Law and the Lady Next Door

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?

Mike Riggs, formerly of Reason, wrote about how to avoid being arrested. He endorsed the “advice” of a former cop, to first cry, and if that doesn’t work, soil yourself.

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.


34 thoughts on “Law and the Lady Next Door

  1. REvers

    It’s not just the internet. TV takes a lot of blame, too, especially dreck like Law & Order: (Your Choice Here). “But, but, he didn’t read me my rights before he arrested me! That means this has to be dismissed!”

    I’ll bet you get that a lot, too. 🙂

    1. SHG Post author

      I deliberately left out the TV issue because most reasonably intelligent people realize it’s TV. Rather, I’m speaking to people openly advising others on the law.

  2. Ken Bellone

    Glad you mentioned television. The TV makes me nauseous whenever anything arises that I have even a passing knowledge in. They are rarely even close. Watching “Cops”, is cringe-inducing every time someone holding some contraband says “sure” when officer friendly (or not so) asks “would you mind if I take a look in your car?”….. as if it were actually a question.

    When it comes to law, as a non-attorney, I am well -aware of how little I know, but do attempt to stay aware as much as possible. I know the difference between a contact, detention and arrest as well as RAS and PC, yet the only advice I give my now-adult kids and take myself is, when dealing with LE is be polite, but STFU. That’s the extent of what we need to know. I reserve the rest for you learned fellows, heaven forbid I need it. Following my own advice works… far.

    1. SHG Post author

      I didn’t “mention” television, except to say that this post wasn’t about television, which you’ve apparently interpreted to mean that this is a great opportunity for you to discuss television.

      Any further mention of television will be deleted and the commenter will be banned. And you, Ken, will be put on moderation, as has REvers for his subsequent comment which I’ve already deleted.

      I’m at the point where I’m ready to shut down comments altogether. Anyone can discuss anything they want on their own blog, but not here. Commenters digressing into their own issues is going to end.

  3. Josh C

    In this short post, you have both wondered why people scrounge advice from non-lawyers and explained what an /imposition/ it is to ask a lawyer to speak inside his area of expertise.

    I think I found the core of your confusion.

    1. SHG Post author

      You have conflated two separate things: The advice is “do this.” The imposition is “discuss everything there is to know about the law, in terms that I can enjoy and appreciate, for as long as it interests me.” I have no confusion. I do, on the other hand, have a great many clueless people trying to prove how smart they are while sucking up my time because they think they’re fascinating while I do not. It gets tedious.

      1. Josh C

        Sure. And you’re well within the bounds of civil behavior when you decline to spend your time that way (though, given the topic, I wouldn’t venture to say if you’re within your rights).

        But here’s an example instead: by your rules, if you aren’t a statistician, or a social scientist, or don’t have some other special expertise, why did you write this: ? It’s clearly within the specialized arena of another profession. In fact, you’ve done everything there that you complain about from non-lawyers: done your own interpretation, oversimplified an irreduceably complex subject, etc. You even drew conclusions which I, as someone who professionally performs statistical analyses of complex systems, would not be able to support (and yes, people often both ask questions about and offer bad advice on statistics. It is somewhat mind-numbing).

        But the point here isn’t “hurr, durr, hypocrisy.” Given that people are all interested some topic, it’s no surprise that people discuss it, even when no expert is present. You yourself have demonstrated this, so it shouldn’t be a surprise.

        Given also that you are knowledgeable on at least one subject, it should be no surprise that you might attract “a great many clueless people” trying to prise some of that knowledge away.

        1. SHG Post author

          Initially, “rights” have nothing to do with it. I have the right to do whatever the hell I want to do here. You, on the other hand, have no rights here whatsoever, but are here at my sufferance. If you are trying to argue what my behavior should be if I adhere to your view of social norms, that would be different. Then I would tell you that your sensibilities don’t dictate my conduct, but that’s a different point altogether.

          As to the post Because Men Can’t Win, I have no clue what you mean that it is “clearly within the specialized arena of another profession.” Are you talking about statistician? If so, that’s not a profession and, even if it was, my post isn’t about the statistics, but Vivia Chen’s interpretation of the results. That said, you assume that I have no training in statistics, when in fact I do (though it was unnecessary to draw upon it as my post didn’t bear upon the statistics piece). Do you have training in the law?

          More to the point, my criticism of Chen’s interpretation of a basic survey is not at all comparable to giving legal advice. I don’t give statisticians advice on how to conduct appropriate regression analysis. And finally, it’s fine if “a great many clueless people” read what’s written here and at other blawgs. It’s not fine if they open up a stand that says “legal advice, 5¢.” Comparing Fords to pineapples isn’t a good way to make a point. Discuss all you want. Just don’t tell people what the law is when you don’t know. It’s really not that hard a concept.

  4. Joe

    While I know that the focus of this post was on criminal law, the same thing happens in other types of law as well. I do estate planning and small business work. Companies like Legal Zoom allow people to think they know far more about the law than they really do. Those companies allow the consumer to think that they’re getting actual legal advice instead of a template, which is always incredibly troubling. As you have mentioned a zillion times before, the value of a lawyer is in listening and tailoring our work to the individual client. While it’s true that a poorly drafted will or LLC Agreement will not land someone in jail (and thus relying on them may not be as destructive to the consumer as relying on the lady down the block or Boing Boing), the problems from such documents can be very expensive and emotionally painful to fix. I supposed you can get lucky with a Legal Zoom document, and have everything work out just fine, but then again, you can also get lucky and manage to get on the NY subway without being arrested.

