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What Is 'Legal Advice'?

The line between "legal advice" and "legal information" is often blurry. As a general matter, only a lawyer may give actual legal advice, whereas any non-lawyer may recite legal information. Furthermore, it is generally illegal for a non-lawyer or unlicensed attorney to offer legal advice or otherwise represent someone other than themself in court.

Unlike legal information, legal advice refers to the written or oral counsel about a legal matter that would affect the rights and responsibilities of the person receiving the advice. Actual legal advice requires careful analysis of the law as it applies to a person's specific situation, opposed to speculation based on generic facts.

From a legal standpoint, giving legal advice is the same as practicing law. Only a licensed attorney with whom a client establishes an attorney-client relationship may give actual legal advice. Because of the obligations that come from providing legal advice, the advice-giver also has specific responsibilities they must honor.

People who willingly or unknowingly give legal advice without the skill, judgment, or authority to do so are essentially participating in the unauthorized practice of law and, therefore, subject to court penalties.

What Legal Advice Is

Advice from friends or family is not legal advice. True legal advice forms an agreement between an attorney and their client based on the particular legal matter the client is experiencing.

In a nutshell, legal advice has the following characteristics:

  • It requires legal knowledge, skill, education, and judgment
  • It applies specific law to a particular set of circumstances
  • It affects someone's legal rights or responsibilities
  • It creates responsibilities for the advice-giver

Unlike legal information, such as information posted on a street sign, legal advice proposes a specific course of action a client should take. For instance, it's the difference between telling someone what to do (legal advice) instead of how to do it (legal information). Some examples of legal advice include:

  • Selecting, drafting, or completing legal documents or agreements that affect the legal rights of a person
  • Representing a person before a court or other governing body
  • Negotiating legal rights or responsibilities on behalf of a person
  • Speculating on an outcome of the client's case
  • Selecting or filling out specific forms on behalf of a client

Specific legal advice questions may include:

  • Should I file for bankruptcy?
  • Does my disability qualify for federal assistance?
  • What kind of recovery can I receive for my accident?

What Legal Advice is Not

While legal advice is specific, direct, and proposes a course of action, legal information, on the other hand, is factual, generic, and does not address any particular cause of action. To avoid the confusion that often comes with legal information, websites and individuals will often go to great lengths to clarify that any information contained in their site should not be construed as legal advice nor form an attorney-client relationship.

Examples that do not constitute actual legal advice:

  • Legal information obtained from free online legal websites, including a law firm or attorney's own website
  • Advice from friends, family members, or former clients of a lawyer
  • Information you hear on the radio
  • Information you read on social media websites
  • Information you see in news periodicals or on billboards
  • Responses to legal questions posted in online Q&A boards, even if provided by a licensed attorney
  • Printed materials listed in a "how-to" guide
  • Legal "self-help" forms

Specific legal information questions might include:

  • What is in the Family and Medical Leave Act?
  • What is my state's BAC level for drunk driving charges?
  • What are the gun laws in my state?

Find Out What You Need

Depending on the situation, legal advice and legal information can both be useful. While some situations require the advice of an attorney, such as filing a lawsuit or defending against criminal charges, other situations may warrant obtaining legal information. You can check out FindLaw's Learn About the Law section for legal information about a particular topic, or you can search for a lawyer in your area to get legal advice about a specific legal matter..

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