Years ago, before the world wide web was even a twinkle in Tim Berners-Lee’s eye, clients would come to my office and tell me what happened during their interaction with police.
“Why did you do that?” I would ask.
They would explain to me some variation of the “lady down the street” told them that’s what they should do, because that was the law. The law.
But now we have the web, the internets, all the accumulated information of humankind at our fingertips, and surely with unfettered access to every statute, decision, article, post, commentary, everyone now knows better? The law, now open 24/7 for your reading pleasure.
Last week, a very nice young woman wrote about being detained in Penn Station at one of the police bomb checkpoint tables, that have been there since 9/11. Her head and heart were in the right place, even if she hadn’t realized that these were a problem until it touched her world. Within her post, she explained that she knew how to handle the situation because she read it in Boing Boing.
It all worked out okay for her in the end, but had something gotten out of hand, would she have explained to her lawyer that she based her conduct on legal advice from Boing Boing? Would the judge have forgiven her for any poor choices because Boing Boing told her what to do?
There are some excellent posts at non-lawyer websites. Techdirt immediately comes to mind, where Mike Masnick and Tim Cushing write about some very interesting issues. They are subject oriented, but touch upon legal advice in the course of their stories. But when I read the comments to their posts, I wonder if there is some requirement that their readers are flaming nutjobs.
One after another, the comments reflect no grasp of the content whatsoever, and are so monumentally, totally, utterly insane as to make anyone reading them stupider. How is it possible that they took away no better understanding of anything from the effort?
It’s not that there is a dearth of writing by real, honest-to-God lawyers out there who actually practice in the area of law about which they write. So why do non-lawyers feel compelled to be the font of legal wisdom? And why do non-lawyers feel compelled to learn about the law from them?
Here is a core problem. Lawyers, at least most of us, feel constrained to limit what we write to things that are accurate. At least when it comes to the area of our practice. Ironically, lawyers can be just as wrong when kibitzing about other areas of the law as any other fool, where suddenly the shackles are off and we spew stupid with the best of them. But when it comes to what we do, most of us try to tell it as accurately as possible.
It’s often not as funny or snarky as non-lawyers would be. It tends to be condescending (as this post will likely come off). And it involves a level of detail and specificity that flies over the heads of the uninitiated. But that’s because this isn’t simple enough that anyone can become knowledgeable about it in the course of a blog post or a few twits.
Law isn’t easy. It’s confusing, contradictory, spirals out of control and back into focus without warning. There are a million rules, precepts of interpretation, many of which are distinguished by such fine nuances that there is rampant disagreement within our own ranks.
But non-lawyers demand it be reduced to the lowest common denominator, made simple so they can “get it” in under ten seconds and without being forced to suffer the pain of thinking. The best example I can come up with is “STFU,” the standard advice on what to do if questioned by police.
It’s Menckian, clear, simple and wrong. There are far worse answers, and it’s not quite a bad answer, but it’s also not the correct answer. And yet it’s been repeated a million times, driven so deep into the consciousness of so many that efforts to provide the correct answer are ignored.
I twitted yesterday ”Do non-surgeons suggest the best way to do heart transplants? So why do non-lawyers tell people what the law is? It’s totally nuts.” A great many lawyers retwitted or favorited this. I didn’t twit it to anyone in particular. I just put it out there.
One non-lawyer decided that this was the opening to a direct personal monologue with him, and engaged in multiple twits at me to “discuss” the twit. It was mind-numbing. While it was clear that he had no clue what the point of the twit was, it didn’t stop him from seeking my time to engage, explain and debate its merits with him. It was not nearly as fascinating for me to indulge his ignorance as it was for him, particularly on twitter.
So here’s the bottom line: if you don’t know what you’re talking about, don’t tell other people what the law is. And if you want to know what the law is, don’t look to people who have no clue what they’re talking about.
Is it really that hard to understand?
And finally, the fact that you may be “interested” in the law does not mean you can ask a lawyer to explain it on the internet and expect the dedication of a year to teach you what comes of law school and a few decades of experience in the course of a blawg post, comment or (shudder) twit.
There is a reason such a thing as lawyers exists. You can’t be one by reading stuff on the internet. And to the extent you can learn anything, it won’t be from listening to the lady down the street. That wasn’t true thirty years ago. It’s still not true today.
The law is hard to understand, hard to navigate and very hard to practice. If you are not a lawyer, you have no business giving legal advice because you don’t know what you’re talking about and someone, somewhere, will be stupid enough to listen to you and be harmed. Don’t do it.