Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Asking For Legal Help On Social Networks and Online Forums Is A Terrible Idea

In this post, I'm going to write down a few thoughts I've had over the years about the topic of seeking legal advice online from non-lawyers.

But first, I'll start with a brief and concise summary of the entire post, in case people are fans of TLDR:

Do not ask people online for help with your legal problems. Hire a lawyer. The End.

I will follow that with a piece of free advice - if you have started a discussion online about a legal problem of yours, delete it immediately. Or contact a moderator of the forum and have it deleted immediately. Remove from view all trace of that discussion. (If you just read that and you're skeptical, please read on. Then come back to this paragraph)

Full disclosure. I'm not a lawyer. I've never studied law. Nor do I want to. However, I have discussed with MANY people of knowledge the topics covered in this blog post. Feel free to ignore it if you'd like. I'd be curios to hear how that pans out for you :D

With that out of the way, let's dig into a little bit deeper. First, how does this usually come up? I've seen the following scenario unfold dozens, if not hundreds of times over the years: Someone is in some kind of pickle, and they're not a lawyer, but they want to find out what their legal options are. So they go online to their favorite discussion forum, message board, or social media outlet and ask their online friends what they think. I've seen things like the following asked in the past:

  • I think my wife is cheating and I want to know what my options are for a divorce.
  • My neighbors house is full of pot smokers, I'd like to know what my rights are.
  • My boyfriend broke into my house last night and stole all my stuff. Should I call the cops?
  • I got ripped off in the mail to the tune of 2,000 bucks. Should I sue them?
  • My girlfriend called the cops on me last night claiming I had beaten her. What do?
  • I was sexually harassed at work, but I'm not sure if I should tell HR.
  • My kid got suspended from school, and I'm thinking of suing. What's the best way to proceed.
  • I got caught downloading music illegally. Should I worry?
  • Trying to kick my dead-beat boyfriend out of the apartment, but he won't leave. What do?
  • Someone is slandering me online. How can I get them to stop?
  • Got screwed in an online transaction, I want to sue!
  • I just got a C&D from Disney. Should I comply?
  • A contract I signed tricked me into relinquishing some ownership rights I did not want to. Is it binding?
  • Got a DUI last night. Should I fight it?
  • I'm thinking of kicking some dudes ass!!
  • Homeless dude is squatting in my rental property and I can't get him to leave. Thinking of hiring some friends to physically remove him.
  • I got caught on a traffic cam running a red light. Will that go on my record?
  • I'm trying to copyright an idea. How do I do it?
  • My landlord is trying to evict us, but he's totally off his rocker, right?
  • Someone stole my idea for this great product! How do I go about suing them?

And there's like a million more just like this. It goes on and on and on.

I'll start by saying this, and it's a bit of a rant. So if you don't like rants, skip ahead to the section that has my list of reasons not to discuss legal matters with someone who isn't a lawyer. Talking about your legal problems online is utter madness, and complete lunacy. The only good that will possibly come from it is that you may get a temporary feeling of happiness or relief. Someone might say something reassuring. But that's it. Committing anything to writing, especially on the internet, will only serve to ruin any kind of legal claim you might have. Talking about it to people who are strangers, who have differing agendas than yours, who may in fact have malicious agendas, is a terrible idea. For those of you who have been on the internet (or alive) for more than ten minutes, surely you already know that anything you say about someone online will get back to them almost immediately, right? This is also the case when discussing legal matters.

Whenever you hear yourself saying "I want legal advice" your next step is to hire a lawyer. If you cannot afford a lawyer, it is my belief that your next step is to stay quiet. Posting about it online will ONLY serve to hurt you. Let me be quite clear: NO GOOD WILL COME OF IT. Find a lawyer who specializes in the area of the law that you are interested in, research them, and if they meet the criteria you set forth for your target lawyer, schedule an appointment with them and go in to discuss your case.

Here's the list I mentioned earlier. This is a brief, and not complete list of GREAT reasons not to talk about your legal troubles online.

