Generally, only licensed attorneys can give legal advice. It is important to note, however, that there is a distinction between legal advice and legal information.
Any individual who is not a lawyer can simply recite laws. It is illegal for a non-lawyer or an unlicensed attorney to offer legal advice or to represent an individual other than themselves in a court of law.
A licensed attorney is an individual who receives a legal education and passes the licensing exam in the state, also referred to as the State Bar. an individual who practices law without a license is said to be engaging in the unauthorized practice of law.
There are only two things that an individual with a law license is permitted to do, give legal advice and represent clients in court. An individual who is not a licensed lawyer and who is certified by their resident state bar gives legal advice or represents someone in court, they are subject to harsh consequences.
Giving legal advice is prescribing or suggesting certain courses of action based on presumed legal knowledge. Lawyers are trained in specialized ways to know how to conduct legal research on the specific nature of the charge or legal question.
Individuals who have a more general knowledge of the law will not be able to give sound advice on legal matters. This may lead to grave consequences for the individual who is receiving the advice.
The punishment for practicing law without a license is left to each state to enforce and legislate. Punishments may range from small fines to serious penalties, such as incarceration.
A misdemeanor charge may result in fines of hundreds of dollars. A felony conviction may result in fines of thousands of dollars.
Restitution payments may also be ordered if the unauthorized practice of law resulted in the loss of funds for another individual. Repeat charges and even first offenses may lead to probation and criminal incarceration in certain states.
What Is Legal Advice?
Legal advice is any oral or written counsel regarding a legal matter that impacts the rights and responsibilities of the individual who receives it. It typically requires knowledge of and a careful analysis of the law.
Giving legal advice is a major function of an attorney and is equivalent to practicing law. Legal advice requires legal education and knowledge and impacts the legal rights of the recipient.
Providing legal advice also creates an attorney-client relationship. Examples of legal advice include:
- Drafting legal documents or contracts that affect the rights of an individual;
- Representing an individual in a court of law or in a legal matter;
- Negotiating the rights of a client; and
- Advising an individual about specific legal matters.
Legal advice is advice that is provided to an individual who seeks the advice of an attorney, the advice provided pertains to matters within the lawyer’s competence, and the lawyer expressly or impliedly agreed to give advice or their assistance in the matter. If this type of legal advice is provided, an implied attorney-client relationship may be formed between the individual and the attorney, even at the initial consultation.
If, however, the attorney states that the advice they are giving is not to form such a relationship, or is not to be relied on, then the individual may consider that simply a legal pitch of their services. Legal pitches or other off the cuff comments are not classified as legal advice, and, therefore, cannot be used to later prove that an attorney-client relationship was formed.
Where Can I Get Legal Advice?
With the current social media outlets, there are many places individuals can receive legal advice. There are some websites, including the web pages of law firms that allow individuals to ask questions.
In many cases, someone will respond and provide online law advice but will also request that the potential client come into the office for a consultation. There are some cities that offer free legal advice to certain individuals depending upon the legal issue.
Of course, an individual can always seek legal advice from a licensed attorney in their state.
Can Law Students Give Legal Advice?
An individual must be a licensed attorney to give legal advice. This does not include law students, as they have not yet taken and passed the state bar examination.
Individuals who are permitted to give legal advice include:
- Licensed lawyers;
- Members of the bar;
- Counsel; or
- Court officers.
Law students who are giving legal advice when not a lawyer may face criminal sanctions.
What Is Legal Information?
Legal information, in contrast to legal advice, can be given by any individual who is knowledgeable on the law. It is simply a statement of what the law is without any additional application to a particular situation and leaves the recipient with the decision on how to proceed.
Due to the costs associated with hiring a lawyer, it is good for an individual to know when they need legal advice and when they simply need legal information.
Should I Seek Legal Information or Legal Advice?
An individual should seek legal advice when they have a legal problem and do not know how to proceed. This may include filing a lawsuit or being sued.
In addition, if an individual is faced with a contract which they do not understand, they may want to seek an attorney who can advise them of what the contract says and how it may affect their legal situation.
Legal advice is information that is very detailed and tailored to particular issues. Legal information is useful in many more situations.
If an individual has a question regarding whether a certain act is legal in the abstract, without regards to their specific situation, legal situation will likely suffice. Legal information is usually general and devoid of any application to a specific problem.
Do I Have to Pay for Legal Advice?
An individual will not always be required to pay for legal advice. For example, they may be eligible for free legal aid from a court-appointed attorney or public defender if they have been accused of a crime and face going to jail.
An individual may also qualify for free legal aid if they are considered indigent as determined by the court. If an individual has indigent representation, they may eventually be required to partially reimburse the court for the cost of the legal services that were provided to them.
Free legal aid may also be available, depending on the area of law. There are certain websites that can put an individual in touch with an attorney immediately who can answer basic questions for them for free.
Another way for individuals to obtain legal advice may be a legal consultation. Many attorneys offer free initial consultations, or meetings, with the attorney so both parties can decide if that attorney should represent them in their particular legal matter.
In addition, an attorney will use the consultation to help determine if they can legally and competently represent the potential client based on the information provided. It is important to note that an initial legal consultation does not mean that the attorney is officially representing a potential client or has taken on the case.
In general, in order for an attorney to legally represent a client, there must be a written representation agreement signed by both the client and the attorney or the client must be able to prove that, through their words or actions, the attorney consented to representing them.
What If I Need More Help?
If you need more assistance with your legal issue, you should consult with a skilled and licensed liability attorney. Your attorney can help you navigate the complex legal issues you face and advise you on the best course of action.
This may include litigation, informal settlement negotiations, or a settlement demand. If you are sued or believe you need to file a lawsuit over a contested legal matter, an attorney can help you.