Does JustAnswer.com Provide Legal Advice Online? Is this Site Ethically Compliant?

Just Answer is a question and answer platform that provides answers to users questions for a flat fee of approximately $30.00 per question. It turns out that one of the fastest growing categories within JustAnswer is the answering of legal questions by lawyers.  

Here are other the JustAnswer terms and conditions that apply to lawyers that participate in this service:

"Experts in the Legal categories must be attorneys licensed to practice law, and be
in good standing in at least one jurisdiction in the United States or foreign
country. Such Experts shall provide general information only, such as providing
descriptions of general principles of law, and shall not provide legal advice. In
responding to questions, Experts in the Legal Category shall not apply their legal knowledge or skills to resolve or advise on the Customer's specific factual circumstances described in the question, such as by proposing a specific course of action (other than advising the User to seek the advice of an attorney licensed to practice in the relevant jurisdiction). Experts in the Legal Category shall not form an attorney-client relationship on the Site."

To be qualified to answer questions as a lawyer within the JustAnswer platform, the lawyer has to take a test in the practice area and meet other qualification standards.

Disclosure: I answer legal questions on the JustAnswer.com website in my capacity as an attorney and a member of the Maryland Bar.

The Website is very well executed. Users can select from a panel of lawyers that are online at the time that the question is asked. You can name your price - indicate what you are willing to pay for an answer. You can see the credentials of the lawyers and their track record in answering questions, communications are secure and confidential, and the user can indicate the urgency of the answer, and the level of detail required. Answers are 100% guaranteed. If you are not satisfied you get your money back. You can select the State that you are located in, so answers can be state specific. Most questions are answered within minutes.

I have yet to see a state bar association offer such a service with the same level of Website sophistication and quality control.

 

JustAnswer.com is not a law firm, but retains part of the fee paid by the user, and pays a portion of the fee to the lawyer who answers the question, provided the user is satisfied with the answer. JustAnswer.com claims that this fee splitting between a law firm and a non-law firm does not violate the Rules of Professional Conduct because the answers are "legal information" and not  "legal advice". See previous blog post on LawPivot and this fee-splitting issue -- and a method of getting around the prohibition against fee-splitting.

A recent ethics opinion by the Ethics Advisory Committee of the South Carolina Bar, however, concluded that the JustAnswer website was not ethically compliant and advised South Carolina attorneys not to participate in the service. See opinion here.

The Opinion is worth reading, because it is likely that if other bar association ethical committees were presented with the question of JustAnswer's ethical compliance they would reach the same conclusion. Lawyer's who participate in ventures that are not ethically compliant expose themselves to liability and bar censure.

One key conclusion reached by the Committee is that the JustAnswer Website is providing legal advice not just legal information:

Because this specific website asks lawyers to provide specific legal advice in response to detailed questions, it is substantively inviting the creation of attorney-client relationships despite its likely ineffective attempts to disclaim them. Initial boilerplate responses to questions include requests for “more details about your situation” and the advice provided is often specific and contains legal conclusions based on application of the law to the facts presented. At a minimum, justanswer.com provides, not just question-and-answer, but a specific question-and-paid-professional-answer service that removes it from the radio call-in show/public seminar paradigm described in prior advisory opinions and is irreconcilable with the site’s disclaimers.

Therefore a lawyer participating in JustAnswer.com would be violating the prohibition against splitting fees with a non-lawyer. Other advertising statements on the JustAnswer Website would also cause the lawyer to violate South Carolina's lawyer advertising rules, by attribution. The bottom line is that the Committee recommended that lawyers who are members of the South Carolina bar should not participate in this service.

Comment:

The South Carolina's Ethics Committee's interpretation of its rules as they apply to the JustAnswer Website is not unreasonable and a straight forward analysis of undisputed facts about the way the service operates. Yet there is obviously a great demand for this service, and consumers have few alternatives to get answers to their legal questions for a reasonable flat fee online.

This situation is changing as law firms figure out how to deliver "unbundled" legal services online using virtual law firm platforms like DirectLaw and VirtualLawDirect.  Yet very few law firms offer this kind of service directly to consumers online - also known as "unbundled" legal services.

When lawyers do provide answers to consumers questions they usually do so through a third party Web portal like JustAnswer.com. The problem with participating in a third party portal is that:
(1) the portal may suffer from the same ethical issues as JustAnswer; and
(2) often the consumer can not connect with the lawyer directly so the potential for future work for the lawyer is not an option.

A list of other online legal advice portal websites can be found here.

Consumers seem very satisfied with the JustAnswer service. There is high demand for it. There is no empirical evidence of consumer harm.

Maybe its time to change the rules that regulate the legal profession so lawyers can serve the real needs of consumers at a price they can afford? Just to note, the United Kingdom has no such rule structure that constrains the delivery of legal advice by lawyers or non-lawyers, and there is no evidence of consumer harm in that country.

___________________________________________________________________________

In accordance with the   FTC 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guidelines Concerning Use of Endorsements and Testimonial in Advertising" I am disclosing that I have a material connection to some of the companies referred to in this Post. I am the Founder/CEO of  DirectLaw, a virtual law firm platform provider that supports the delivery of "limited legal services.". I participate as an attorney n the JustAnswer.com website. The opinions expressed here are my own. I did not receive any compensation from any source for writing this post. DirectLaw sponsors this blog by paying for the costs of hosting. 

 

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Comments (4) Read through and enter the discussion with the form at the end
Attorney Websites - December 26, 2012 2:52 PM

I did not know this type of website existed. On the websites we build for lawyers, we specifically say that the website is for marketing purposes, so answers and claims are not binding or substitute as a attorney-client relationship. Justanswer.com - very smart idea. Sometimes people just want their question answered without having to hire an attorney.

Delilah - April 24, 2013 4:45 PM

I think legal advice online is a great resource for people who may not be able to afford legal advice or just have a simple question or two. And I appreciate the attorneys that are willing to donate their time and expertise to these type of forums.

Deborah - October 28, 2013 2:22 PM

I will never use "Just Answer" again. I used it years ago for a computer related question that was never properly answered and I was pretty sure that by now the folks over at "Just Answer" would have worked the kinks out. But I was wrong, I recently contacted "Just Answer" for what I thought would be an answer I could use but I was wrong. That mistake costs me $53.00 that's a lot to pay for a mistake.

I agree that there is a need for a site online that people can go to to get "competent" legal advice. While I know that an online response will never substitute the services of a competent attorney it may help someone like myself to actually determine which type of attorney would best suit their needs.

LyndaLHinkle - March 25, 2014 3:20 AM

Really good post..informative knowledge about the legal services..hassle free to read without any paying..

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