As with health care, legal advice is finding its place on the Net.
This site, which purports to be "the most comprehensive site on the Internet for free legal advice," offers information about dozens of legal topics, including what to do if police want to search your car, what to do if you're unfairly fired, and how to handle the rejection of an insurance claim. It also offers a directory of attorneys who will give qualified readers a free initial consultation.
"We are taking extra pains that the material [on our site] is completely accurate, completely balanced, and very, very useful," said Gerry Goldsholle, who heads the company that created the site.
Not only is the site one of the most extensive, it also appears to be the only legally oriented site that promotes the information it provides as "advice."
More than a mere semantic difference, two attorneys said most sites providing information of a legal nature take pains to avoid the term.
"For a lawyer, it is professionally unwise to ever do anything that could be construed as legal advice without a thorough inquiry into the particular facts of the case," said Carl Oppedahl, an attorney who publishes legal information on his own Web site. Oppedahl explains that an attorney can be held legally liable for any advice that has an adverse effect on the recipient.
A disclaimer on Free Advice specifically holds that the publisher "is neither a law firm nor a substitute for specific personal advice given by an attorney," language that is common in one form or another on most sites offering legal content.
Still, said Oppedahl, the disclaimer may not be enough. "To have a Web site called Free Advice and then have a disclaimer saying it?s not advice sounds contradictory to me," he said.
John Steele, an attorney at Fenwick & West who specializes in legal ethics, agreed that sites offering legal information should take steps to convey that their content is not advice, but said the generic information that Free Advice offers likely would keep the site in the clear. Attorneys from the American Bar Association and the State Bar of California agreed. In fact, the ABA said it supports any efforts to educate the public on legal issues.
Goldsholle said that the disclaimers on his site, along with the general nature of the content, are adequate protections.