When you have a legal problem, you need legal advice. When you go to a legal aid clinic, they warn you they can only give you "legal information" but not "legal advice." You came for legal services, and they gave you information but not advice? What's the difference?
The American Bar Association's ethics rules make it malpractice for a non-attorney to practice law, give legal advice, or hold themselves out as an attorney. Anyone in a lawyer's office is subject to the same rules. A secretary in a law office cannot dispense legal advice. But how do they know what that is?
Legal Advice and Legal Information
There is no good definition for "legal advice." The American Bar Association and state laws all agree that non-lawyers may not give legal advice and that doing so amounts to the illegal practice of law by a non-attorney. But, they have differing views on where the line between information and advice exists. For instance, if a client has a question about a legal issue in their case and the attorney is unavailable, may the paralegal explain the case, or does the client have to wait until the attorney gets back?
State laws are often circular and unhelpful when defining "legal advice." One state defines practicing law as "any service rendered involving legal knowledge or legal advice," which might mean that notaries, paralegals, and title agents also "practice law."
The person providing it must distinguish legal information from legal advice. A licensed attorney in good standing with the bar association can give legal advice about your specific case. Anyone else can only provide legal information.
Defining Legal Advice
The practice of law involves an attorney and a client who have established an attorney-client relationship. The attorney agrees to represent the client in a particular legal matter, and the client signs a fee agreement. The client explains the circumstances of the case, and the attorney gives the client an opinion on possible outcomes, the legal basis for these outcomes, an estimate of the number of hours it will take for the legal work, and any filing fees or costs.
This is what distinguishes legal advice from legal information. Legal advice requires:
- Education, knowledge, and experience in areas of the law
- The ability and experience to apply that knowledge to specific fact patterns
- An understanding of how the application of the law affects the client's legal rights
- Practical expertise in writing legal documents or other documents to support the client's position
- State or federal licenses that allow legal representation in court
An attorney who has not established an attorney-client relationship with someone cannot give legal advice to that person. For instance, grabbing a lawyer acquaintance at a party and asking what they think of your upcoming divorce is not a way to avoid legal fees. In general, attorneys will only give legal advice on matters in their area of law. A family law specialist will not advise on a criminal case. They might give their opinion or offer general information, but that is not advice.
Defining Legal Information
Legal information or legal help is available at legal aid and self-help clinics. Websites and message boards where attorneys review questions and offer opinions are legal information, not advice. Any document or page containing a disclaimer that the information on the site is not legal advice and the attorney does not represent the user is only information.
Legal aid clinics can explain how to complete legal documents; most courthouse clinics will tell you where and how to file them. Some no-cost/low-cost clinics may have attorneys who can provide legal representation for some types of cases. Landlord/tenant and family law cases are the most common free legal services.
Some examples of legal information include:
- Free online legal services
- Free legal websites, including a law firm's own website
- Advice from an attorney who is not your attorney
- Advice from any other legal professional, such as a paralegal or legal assistant, unless that person works for your own attorney
- Responses on Q&A boards, even if provided by a licensed attorney
- Printed material explaining how to complete forms
A good rule of thumb is that unless your attorney told it to you, it is legal information, not legal advice.
Finding Legal Advice
When you need legal advice, start by looking for legal information. Finding a good lawyer is harder than finding a good restaurant. You can begin your search with family and co-workers with similar legal issues. Estate planning and related services are often found through family referrals.
For other cases, you should look further afield. Some good places to search include:
- Lawyer referral services, such as FindLaw's Practice Area search page
- State bar association web pages, which may link to local bar association pages for attorneys in your area
- Law schools in your area may have legal clinics and referral services where you can get legal information and suggestions for attorneys
At your first meeting with your attorney, discuss the lawyer's services and your specific legal needs. Make sure you have the right lawyer for your legal issue. Discuss payment of attorney fees related to your case. Personal injury attorneys work on a contingency fee basis. Other attorneys may work on an hourly rate and have a retainer for initial filing costs.
Legal advice and legal information can be helpful depending on the situation. Some situations need the advice of an attorney, such as filing a lawsuit or defending against criminal charges. Other cases need legal information. You can check out FindLaw's Learn About the Law section for legal information about a particular topic. You can search for a lawyer for advice about a specific legal matter.