Lawyers go to law school for at least 3 years, where they learn not only what the law “is”, but how to read cases and statutes and interpret the law. Afterwards, they take a bar exam to make sure they are fit to practice. In Massachusetts, for example, the bar exam is a two day test, 8 hours each day. Then a lawyer takes an oath to uphold the laws of the land and to live by a set of professional standards. This is because the law is something that affects everyone in the country.
Not following the law can lead to serious consequences – from the loss of property to the loss of freedom and in extreme cases, life. This is why non-lawyers are not allowed beyond the bar (literally, the space in the courtroom beyond the bar separating the judge from the audience). A non-lawyer is forbidden from representing someone other than himself because there is too much at stake.
Lawyers are very protective of their profession – not because they are selfish or greedy, but, because law does affect life, they feel it is important to ensure it is used correctly and not abused and they know how questions that appear black and white are often not. Professional standards are followed to prevent malpractice and ensure rights are respected. Lawyers in many situations are required to carry insurance to further protect the people they represent in the event that something goes wrong.
The internet age has changed how we get information. How often have you heard someone joke that, “I know it is correct. I saw it on the internet!” Unfortunately, people get bits and pieces of information about particular legal issues or laws and think they then are experts on the subject. A good lawyer will tell you that knowledge is an ongoing endeavor. Lawyers must take continuing education classes so that they stay abreast of new developments. No one learns a legal subject and then becomes an overnight expert. That is why a big part of legal training is to learn how to interpret the law and how to analyze new cases. Lawyers learn that arguments can be nuanced and often hinge upon very specific definitions. They are trained in a fine art.
The Unauthorized Practice of Law
So why do so many non-lawyers offer advice on legal topics? There is no one answer to this question. Some are trying to charge lower prices than a lawyer would charge and hope that people will not question their credentials. Others like to sound authoritative and it gives them a confidence boost. Whatever the reason, it is a very dangerous endeavor.
First of all, in all 50 states, it is illegal for a non-lawyer to give legal advice. Someone without legal training does not know what they do not know, and the legal system can be badly damaged by misinformation. People who rely on and distribute misinformation are a danger and risk catastrophic results to themselves and others. When someone is arrested, they have a constitutional right to a lawyer. What if you were arrested and instead of a lawyer appearing, a person who is a self-proclaimed expert showed up? How confident would you feel with a non-lawyer at your side?
The Harm Caused by Non-Lawyers Giving Legal Advice
The internet is filled with many well-meaning but misinformed people. You will see them comment and post about legal topics, or say something like, “This is how it was handled in this situation, so yours must be the same.” Some even charge for their services. You will see posts where non-lawyers with the best of intentions authoritatively advise that you should file a complaint. Be wary of these people. They do not know what they do not know.
How does this cause harm in the context of food allergy? When a person gets legal advice from a non-lawyer, even a well-meaning advocate, they may irretrievably damage an important relationship. For example, if someone who appears knowledgeable online advises a parent of a school age child to call up the Office of Civil Rights and file a complaint, there may be unintended repercussions. Imagine the well-meaning advocate incorrectly advised that there was a violation of law and the parent filed a complaint thinking it was well-founded? What happens to the relationship between the school and the parents? Or imagine that a person posts online that they feel their rights have been violated by a place of public accommodation.
Relying on advice that does not take into account nuances in the law could result in denial of access or destruction of an otherwise valid claim. Just as having Dr. Google tell you what dose of pain medication to take is ill-advised, relying on non-lawyers causes harm not only to the individuals immediately involved but to folks who read the advice given and conform their own actions in reliance.
The next time you are tempted to follow advice on the internet, look at the source. Ask yourself if the source is held accountable ethically for their opinions. Are they authorized to go past the bar in the courtroom? And please refrain from posting about legal issues if you are not a lawyer. Although you may think you are doing good, you are actually causing unnecessary harm and are engaging in illegal behavior.
There is a big difference between commiserating with someone and giving them legal advice – make sure you are not crossing that line even inadvertently when engaging in discussions in online forums (whether public or private ones). The best thing you can do is direct someone in distress about a disability or accommodation related issue to local resources in their area for genuine legal advice. Many lawyers offer free consultations and if you have limited resources your nearby law school legal clinic or legal aid center may be able to assist as well.
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