legal Industry?

The emergence of legal advice sites is one of the latest trends in the legal industry. For example, I offer Ask a Minnesota Lawyer. This article explains this new online service to the public and discusses how it may affect law students and attorneys.

The legal industry has seen a number of trends in recent years including a shift towards a paperless office, a move away from hourly billing towards more flat fee billing, and an increase in Internet advertising for legal services. For the past few years, a number of question and answer websites have arisen on the Internet including Yahoo Answers, Answers.com, etc.

Legal Advice Sites

Now similar sites are offering legal advice. For example, consider Ask a Lawyer, a recent offering at JustAnswer.com. This website gives examples of the types of questions that can be asked of attorneys:

  • Financial: ask a lawyer about your debt, foreclosure, or bankruptcy
  • Family: ask a lawyer about your divorce, custody, or child support
  • Traffic: ask a lawyer about your accident, ticket, or DUI
  • Government: ask a lawyer about your immigration, VA, or IRS problem
  • Disputes: ask a lawyer about your lawsuit, injury, claim, or defense

How Do Legal Advice Sites Work?

How do these legal advice websites work? The process is fairly simple:

  1. The user asks a question.
  2. The user notes the price the user will pay for the answer.
  3. The user makes partial payment.
  4. The user waits for an answer from an attorney.
  5. Once receiving the answer, the user send final payment and can tip the attorney.

How These Sites Address Potential Concerns

Legal advice websites raise a number of questions:

Are the lawyers giving legal advice?
It’s pretty clear that the lawyers are giving legal advice. That is the whole point of many of these websites.

Are the lawyers doing conflict checks?
The websites appear to have no system for conflict checks, but users may offer that information during the question and answer process, or the individual attorneys may request it. I imagine that an attorney would be in a difficult position if the attorney already received confidential information from the user and then the attorney determined that there was a conflict of interest.

Are the lawyers licensed to practice in the state where the reader is located?
With most legal advice websites, lawyers must go through a qualification process and provide their license information before answering questions. It seems to be up to each attorney to assess whether the legal question has the appropriate connection to their jurisdiction. But attorneys should be able to handle this on their own, because attorneys are required to analyze any legal matter to ensure that they are properly qualified and licensed to handle it..

Are the lawyers receiving enough information about the facts and circumstances to competently offer legal advice?
Again, individual attorneys answering the questions must decide this for themselves. Ultimately, it is the attorney who is liable for malpractice and responsible for ensuring that the advice is sound. The written nature of the Internet ensures that there is written evidence of the advice provided by the attorney.

Impact on the Legal Industry

The final question is how legal advice sites will impact the legal industry. There are a number of possible effects.

Lower Attorney Fees? The rates on legal advice websites are extremely low. For example users may pay $10-$50 for the answer to a question. In a law firm, an attorney may receive $250 per hour for  meeting with clients. From the questions I reviewed, it would be difficult for an attorney to answer enough questions per hour to make the same amount of money as an attorney’s usual hourly rate. However, when answering questions on legal advice sites, the attorney doesn’t have marketing costs or other overhead required for traditional law firms. It should be noted that the service takes a portion of the fee paid. It’s unclear whether this amounts to fee sharing, which may depend on how the fees are structured. Quality legal advice at the low rate could be very valuable for society. It could also have an economic effect of reducing fees paid to attorneys for simple advice.

New Approach to Attorney Marketing? Obviously, these websites offer legal advice with out ongoing representation of the client. However, it will be interesting to see if attorneys can use this sort of service to allow new clients to retain them for more substantial work. Theoretically, this could be a whole new way for clients to find attorneys. Already, the Internet is replacing phonebooks. Will this be a new marketing route for attorneys?

Opportunities for Law Students & New Attorneys? When law students graduate from law school, the way that consumer law attorneys provide services to consumers online could be different from what they are today. This provides an opportunity for new attorneys. First, new attorneys are more likely to be open to technology and new marketing ideas than old attorneys who are stuck in their ways. Second, these legal advice websites don’t seem to put much attention on attorney credentials — the attention is on price — so new attorneys with short resumes may not be disadvantage when competing with experienced attorneys on these sites like they would be in the real world.

Other Models for Websites Connecting People with Attorneys

Providing legal advice on websites isn’t the only option for attorneys. There are other models. For example, Minnesota Lawyer has a Question and Answer page where people can get free answers to Minnesota law questions. The difference with this site is, the site makes very clear that the site is not legal advice—it is education about the law. Minnesota Lawyer explains:

You should not rely on what you learn here without first consulting with an attorney. The purpose of this site is to answer general Minnesota law questions for free, but this is no substitute for legal advice based on an attorney’s full analysis of your circumstances.

Still, many other sites provide a way for people to contact an attorney, and then the attorney follows the usual law firm process for working with clients. The real challenge for these lead-generation websites is the ethical prohibition on fee sharing for attorneys. In most states, attorneys can pay an advertising fee but they may not pay for leads or pay based on the number of leads that convert into clients. Rather, payments should be based on traditional advertising methods such as a monthly rate.

It is still too early to know if these websites will fail, succeed, or revolutionize the way that legal services are provided to the general public. Website owners are testing a number of different models, and presumably the best ones will survive. This may alter how people search for an attorney, especially in the consumer law areas such as bankruptcy, criminal defense, personal injury, and family law.

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