► USA Today – 02/01/02 – Unauthorized practice on the Net Print E-mail

USA Today – Feb. 1, 2002 – Unauthorized practice on the Net

By Eric Sinrod
A decision issued in late December 2001 by the Ohio Board of Commissioners on the Unauthorized Practice of the Law (the Board) helps to define whether certain online conduct by non-lawyers is tantamount to impermissible legal practice. The decision, in the case Office of Disciplinary Counsel v. Palmer, may be worth a read by lawyers and non-lawyers alike.
David Palmer is the executive director, chairman and only active member of the Committee to Expose Dishonest and Incompetent Attorneys and Judges. His Web site, amoralethics.com, operates as a vehicle for Palmer to express his views. Palmer is accused of offering free legal advice on this site, and as such, is alleged to have engaged in the unlawful practice of law. The decision of the Board maps out the relevant portions of the Web site.
One prominent area of the site advertises "Free Legal Advice." That portion of the site states in the preamble: "We are all led to believe that whenever we are faced with some legal matter that we automatically are required to employ an attorney. There are many matters of a legal nature that we can and should resolve on our own without incurring unnecessary expenses of an attorney. Although I am not an attorney, I can assure you that it is not necessary to be a lawyer in order to provide some guidance and/or advice on how to deal with your legal problems."
The Web site then provides a "brief history" of Palmer's "experience in the legal field" and "brief summaries of the various legal issues that I invite you to submit to me for review and advice." The site advises that if an attorney is necessary, Palmer will provide "the names of attorneys in your area that are competent to handle the matter and who I believe are ethical and honest."
On the Web site, Palmer recites his background as a court reporter and a legal clerk in the Army. He states that he has "prepared numerous pleadings and motions at the request of and on behalf of various attorneys in Ohio, including appellate briefs." He then lists a series of "legal matters that I would invite you to seek advice from me," including no-fault benefits, legal malpractice, and personal injury auto accident.
The Web site further provides: "If you have any questions or concerns regarding any legal matter, I would be more than happy to review it and provide you with guidance and/or advice within a reasonable amount of time. It is my desire to assist you in trying to solve your own legal matters when possible without incurring unnecessary legal expenses. It is important to remember that employing an attorney should be the last resort and not your first option. Any guidance or advice that I provide to you is absolutely free."
The accusation
Disciplinary Counsel argued that the foregoing portions of Palmer's Web site constitute "the rendition of legal advice, and therefore the unauthorized practice of law." Disciplinary Counsel stressed that the practice of law is not confined to appearances in court, but that it also encompasses giving legal advice and counsel.
The legal decision
The Board acknowledged that Palmer's Web site "offers a type of general advice on legal matters." Still, the Board found that "his comments are little different from what can be found in any number of publications found on newsstands every day."
Most importantly, the Board found that "one key element of the practice of law is missing in published advice offered to the general public: the tailoring of that advice to the needs of a specific person." Indeed, "the practice of law involves the rendering of legal advice to an individual."
Thus, according to the Board, "the publication of legal advice on Palmer's web-site, good or bad, is not of itself the unauthorized practice of the law." Still, it was "troubling" to the Board that Palmer offered to respond to "any questions about your rights" and to "provide you with guidance and/or advice." The Board concluded that "if Palmer actually gave legal advice in specific response to a question from one of his readers, he would have engaged in the unauthorized practice of the law."
End game
Palmer plainly dodged a bullet because the Board was not aware of any evidence of the provision of specific legal advice to an individual. Yet, Palmer's Web site appears to be set up precisely so that he ultimately can provide specific legal assistance, even though he is not a lawyer. If Palmer, or any non-lawyer like him, uses the Internet so that specific legal advice can be provided, serious problems could arise.
As noted by the Board, "the Internet ... provides a ready means of interaction with readers, through which an electronic publisher such as Palmer could stray from the generic to the specific." As further observed, "if the contents of amoralethics.com, and other web-sites like it, stray into the delivery of legal advice so specific and individualized that readers could be misled to their detriment into substituting that advice for sound counseling by a qualified attorney, this state and others may have no choice but to intervene."

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