If you have ever visited an attorney's website or read a column dealing with a legal issue in a newspaper, you've probably come across a disclaimer that says something along the lines of "the information here does not constitute legal advice." This disclaimer is important because giving legal advice is, in fact, illegal for almost everybody aside from lawyers. However, one aspect of this prohibition that confuses many people is that while it is illegal to provide legal advice if you are not licensed to practice law, it is perfectly legal to provide legal information. Although it can be difficult at times to see the difference between legal advice and legal information, such a difference is extremely important for those who want to avoid getting slapped with a misdemeanor charge and a hefty fine.
What is legal advice?
There is no single definition that courts and states throughout the country have come to regarding legal advice. However, it is safe to say that legal advice largely pertains to an individual providing his or her opinion to an individual about how that individual should deal with a specific legal matter. Legal advice can only be given to a specific individual, which is why the legal opinions that are found in newspapers, online, and on television and which are directed at a mass audience cannot be considered legal advice. It is generally illegal for a person who is not a licensed attorney to represent a person in court (unless that person is representing him or herself). Legal advice consists of much more than just representing somebody in court, however. For example, filling out legal documents for another person, negotiating the legal rights of that person, giving advice on filling out legal forms, and speculating about the outcome of a case all count as providing legal advice. Because these situations all affect the legal rights of individuals, it is illegal for anybody who is not licensed to practice law to provide legal advice, including attorneys who have been disbarred.
What is legal information?
What can appear rather confusing, however, is that legal information can be given by anyone and to anyone so long as that information is not misrepresented or constitute fraud. Legal information pertains to the more factual side of the law. For example, telling somebody that the legal drinking age is 21 does not constitute legal advice since it is strictly informative and factual. Likewise, parking signs display legal information without providing advice. Of course, what one does with the legal information one receives may impact one's legal rights, but it cannot be said that the information itself was advisory in nature. Also, there may be cases where what looks like legal advice is actually legal information. For example, if an attorney runs an online blog about popular legal matters, then that attorney's opinions on that blog, because they are not addressed to a specific individual, are considered informative rather than advisory in nature.
Distinguishing between legal advice and legal information is not always easy. However, dispensing legal advice if you are not a licensed attorney is illegal and could land you in trouble. For this reason, it is extremely important to understand the basic differences between legal advice and legal information.