Ideas From the Front
The E-Mail Advice Line
Participating in Web Site Answer Services Can Be Gratifying, But Ethics Issues Abound
Posted Jan 10, 2006 10:08 AM CST
By Jill Schachner Chanen
Between handling employment disputes and other small-business issues, Francisco Romero often takes a few minutes out of his day to answer legal questions e-mailed to him by complete strangers.
Questions range from mundane (Can I sue?) to silly (Is there a law requiring you to tip a waitress?). They come via LawGuru.com, a Web site that allows anyone to submit a legal question, free of charge, to a network of member lawyers.
“It’s almost like people are just looking for guidance,” says Romero of Fort Collins, Colo. “A lot of [my answers] are just commonsense advice.” But if that advice can help someone, he says, then he is happy to give it.
Lawguru.com isn’t the only Internet site specializing in linking nonlawyers with legal experts—plug “legal questions answered” into any search engine and myriad Web sites pop up, some legitimate, some dubious. Even Google has gotten into the game with Google Answers, which provides a roster of researchers who can be hired to field queries in countless disciplines, including law.
The appeal of such sites is obvious: Questioners can quickly receive legal advice at a cost ranging from nothing to not-so-much. For participating lawyers, however, the benefits seem less connected to the bottom line.
Romero says he signed up with Lawguru.com hoping it would drive some clients to his nascent solo practice. It hasn’t. But that hasn’t stopped him from answering e-mails, even though he does so free of charge.
“I thought it was kind of interesting that there are these services out there where people who have a simple question can get it answered without needing to go through the expense or hassle of contacting a lawyer,” Romero explains. “My hope is that I am helping people to get a couple more steps down the road than they would have been without these little simple pieces of advice.”
Besides, Romero adds, it’s much less of a time commitment than taking phone calls that come into his office from people who are also looking for free legal advice.
It’s the interest factor that keeps Meyer Silber of New York City connected. Silber lends his legal expertise to both Lawguru.com and Allexperts.com, a free online Q&A service covering topics ranging from pets to parenting.
He says he’s contemplated quitting, especially since Allexperts.com, unlike Lawguru.com, doesn’t allow him to refuse to respond to a query. But, because some of the questions are quite interesting, he says, he continues to hit that send key.
ENSURING ETHICAL ADVICE
Before providing legal advice through an online Q&A service, however, lawyers should consider the ethical implications. For example, if the service takes a cut of the fees that a customer gives to a participating lawyer, it can raise a question whether the payment is fee sharing or simply a permissible administrative fee, says Will Hornsby, staff counsel for the ABA’s Division for Legal Services. Another concern is whether the e-mail exchange creates an attorney-client relationship, which could raise confidentiality and privilege issues, he says.
It was issues such as these that caused James Gross, a Chevy Chase, Md., family lawyer, to end his five-year affiliation with Ingenio.com, a fee-based service that facilitates phone contact with lawyers. Ingenio.com allows users to scan a list of lawyers licensed in their jurisdiction and choose one based in part on whether that lawyer is ready to take their answers.
Despite his ethics concerns, however, Gross applauds the company for filling a very real void—helping people get legal advice at a low cost. “There is tremendous demand for advice,” he says.