The saying, “you get what you pay for,” is cliché. But it is no less true. And it is an accurate cliché when it comes to online legal advice.

The Danger of Relying on Legal Advice from Free Q&A Websites

Various websites offer answers to legal questions from attorneys who register with the Q&A site and sign up. And this is not entirely a bad thing. But it isn’t a good thing if you are relying exclusively on free, online legal advice. Case in point, earlier this week I saw an example of why you should be cautious about only using a free legal Q&A site to make decisions.

SpecifFree Legal Adviceically, a user in Livonia Michigan posted an employment law question about jury duty and disciplinary action. To be clear, this is public information and not a client of my law firm. The questioner explained that he had been summoned for jury duty, but was excused at 2:30 PM. The employee had been scheduled to work 6 PM to 9 PM. However, the employee called off prior to being excused from jury duty. The questioner disclosed that he was later disciplined for not working this shift.

A range of attorneys responded. The self-identified practice areas for these attorneys’ ranged from real estate to auto accident to employment attorneys. Further, they included attorneys licensed in Michigan and those license in other states.

But one response exemplifies the concerns about relying exclusively on “free” legal advice. The response, presumably from a well-intentioned attorney reads,

To my knowledge this is best answered by corporate policy .. not a law … I am afraid you are probably fighting a loosing battle.

The problem with this response is that the questioner’s issue is covered by a law. That law, MCL § 600.1348, makes it illegal for an employer to discipline an employee who complies with his or her jury duty obligations. Further, the statute expressly covers the situation presented by the questioner, i.e., serving jury duty when scheduled to work outside of jury duty hours.

I’m not saying that credible legal Q&A sites have no place. In fact, I frequently I contribute to the legal Q&A called Avvo. Mostly I consider my contribution to be a deposit towards “good karma.” To a lesser extent, it may be an investment in a new client. But my responses, however, are limited to the corner of the legal universe I focus on, e.g. employment and noncompete law. I don’t stray beyond these legal areas. And if I don’t know the answer, I won’t respond or I will provide points of consideration with a recommendation to consult with an attorney. I’m not saying my approach is unique. But it is not uncommon for attorneys to answer questions outside of their practice areas or the states where they are licensed to practice.

Recommendations for Using Free Legal Q&A Websites

So if you will use a Q&A legal site, here are a few points to consider:

  • First, using a legal Q&A site should be an initial step in addressing a legal issue. But it should be one of several steps in looking at a legal issue.
  • Second, consider the background of the attorney providing any answer. For example, if your question focuses on a whistleblower issue, disregard an answer from an attorney who identifies as practicing law in real estate or wills.
  • Third, be careful about how much information you disclose. When you consult directly with an attorney, your communications are protected by the attorney-client privilege. This is true even if you later decide not to work with that attorney. However, the same protections do not apply to online communications. Assume any information disclosed online is not privileged.
  • Fourth, no matter how good a legal Q&A site may be, it will not replace the experience and insight you will gain from consulting directly with an attorney. Often an initial consultation is free or capped at an agreed upon amount. So think of it as an investment in getting legal advice tailored to your situation.

For more information about employment and noncompete law, contact attorney Jason Shinn.