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February 01, 2005

Legal Advice and ULP laws

What's the difference between providing information and giving legal advice? If you ask my clinic manual, this is what it will tell you:
In essence, giving information is not dependent on particular facts or circumstances. Your answer would be the same no matter who the caller is or what his/her particular factual situation is. For instance, if someone calls and asks the maximum dollar amount you can request in D.C. Small Claims Court, the answer is $5,000.00. You may tell the caller that the jurisdictional limit is $5,000 because you don't have to analyze all the facts and particulars of the situation. On the other hand giving legal advice involves applying the law to a particular set of facts and imposing your professional judgment on your answer. If the same caller asks you, “I bought a lemon. Can I sue the dealer in D.C. Small Claims Court?”, you would have to delve into the facts, know the D.C. lemon law, and impose your judgment in order to provide an answer.
At first I thought this was a nice thumbnail definition of legal advice—if your answer would change if you knew the facts of the case, then you're giving legal advice. Fine. But the purpose of the rule against law students giving legal advice in the first place is to prevent them from practicing law without a license. Law students (and everyone else who has not passed the bar exam and been admitted to the bar) must be careful not to ever “practice law” because it's illegal to practice law without a license. Why? Ask Anthony Rickey (after he's gotten this note monkey off his back)—he's probably thought and read more about laws against the “unauthorized practice of law” (ULP) than I have. I would say these laws exist to protect the monopoly lawyers have over providing legal services. Anthony might say the same, but he might note other reasons, as well. I don't have time to go into a full-blown rant about why ULP laws are ridiculous, except to say that generally they're vague and broad and allow lawyers to bully non-lawyers w/charges of practicing w/out a license. This often happens when non-attorneys start doing simple things for very low cost that lawyers once did for a very high cost. For example, in the 1970s, lawyers viciously harassed a man named Norman F. Dacey for popularizing the idea that people could avoid probate court (and its attendant fees) by establishing living trusts. Lawyers didn't like this because it threatened a nice little source of profit for them. See also the more recent attempt by Texas lawyers to shut down certain publications by Nolo Press, the largest self-help legal publisher in the U.S. And see also here and here for the story of Della Tarpinian, who was harassed by Kentucky lawyers for helping consumers complete basic legal forms. All of these are good examples of lawyers trying to protect their monopoly over “legal services”—at the expense of the social good. In that light, this little line between “legal advice” and providing mere “information” becomes much more dubious. Of course, I'll respect this line until I'm admitted to the bar, but I'll continue to disagree with it long after that.

Posted February 1, 2005 06:11 AM | 2L law general

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