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5 Things to Know About Answering Questions Online

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By Mark Wilson, Esq. on April 08, 2015 3:54 PM

Many attorneys frequent Internet message boards (like FindLaw Answers) to answer legal questions from anonymous strangers. It can actually be useful to drum up business, provided you post using your real name and contact information.

Even though it's the Internet, which is the untamed frontier of communications, there are still rules lawyers need to follow. Here are just some of the things you need to keep in mind when answering questions online.

1. No private messages

Some people seeking advice from attorneys online are understandably wary about getting into the details, so they'll offer to privately message attorneys if the board supports that feature. This is a capital no-no, as a private message could lead to a reasonable expectation of privacy, which could lead to privilege and an unintentionally formed attorney-client relationship.

2. Attorney advertising?

In some states, just providing a link to your firm's website on a blog can transform the blog into attorney advertising. It stands to reason that a link in your message board signature can, too. (In Oregon, the Rules of Professional Conduct are clear that "electronic communication" includes bulletin boards, but not so clear that posting to a bulletin board is itself a solicitation for business.) Check your state rules before even passively imploring visitors to visit your website. And don't forget to adhere to the rules of the particular message board, which might forbid things like soliciting clients directly.

3. Keep it civil

Because your name (and possibly photo) are attached to your message board comments, you can't engage in the kind of flame wars that plague anonymous message boards. There is, however, a tendency to want to put trolls in their place. Resist this urge. Keeping a professional demeanor is more important than getting some verbal comeuppance on an Internet rando who couldn't care less about what you have to say.

4. Avoid specifics

Because you don't have all the facts of an Internet poster's case, avoid talking specifically about that person's chances of success in the litigation he or she is talking about. You could talk about general rules, or indeed, how "most cases" pan out, but you don't want a message board poster to suddenly think you're his attorney.

5. Be that other kind of counselor

Posting on message boards isn't technically a pro bono opportunity, but it might as well be. Usually, people turn to message boards because something legal has just happened (often involving the criminal justice system) and they have no idea what to do next. As with real-life clients, you should reassure online message board posters wherever possible. In large part, they're just looking for guidance and explanation.

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