Proposal: Law

Even in the proposal phase, Law seems to be attracting questions of the form "Is it legal for me to...", "How can I..." and so forth.

There are two different problems with questions seeking legal advice. First and most importantly, they pose the risk that either answerers or Stack Exchange or both will end up engaged in the unauthorized practice of law, with resulting liability issues. As comments to this post seem to indicate, at least some users don't know about or don't understand the law of unauthorized practice of law, and will (understandably!) object that legal advice is very helpful and exactly what they're looking for. We will need to address this tactfully.

Second, these personal, "consumer" questions pose community problems similar to those on Stack Overflow, where end-users or consumers sometimes ask questions inapplicable to a professional/hobbyist forum. This is a signal-to-noise-ratio problem more than a UPL problem: we may risk accumulating numerous low-quality questions that are unhelpful and uninteresting for the professional/enthusiast audience we (should be? are?) targeting.

As a first stab at the issue, I suggest an early policy requiring questions to be (1) phrased in the third person, and (2) susceptible to an answer of general applicability. These guidelines, while not encapsulating the underlying issue, could be good diagnostics both for posters and moderators.

Does this proposal make sense?

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By utilising the existing voting system. – Kenshin Nov 10 '14 at 23:13
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@Mew: That won't help if users believe that questions seeking legal advice are "useful" or good contributions to the site. – Christian Conkle Nov 11 '14 at 5:02
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are you saying that your opinion should override the majority of users who are entitled to vote? – Kenshin Nov 11 '14 at 5:14
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@Mew: No. See my most recent edit. My question presupposes that we will have an explicit policy against giving legal advice within the scope of UPL law; that is a separate topic. Maybe I'll open that question next, once I've looked or thought up a good explanation for non-professionals. – Christian Conkle Nov 11 '14 at 5:20
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If you want the cynical view, UPL laws are the mechanism by which lawyers keep down competition. To give legal advice "in" California, for instance, you need to be a member of the California bar, and California lawyers like to keep it that way. This is a somewhat complex topic worth expanding on. – Christian Conkle Nov 11 '14 at 5:25
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perhaps when the site is up and running, we could ask about the UPL laws and how much coverage they have as one of the questions. – Kenshin Nov 11 '14 at 5:44
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I can't see why should we discouradge it in the first line. It's perfectly normal to ask for legal advice, there are already numerous fora working that way. – Donaudampfschifffreizeitfahrt Nov 14 '14 at 14:36
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Ironically, I think the way to handle this depends greatly on exactly what is allowed under UPL law. For instance, is it illegal to "answer" a legal-advice question by referring to published documents (e.g., newspaper articles, court decisions, legal blogs)? Also, perhaps the most important question is, does the site have any chance of succeeding if people cannot obtain legal advice there? It's clear that some kinds of advice would be off-limits, but if you can't get any opinions on what is and isn't legal, I don't see what the point of the site would be. – BrenBarn Dec 17 '14 at 7:06
up vote 6 down vote accepted

I think this site will see three fundamentally different types of questions. They're going to look like this:

What does [something] mean?

Or

What if [something]?

Or

How should I proceed given [something]?

It's the last one that can be particularly problematic because the premise of the question often requires a relationship between the person asking and the person answering, typically precipitated with a retainer. At that point, the person answering works for you and:

  • Is allowed to charge for providing counsel
  • Is qualified to extend an expectation of validity and suitability of the advice they give

Asking a random stranger anywhere what you should do in any circumstance doesn't place any liability on anyone because that person does not work for you. It's perfectly reasonable to not allow extremely specific questions that don't add any value to the site, but don't do so simply because you're afraid of some kind of liability problem - it doesn't exist. People get very nervous when it comes to anything 'legal' and it's a common misconception that you can be held liable for bad advice you offered free of charge to a stranger, that simply isn't the case. There's no 'unauthorized practice' going on here because they're users, not clients.

To the rest, It's definitely the first two types that we'd want, those have the best potential for actually being common questions that people have, and more than worthy of a platform that can vet the answers. But wait and actually see what you get before establishing a policy, this allows discussion with very specific examples where folks can clearly illustrate what they don't like about them and why.

This is definitely something to talk about during the private beta, when we have much better than hypothetical questions to discuss. You might get, let's say .. 3 that fit the third archetype, however one of them might have something redeeming you want to encourage.

Just .. focus on stuff with lasting value, let us worry about the liability, which boils down to not wanting bad information on our sites and such.

