Simplifying Legal Stuff

WITH ATTORNEY FAITH MITTON

Article: Legal Information Vs.
Legal Advice

Disclaimer: The following article is provided by way of general legal information only and should not be relied upon as legal advice specific to your situation. If you require legal advice, consult a licensed attorney in your state.

“The following is legal information only and is not a substitute for legal advice.” If you’ve ever heard or read something like this, you’re probably wondering what it means.

Lawyers use this kind of disclaimer all the time, especially in blogs, social media posts, podcasts, and any another other type of material they distribute publicly. Shoot, it’s even at the top of this post.

So what gives? Well, if you’re a consumer of legal services or products, it’s important for you to understand why attorneys use this disclaimer and when it’s appropriate for them to use. This should affect the weight you give to any information you receive that is accompanied by this caveat.

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Laying the Foundation

Let’s start with a simplified overview of attorney ethics. As you may already know, attorneys are part of a regulated profession. Being part of a regulated profession means that someone who wants to practice law has to jump through some hurdles (i.e., graduating from law school , passing the bar exam in at least one state, and undergoing a review of their character and fitness to practice law) to get a law license and become an attorney. 

But being part of a regulated professional also means that attorneys have to follow certain rules that provide the parameters for how they do their jobs. These are known as attorney ethics rules (or the code of professional conduct for attorneys). 

Although the rules may vary from state to state, there are some rules that are common in every state which are relevant to the legal info vs legal advice discussion: 

  1. Attorneys are allowed to explain legal concepts to non-lawyers. Legal principles can often be  confusing, and attorneys should help to demystify the tangle of legal issues that affect our day-to-day lives.
  2. But when explaining legal concepts to non-lawyers, attorneys must clearly define what their relationship is to the people to whom they’re providing the explanation. The reason for this is simple — people deserve to know the extent to which a lawyer is helping them because lawyers are allowed to limit how much help they provide to a particular person or group of people.

Making the Distinction

Exploring the concept about limited help from lawyers brings us to this thought: The difference between legal information and legal advice is the difference between education and representation.

If an attorney says that she is providing you with legal information only, she is limiting her role in your life to that of a teacher. In this context, the attorney’s goal is to help you understand legal principles in general by explaining them to you in an accessible way. To do this, the attorney doesn’t necessarily need to know the specifics of your issue and probably won’t ask about it. As a result, she typically doesn’t charge you legal fees because she’s limited her help to educating you about a legal topic overall, without considering the facts of your situation.  There’s no attorney-client relationship in this scenario. Since the application of the law is heavily influenced by facts, if you rely only on legal information to resolve an issue, you do so at your own risk.

In contrast, if an attorney says that she is providing you with legal advice, she must apply the law to your specific issue after discussing the relevant facts with you. Her goal here is also to help you understand the applicable legal principles, and she should explain them to you. But in the role of an advisor,  the attorney has agreed to counsel you about what you should do and to act on your behalf in order to help you pursue a favorable resolution to your legal issue. As a result, the attorney will charge you legal fees because she has expanded her help to representing you. There is an attorney-client relationship in this scenario. And you should have a written contract that lays out the terms of this relationship.

Break It Down More, Please...

Okay, let’s consider an example. Here’s a hypothetical situation:

Sally is thinking about starting an online business. She’s in the process of doing research to figure out how to get started, especially with regard to protecting her intellectual property. She plans to sell refurbished iPhones, iPads, and Macbooks way cheaper than what Apple sells them for. But her genius idea is to call her company Appel Computers to attract people to her brand instead of going to Apple.

One day, Sally comes across a blog post on Mitton Law’s website called “How Do I Protect My Ideas,” which provides legal information about how to take action to create intellectual property. She thinks this is great! Taking the information in the blog post to heart, she rushes to buy a domain for appel.com, forms a company called Appel Computers Inc, and sets up an online store to start selling her products.

Things are going well, and she’s built a great following around her Appel brand. She’s making a decent amount of money too. But then, Sally gets a cease and desist letter from Apple’s lawyers. The letter says that she’s infringing on their trademark, and if she doesn’t stop, they’ll take her to court.

Sally is devastated. She’s already spent a ton of cash on her website, her business cards, and other marketing materials. She set up bank accounts and accepts credit card payments from customers in the name of Appel Computers.  She knows it’ll take a lot of time and money to rebrand her company, but doing that is far less costly than fighting with Apple in court. She decides to do the rebranding, at great expense.

Where did things go wrong for Sally? She did a smart thing by searching the web for information about protecting her intellectual property. By reading the blog post, she learned about the importance of acting on her ideas for the sake of her business.

But she relied on the post without inquiring further. If she had sought legal advice from an attorney who could apply the law to her facts, she would have quickly been warned off of the Appel name for her type of business.

Wrapping It Up

So does this mean that legal information is useless? Absolutely not!

In the information age, there’s virtually nothing you can’t learn by typing your question into a search engine and reviewing the results. But the key word in that last sentence is learn. The purpose of legal information is to help you learn about how the law works, not to completely replace the sage advice of an experienced lawyer.

Legal blogs, podcasts, videos and other sources of legal information are a great starting point for research about the law. They’re also great tools for researching particular attorneys. So keep reading, listening, and watching. You just may find the attorney that’s right for you if the time comes for you to get help to resolve a specific legal issue.

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About The Content Creator

Faith Mitton, Esq.

Faith is a lawyer on a mission to simplify legal stuff for entrepreneurs so that they don’t have to stress about how to protect themselves & their businesses. She’s the founder and managing attorney of Mitton Law Firm, PLLC – a boutique law practice based in NYC that helps small businesses nationwide to protect their intellectual property with trademarks and copyrights. When she’s not practicing law, you can usually catch her jamming to classic soul music, taking long walks, or rewatching The Office for the millionth time.

About The Content Creator

Faith Mitton, Esq.

Faith is a lawyer on a mission to simplify legal stuff for entrepreneurs so that they don’t have to stress about how to protect themselves & their businesses. She’s the founder and managing attorney of Mitton Law Firm, PLLC – a boutique law practice based in NYC that helps small businesses nationwide to protect their intellectual property with trademarks and copyrights. When she’s not practicing law, you can usually catch her jamming to classic soul music, taking long walks, or rewatching The Office for the millionth time.

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