    1. SHG Post author

      Off topic. If you know what the focus of this post was, why go elsewhere? If you want to go elsewhere, do it elsewhere.

      1. Joe

        I apologize. I was trying to add to the idea that non-lawyers think being a lawyer is easy because they can get “advice” from other sources, even for relatively simple legal tasks. With that said, I did so inartfully. It was certainly not my intent to derail the conversation.

        1. SHG Post author

          I’m on a rampage these days to keep comments on topic. Digressions lately have pissed me off. It’s nothing personal.

  5. UltravioletAdmin

    Dunning–Kruger effect. Those with no skills in an area overestimate their abilities in the area, while the skilled in the area underestimate their abilities.

      1. UltravioletAdmin

        I betray that I’ve not read your blog that far back for your post on it. I didn’t see the second part though, where those skilled/well informed tend to underestimate their own competence. EG lawyers who really know good broad advice don’t like giving broad advice because they know the failings of such advice and all the wrinkles where it could go wrong, or they’re an IP lawyer who knows not to give advice because they have little practical experience in that field of law.

  6. Charles Morrison

    Unfortunately, it’s not just the lady down the street or some guy on the internet who are all to willing to provide advice. Just as wiling is the guy in the cell next to you.

    1. SHG Post author

      The guy in the cell next to you is a variation on the lady down the street, though jails and prisons are filled with people who “know everything” about the law, except how to save themselves (or anybody else).

  7. pj_cryptostorm

    For a self-professed “rant,” it reads as cogent and to the point. Bad “legal advice” does indeed grow on the proverbial trees, out there.

    Perhaps a reason this is the case is the simple adage that people want to be told what they want to hear. Those willing to tell them that get a much, much wider audience than those who speak the awkward, complex, inconvenient truths. As it as always been, so shall it always be. Not limited to legal advice, alas – people believe the strangest things about security tech, for example – so long as it fits their preconceptions and doesn’t require excess cogitation.

    1. SHG Post author

      Bad legal advice can, sadly, come from all quarters. Let’s face facts, not every lawyer is Clarence Darrow (or even Clarence Thomas). But at least lawyers are constrained by their training and ticket to try not to muck it up. Non-lawyers have no such constraints, and no business giving their “I don’t know nuthin’ ’bout birthin’ no babies” legal advice. And yet they do.

      There are some websites, and I hesitate to mention them lest anyone go and look, where non-lawyers are constantly spewing the “this is how you should deal with cops” advice to each other. It’s horrible. And these people are likely to need the advice more than most, being that their favorite case is John Bad Elk (old, bad law that says it’s okay to defend oneself against the police).

  8. harknell

    Hi Scott, This is Harknell, I co-write at Onezumiverse, the place where you reference the write up on being stopped in NYC. I just wanted to point out that Oni, when referencing Boingboing was not saying she was following the advice they present, but was reflecting on the content of some videos that were reposted there . In one case it’s presentations by Prof. James Duane of the Regent University School of Law and Officer George Bruch of the Virginia Beach Police Department, the other by civil rights attorney Harvey Silverglate. While your general point is true, that you can’t always rely on information online, in this case it’s a bit less directly true.

    1. SHG Post author

      If you say so. I’m familiar with the videos, and while they’re substantially dumbed down to make them comprehensible to the lowest common denominator, they’re certainly better than much of the crap posted at sites like Boing Boing. I don’t point this out to insult either Oni or the videos, but to remind you that you to consider context in what you think you know about the law.

      There are a number of videos around about dealing with the police, and they tend to be far better than most of the non-lawyer advice. Yet, they are still overly-simplistic, occasionally wrong and even slightly dangerous. That’s the best one can do in a mass market video. Whether that’s good enough is another story.

  9. SLP

    Just a minor comment, but I haven’t seen this touched on.

    You tweeted — ”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.”

    Here’s the problem with that — The average person doesn’t need to know anything about heart surgery, and never will. On the other hand, the average person has to know about the law that affects their day-to-day life — After all, “ignorance of the law is no defense” and Law touches upon every human action and interaction.

    I appreciate that there are many subtelties in the (capital-L) Law, but as you put it, “lawyers can be just as wrong when kibitzing about other areas of the law as any other fool.” With that in mind, how can the average gal in a train station be expected to know these subtelties when put on the spot? She has to do like what any of us (lawyer or otherwise) would do when thrust into a situation outside of our individual expertise — fall back to increasingly general principles, and she has to get those from somewhere.

    One final remark — in a comment above, you concluded “That’s the best one can do in a mass market video. Whether that’s good enough is another story.”

    This, I feel, is the crux of the matter.

    1. SHG Post author

      Read blogs by real lawyers who discuss very specific real legal issues in real depth. It takes some effort to become sufficiently knowledgeable about the law to protect yourself. Sorry that it’s not easy, and you still won’t be in a position to give legal advice, but at least you will have a solid, legally grounded, idea how to handle yourself.

      You’ll find a list of them to the right.

    2. Sgt. Schultz

      Or, since SHG is too modest to say so, just read here, which is the motherlode of information on criminal law.

  10. Pingback: Legal Advice Redux: Is It Good Enough? | Simple Justice

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