  • Anything you say can and WILL be used against you in a court of law - it's the backbone of your Miranda rights, and the wording of it is very precise. If something comes out of your mouth, it WILL be used against you. Which is one reason it always fascinates me when people discuss legal matters with anyone other than their lawyer or their spouse. (Spouse's cannot be compelled to testify against you.) Saying NOTHING online is your best option, because ANYTHING you say CAN and WILL be used against you. The one thing worse that saying stuff is writing stuff. A good lawyer could call into questions someone's recollection of what you said, or maybe they misheard you because it was a noisy street or something. But if you commit something to writing, and it's on the internet, it's compelling.
  • There's a reason lawyers are not cheap, nor free - It's because their services are valuable. They can save you money, keep you out of jail, get you compensation for your suffering, or defend you from someone who is trying to unjustly hinder your ability to pursue happiness. Just like you wouldn't expect a doctor to perform surgery on you for free, or an auto mechanic to fix your car for free, why would you think a lawyer would give you his services for free? If you're thinking "well I can't afford a lawyer, and maybe I have a friend who is a lawyer and is willing to help me for free" then please refer to the other points in this list. Hopefully they will convince you that this line of thinking is madness.
  • Not a lawyer at all - "I'm no lawyer but..." is usually the way many people respond to requests for legal assistance or advice. If someone's not a lawyer, you don't want their legal advice. If he's not a lawyer, it means he doesn't know about the law. Which is the topic you are seeking expertise in. See where I'm going with this?? If you wanted advice on the cancer your grandmother has, and a gardener offered up his thoughts, would you give it much credence? NO! You want to hear from a doctor who actually knows something about cancer! What if your Audi broke down, and you need it fixed. Would you take advice from a guy who does language translations for a living? You're probably saying "Well, what if that language translation guy fixes audi's as a hobby? Or has a ton of experience fixing Audi's??" and to that I respond again: read the rest of the bullet points.
  • A terrible lawyer - The person who responds to your post or inquiry might actually be a terrible lawyer, and could be giving you bad advice. Maybe they got disbarred, never passed the bar, or got thrown out of their profession for practicing the law poorly, or maliciously. Without having a way to investigate their bona fides, or check references, the person giving you advice may very well be the worst lawyer in the world.
  • An uninformed lawyer - Laws vary from state to state, country to country, county to county. Let's say you do happen to have a friend who is a lawyer, they are legit, and they are good intentioned. But that does not mean in any way they are knowledgeable of the laws that are applicable to you and your case. Because of the wide variance in laws from place to place, a lawyer that is not intimately familiar with the stuff on the books in your area can easily end up doing more damage than good. Law is also very specialized, and broken down into a near infinite variety of different fields. While someone may be a fantastic Intellectual Property lawyer and they even operate in your county, this does not mean they know anything about bankruptcy laws, or home lending.
  • A troll lawyer - What would stop someone who was not a lawyer AT ALL from telling you they are indeed a lawyer, and then proceeding to give you bad legal advice. Maliciously giving you bad legal advice, mind you. As before, without a way to check on the credentials of a potential legal representative, you have no idea what their motives are. Could just be some dude who wants to mess with your life. Sadly, there are many people like that out there. The troll lawyer could even be the very person you who has caused you to seek legal advice. Online existence grants us such a great deal of anonymity, there's really very little (if any) way to determine that the person giving you legal advice online is actually who they claim to be.
  • Your enemies can read it - Newflash: everything you post online is public record. Forever. And can be accessed by anyone. You may not think this is the case, because after all your favorite online forum is password protected, right? Or you've got your facebook settings set up so that only your friends can see your posts, right? Even if that were true, and even if there weren't third party bots scouring every nook and cranny of the internet to store away your typed words, an attorney could simply subpoena your data, assuming the case needed it. Emails can be subpoenaed in some cases, as can private messages over facebook or forums. If an opposing lawyer is committed enough, anything you have typed will be discovered. Even deleted emails.