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I'm glad to see this, but I think in order to get good answers (maybe even good questions) on the site, the attitude of "let us worry about the liability" would need to be fairly explicit. Do you actually mean that if a user of the site is sued or prosecuted for unlicensed practice of law, you've got their back? – BrenBarn Jan 20 '15 at 4:49
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Here's the example of my concern, setting aside the UPL issue. A asks a "How should I proceed" question. B answers. A follows B's advice, with bad results. B, a lawyer, may be liable for malpractice. I'm not providing an expert answer on malpractice law here, just highlighting the concern that may drive experts away. (In our professional responsibility course, we were not-quite-jokingly encouraged to keep a stack of non-retainer agreements in our cars and demand a signed waiver before even talking about law.) – Christian Conkle Jan 30 '15 at 21:06
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"Additionally, whether an individual is paid for his or her services is irrelevant." per legaladvice.uslegal.com – David Mulder Apr 8 '15 at 21:44
    
As the comments have already noted it's simply not true that someone offering legal advice can never be held liable just because they did it for free. In some jurisdictions a lawyer cannot practise online at all, which eliminates a lot of experts from this site. A bunch of amateurs giving bad advice while you "worry about" (ignore, apparently) the liability sounds like an absolute disaster. – Matthew Read Apr 11 '15 at 3:35
    
It's unfortunate that these are the three categories of questions you see primarily existing on this site. I was hoping for a site that focused more on legal history, justice systems, interpretation of laws from a legal professional standpoint, etc. instead of yet another subset of Yahoo Answers. – Jason C May 16 '15 at 23:15

We have a similar issue on Mi Yodeya, the Judaism SE site. For a host of reasons, we don't want to give or appear to be giving personal advice on Jewish practice, as a rabbi would. As a result, we have a strong policy to that effect:

Like Wikipedia, this site makes no guarantee of validity, and does not offer professional (particularly rabbinic) advice. Treat information you find here as if it came from a crowd of your friends. (Source)

  • Questions that appear to be requests for personal practical advice will be either edited to more general wording or closed (more information).
  • For more on why it's important to take personal questions of Jewish practice to your Rabbi, see here.

An earlier iteration of Mi Yodeya displayed a disclaimer like this prominently on every page. Currently, we display versions of it pretty much everywhere we practically can:

In practice, when a question that appears to be asking for personal advice comes up, it is usually closed using the appropriate closure reason, pending the author editing the question to be more general. Sometimes, when it seems that the author probably didn't intend to ask for personal advice, but the question is worded so that it looks that way, someone just edits it into compliance before closure. When the asker is a new user, we tend to not skip the closure step, so that they get a clear message about what we do and don't offer.

In addition, people writing answers about Jewish Law, especially areas that are particularly sensitive or consequential, will often include something in their answer or in a comment on the question to the effect of "If this affects you practically, I recommend that you consult your rabbi before acting on anything you read here."

We would still like to have our disclaimer displayed prominently for readers, especially non-users who happen across our content via Google, who don't trouble themselves to visit the tour, FAQ, or relevant tag wiki. We've requested as much on our Meta, and, noting that ours is not the only SE site that could benefit from such a disclaimer, I posted a more general request for such a capability on MSE. To date, SE has not seen fit to provide this functionality.

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"someone just edits it into compliance before closure": you mean "someone just edits it into compliance in lieu of closure", right? The post doesn't get closed afterward. – msh210 Nov 16 '14 at 7:36

I think a strong policy against questions seeking legal advice, or answers giving it, is important. I don't think the two policies you suggest necessarily achieve that.

For example:

I was served with a writ of attachment. I live in Vermont. How many days do I have to answer it?

This would be barred by your policy.

If a person living in Vermont was served with a writ of attachment, how many days would he or she have to answer it?

This would not--but it's the same question, and it's looking for the same answer.

I think it would make more sense to have a clear policy on legal advice and the unauthorized practice of law, and use questions like "Is it in the first person?" and "Would the answer be helpful to other people?" as flags questioners can use to identify whether their question is appropriate or not.

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That's an excellent point, and I agree with your conclusion that we need a clear advice/UPL policy, if only for Stack Exchange's own protection. But I think that your second example question is not too far from being a good question. I'm not sure that "it's looking for the same answer" is material. – Christian Conkle Nov 10 '14 at 18:52
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No, it is not the same question. First is only about one person, the second asks about the general rule. It's exactly as with SO. We don't allow asking 'why my code is working' but allow 'how to use utility x to achieve y', even if in the specific case, the answers would be the same. – Donaudampfschifffreizeitfahrt Nov 19 '14 at 15:53

The question seems to assume that it has been agreed that this law SE will not accept questions asking legal advice.

It has not. Some people including myself think that legal advice questions are welcome here (obviously provided that they meet descent quality standards), as you can see in the list of proposed questions, which are supposed to help define the scope of the SE.

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You're correct about my assumptions when I wrote the question. The early voting patterns on this question suggested that a lot of Area 51 users share your view. If I were to re-ask the question today, I'd focus on my concern that lawyers, who should be the backbone of an expert legal community, will avoid a forum dominated by legal-advice questions. – Christian Conkle Jan 30 '15 at 21:23
    
One of the issues that I believe the OP is attempting to address is the high risk of sliding into a low-quality site. Even if legal advice questions start off as on topic, and good ones are presented at the top, you don't want to become lax over time and see the site degenerate into a bunch of low quality advice questions. I realize slippery slope is a fallacy in general but I also think it's a valid concern for a site like this. You start off with good intentions but sometimes it doesn't last. "Provided they meet decent quality standards" is easy to say but hard in practice to stick to. – Jason C May 16 '15 at 23:18

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