“This is not legal advice.”
“I’m a lawyer, but I’m not your lawyer.”
“We are not a law firm.”
“This is for informational purposes only.”
What do these things mean?
Lawyers use these phrases to tell people who aren’t lawyers that they won’t be held professionally responsible for what they’re about to say.
In other words, these phrases work like disclaimers. The usual guarantees that lawyers’ professional clients get about legal advice don’t apply.
Why do lawyers say these things?
When a legal professional becomes a client’s lawyer, creating an attorney-client relationship, the lawyer becomes professionally and legally responsible to the client for the advice and service they give. This usually happens when lawyer and client sign a written engagement letter. But lawyers and clients can create professional relationships without written agreement, and without payment, too.
If the lawyer gives particularly bad advice or fails to meet professional standards like competence and responsiveness, their bar association can punish them.Several lawyers each year get disbarred, losing their license to practice law, just this way. In really serious cases, a client might even be able to sue their former lawyer for legal malpractice.
When you see or hear a phrase like those above, the legal thoughts the speaker is about to share often come at little or no cost to you. They may even be published online. Since the lawyer isn’t making any money, they don’t want to take the risk that others will misunderstand or misuse what they said, create trouble, and then try to blame them for giving bad advice. If they had to take that risk, they might not be willing to share freely in the first place.
The risk is particularly high when a lawyer gives a presentation, speaks on a panel, writes a blog post, publishes via social media, or otherwise shares their thoughts informally, especially off-the-cuff. Sharing overall impressions, opinions, or new ideas reads and sounds very different than the way lawyers typically talk to other lawyers or clients with specific goals and problems. But it’s often hard for others to tell the difference between lawyer shop talk and legal advice. Especially when they really want legal advice, but don’t want the trouble or expense of engaging a lawyer professionally.
What’s more, when lawyers talk informally about law, they often generalize. Just like in life, nearly every rule in law comes with exceptions. In specific cases, those exceptions can matter more than the rules! But lawyers speaking about the law without a particular client in mind usually focus on the rules, and may not even mention the exceptions, much less the specific exception that could matter to a specific reader or viewer.
Is that fair?
If you take a piece of furniture left on the curbside for the trash, or receive a hand-me-down gadget or appliance from a friend, you likely understand that it comes “as is”, without any guarantees. That’s a bit like what’s happening when lawyers share legal information with a disclaimer that they won’t be held responsible.
That doesn’t mean the lawyer can be wrong, or intentionally misrepresent the law, totally without consequences. Many lawyers rely heavily on their reputations, both to attract new clients and to maintain respect with their peers. Being known for misunderstanding the law can be almost as bad for a lawyer’s business as losing their license.
However, there are situations when a disclaimer about legal information should definitely cause suspicion. When a lawyer has a professional relationship with someone else, and their goals are different than yours, you really want a lawyer of your own to read and explain the law from your point of view. Bar rules also prevent lawyers from talking separately about legal matters with non-lawyers that they know have lawyers of their own. When both sides have lawyers, clients should talk to clients and lawyers should talk to lawyers. When exceptions happen, everyone should be present at the meeting, on the call, or copied on the e-mail.
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