I am not a lawyer, but I did spend more time than I’d like to admit in law school. Aside from teaching me that I am not cut out to be an attorney, it also instilled a measured respect for the complexity of the law and how easy it is for the uninitiated to go wrong. In James Mathe’s many Facebook groups I’ve run into questions pertaining to Intellectual Property (“IP”) Law, Corporate Law or Commercial Law nearly every day and many, many responses that could do serious harm (and at best, not much good) if they were followed. While James Mathe and others have written excellent posts on particular areas of law, I feel there needs to be single, clear statement on the general topic of looking for legal advice on the Internet.
The Maxim of Legal Advice: If you have a legal question, ask a lawyer. Don’t rely on Random People on the Internet (“RPotI”) when their answers can get you sued.
The primary reason for this Maxim is not that non-lawyers cannot understand the law, but rather that they do not know what questions they should be asking. Here’s a short list of issues I’ve personally seen.
- Relying on non-existent laws (e.g. Poor Man’s Copyright)
- Misapplying legal doctrines (e.g. The “Fair Use” Defense for Copyright Infringement)
- Relying on cases in different legal jurisdictions (e.g. citing US business practices for an EU question)
- Failure to specify legally relevant information (e.g. not mentioning the corporate form of your business when talking about its tax treatment)
But what if you can’t afford a lawyer? Well, the first question you need to answer is not whether you can afford a lawyer or not, but whether this particular issue is worth spending money to resolve. For 99% of the questions I see poised, the answer is no — either it’s about IP protection (ProTip: ideas are worthless, implementation is valuable) or establishing a corporate form before the novice designer has even put pen to paper.
But what if money is involved? Then it’s time to start looking at what sort of legal resources you can afford. A good place to start is the US Small Business Administration; as a government agency they’re likely to be able to point you towards resources that, at the very least, won’t cause you harm.
N.B. Since I’m not a lawyer, I cannot (and am not) giving you legal advice. If someone on the Internet is offering you free legal advice, remember that it will not be worth any more than you paid for it — and it may turn out to cost you time and money after all.