  • You're writing your confession - Typically when someone is online looking for legal advice, they of course find it necessary to outline the problem they are trying to get advice on. After all, how are they going to get legal advice if they don't describe their problem? This is the equivalent of writing and signing your confession. Recall that not everyone understands the law properly. In fact, it's this very reason that you're looking for a lawyer, right? That being said, I promise you that one of the worst things you can possibly do is talk about the thing you've done (or that you've witnessed, were a part of, were thinking of doing, had done to you, etc) online. Because that will be used against you. My favorite one was the guy who said "Oh no, I just got a letter from comcast because they caught me downloading an episode of illegally. Should I torch my computer? Tell them to screw off? Just hope it blows over?" The person just admitted to committing a crime. On Facebook. If anyone took to pursuing legal action against this guy and it went to trial, they now have a documented confession of him saying he committed a crime AND he was soliciting friends for ways to avoid legal ramifications. See how much that sucks?
  • Client/Attorney Privilege - One of the key pillars of the legal system is this. It means that your attorney can't be compelled to testify against you, nor is ANYTHING you tell him or her usable against you. They are under a sacred oath to keep everything you tell them a secret. For example, if a mass murderer went to his lawyer and said "just FYI, I did kill all those people. But I'll pay you whatever you want to keep me out of jail" the plaintiff could NOT make the defending lawyer disclose that conversation. As someone looking for legal help, you WANT THIS. You want a lawyer who will refuse to discuss your case and the details of it with anyone else. Ok, now let's take a minute to think this through. If one of the cornerstones of the American legal system is Client/Attorney privilege, (meaning that everything you discuss about your case is kept secret) why on earth would you think that discussing legal matters in a public forum, where anyone in the world can overhear you, is a good idea? Spoiler alert: it's not.
  • The law is not always obvious - An interesting thing about the law is that it's not always obvious. Things that might make total sense to you, that would be intuitively obvious as "the law" are not always so. Yes, it might suck, and yes, it might seem unfair, but it is the way it is. It may seem TOTALLY obvious to you that someone has broken the law and they should be put in jail, but that doesn't mean that's how the law works. And I'm not even talking about it going to trial by jury. I mean that what you believe to be the truth about the written law may in fact not be the truth. If you believe that a particular law sucks or is unfair, one of the great things about America is that you have it within your power to set the wheels of change in motion and get that law you think so stupid changed. Call your congressman, call a senator, write a letter to the White House. Start a movement! Collect signatures, etc. I don't really have any examples to cite here, as any law I talk about may very well be different in your area. But the point is, though something might FEEL like it's against the law to you, or that it's a violation in some way, it may not be. The opposite is also true. Something that you think is totally legit might be illegal. And by discussing it online, you're committing it to the public record. Don't let your opinions or beliefs of the law, or the opinions of others, dictate your legal course of action. Because there's a chance you've got it wrong.
  • Legal Language is not easy to understand to a lay person - I hear all the time that legal speak is confusing. That it's difficult to understand, and overly wordy. What's ironic is that the opposite is what is actually true. The reason legal writings seem so strange to those of us who speak English colloquially is because it's written in such a way as to eliminate as much ambiguity as possible. It's trying to make it so that the written word of the law is crystal clear to any trained practitioner of the law who is reading it. If you're trying to understand it yourself, you're on a fool's errand. Don't get me wrong, I'm not claiming it IS unambiguous. I'm claiming that the reason legal speak is the way it is is so that ambiguity can be minimized. And this is another reason you need to hire someone who is a trained practitioner of the law: because they are going to have a better chance of understanding the written law than you might.
That's about the long and the short of it. I personally think these are all pretty compelling reasons not to discuss your legal problems online, but instead to hire a lawyer. Not only are there a ton of things that can hurt you by discussing it online, but there's a reason that lawyers are not free.

Thanks for reading! If you have any other items you think should be added to the list, please post them below. I'd also love to hear about any things you've seen online where someone is asking for legal advice. What kind of things did they ask for? Did they disclose information about their case which would be valuable to the other side? Do tell!

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