So, you’ve found yourself needing the advice of an attorney, but you’re not looking forward to those oh-so-high hourly billing rates. Instead, you jump online and search for “free,” “cheap,” or “fast” legal advice. You’re directed to a number of services that essentially offer some basic level of legal insight for free - usually followed by a link or ad to ‘continue the conversation’ with a real live attorney by phone for somewhere around $50/hour.
Considering the relatively low hourly rate, you figure, "what do I have to lose?" The answer is: not much; but you also don't have much to gain. The fact is, if you sought legal advice in the first place, you're likely already at a place where you require the services of an actual attorney. There is a good reason well-reputed attorneys spent years educating themselves before honing their skills through legal practice.
Understanding the complexities of any given legal isssue, researching and analyzing applicable law, and crafting a legal strategy that actually works for you, takes time - more time than any given attorney can dedicate to a one-off legal question asked through an online forum or even over the phone. This is, ultimately, why it's so common to find the following disclaimer, or something similar, at the bottom of an 'attorney answer' online:
"This is a general discussion of legal principles by a California lawyer and does not create an attorney/client relationship. It's impossible to give detailed, accurate advice based on a few sentences on a website (and you shouldn't provide too much specific information about your legal matter on a public forum like this site, anyway). You should always seek advice from an attorney licensed in your jurisdiction who can give you an informed opinion after reviewing all of the relevant information.
It's impossible to give detailed, accurate advice based on a few sentences on a website...
Let's break that statement down a bit:
First, the immediate disavowel of an attorney/client relationship should raise a red flag. Once an attorney/client relationship with a competent legal professional, you (the client) are guaranteed a heightened level of dedication, service, and ethical obligation from your attorney that cannot be duplicated by someone in an online forum.
Second, "it's impossible to give detailed, accurate advice based on a few sentences on a website." This goes back to our original point: that legal issues are complex and usually require hours of back-and-forth with a client, in addition to legal research and analysis. More often than not, the right solution to a particular legal problem cannot be found online or over a 30 minute phone call.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, legal problems often involve sensitive and confidential information (hence the warning not to provide too much specific information on a website). The protections afforded by the almost-sacred confidentiality between an attorney and client simply cannot be duplicated online or over the phone.
The protections afforded by the almost-sacred confidentiality between an attorney and client simply cannot be duplicated online or over the phone.
Ultimately, there are the occasional simple questions that can be researched online, and perhaps even answered through a quick back and forth with an attorney over the phone. However, the vast majority of legal issues that arise personally or professionally require the thoughtful analysis and personal relationship of your own attorney.