Given how much free legal information is available online these days, it might be tempting to avoid the cost of speaking with lawyers. But there's a huge difference between legal information and legal advice, as I explain below.
What is legal information?
Legal information is simply information that relates to a legal issue. The purpose of legal information is to to explain, in general terms, how a particular aspect of the law is intended to work.
Nowadays, you can find legal information virtually anywhere. You can find legal information:
- printed brochures, product disclosure statements, information summaries or fact sheets (including those published by governments);
- presentations given at conferences, in seminars, webinars and other training sessions;
- newsletters and blogs;
- websites, again including government websites, business websites and websites operated by law firms. (For example, this website includes a very large volume of legal information.)
As recently as 20 years ago, access to a lot of legal information was effectively limited to members of the legal profession.
However, ever since law firms (including this one) started to market themselves through the internet, access to practical legal information has become far more widespread. Nowadays virtually all reputable firms will have a blog or collection of articles with legal information about their particular area of specialisation, all of which is designed to provide potential customers (you) with practical information that is relevant to whatever problem they are trying to solve.
Which, for the most part, is a good thing - provided you understand what you're looking at.
Why you shouldn't rely on legal information.
Here are 3 reasons why you shouldn't rely on legal information:
- Legal information can become out-of-date very quickly. All it takes is a change in legislation or a new court case. And yes, Governments are constantly changing laws and courts hand down new decisions every day. Legal information can lose its currency overnight.
- Legal information doesn't take your circumstances into account. Legal information is always pitched at a general, 'in principle' level. However the application of the law in any instance will always depend on the specific facts involved. This is because, for any given scenario, there will usually be more than one legal principle at play. Legal information is not designed or intended to provide a correct and complete solution for every person reading it.
- Legal information is inherently subjective. Legal information is effectively one person's interpretation of the law. That person's interpretation might be right, but it also might not be - either at the time it is produced, or subsequently (in light of court decisions handed down after the event). Keep in mind that most court cases involve two teams of highly trained lawyers presenting opposing views on how the law should work. And only one of them will win.
This is why legal information - even legal information published by Governments - is always accompanied by disclaimers.
For example, here is the disclaimer that appeared on NSW Fair Trading's website at the time this article was published:
The information on this website (and any other websites owned by NSW Fair Trading) is general in nature and cannot be relied upon as legal advice concerning the legislation enforced by NSW Fair Trading.
Similarly, the disclaimer on the Australian Government website states:
The australia.gov.au website is not a substitute for independent professional advice and you should obtain any appropriate professional advice relevant to your particular circumstances.
All websites published by law firms (including this one) contain similar disclaimers. They will all have words to the effect, "The information on this website is not legal advice, and you should not rely on it without seeking professional advice".
These disclaimers exist for good reason: legal information is not a substitute for legal advice, and you should never confuse the two.
What is legal advice?
Legal advice is advice given by a lawyer having regard to your specific circumstances.
To provide legal advice, a lawyer will draw on a combination of resources, including:
- their formal legal training, both before and after their admission;
- their experience on other, similar matters;
- primary sources of information, such as relevant statutes and decided cases;
- specialised advice from other professionals both within the profession (eg more specialised lawyers) and outside of it (eg accountants and other complementary professions).
The consequences of bad legal advice can be devastating. Laws can result in people going to gaol or losing substantial amounts of money. This is why, as a matter of law, only lawyers are allowed to provide it.
Another reason why only lawyers can provide legal advice is that, as a condition of a lawyer being allowed to practice, they must have professional indemnity insurance so that you are effectively protected against the lawyer's own negligence.
If you provide legal advice to someone else and you are not a lawyer, not only might you be committing an offence, you may also be assuming significant personal liability in the process (for which no insurance is likely to be available).
There is however nothing stopping you from providing legal advice to yourself - for example, by relying on free legal information without paying for legal advice. Just be aware that the information you are relying on might not be accurate, that you might not be taking into account all relevant considerations, and that you won't have any insurance if you get it wrong.
What do you need - legal information or legal advice?
Legal information is free but inherently unreliable. Legal advice is reliable (provided it is good advice given by the right person), but can be expensive.
So how do you decide whether legal advice is likely to be worth the price tag?
- Think about what's at stake. The more you have at risk, the easier it is to justify the cost of engaging a lawyer. (Also keep in mind that you might not be aware of the full extent of your risk, or how you might be able to manage it, without speaking to a lawyer.)
- Make sure you understand how a lawyer might be able to help. For example, you can read about what construction lawyers do here.
- Think about what you really need. There are ways that you can control your legal spend. For example, if you ask for a contract review, the cost of your review will depend on the level of detail you require. You can read more about this, in the context of construction contract reviews, here.
- Speak to the lawyer you're thinking of engaging. This will give you a better sense of whether you think you're likely to get helpful advice. As we explain here, it's not easy to find a good lawyer - but making sure you've got the right fit is the best way to ensure you're going to get value.
You can obviously explore our website to learn more about who we are and what we do. But the best way to find out whether we're likely to be worth the cost is by starting a conversation. We're here to help, and we'd love to hear from you.