In what is either a wonderful or horrifying development, a New York Times Sunday magazine article describes a 15-year old who has been answering legal questions online on a site called www.AskMeHelpDesk.com. The piece is online at: www.nytimes.com/2001/07/15/magazine/15INTERNET.html. [Please note that you will be asked to enter your subscriber ID and password in order to read the article.]
The article is rather far-reaching. It starts with the drop of the Nasdaq and asserts that the Internet fulfills a sociological theory called "role theory," which asserts that we have no "self" per se, only roles that society assigns to us. With the Internet's anonymity, we can choose our own roles.
I'll focus on the role that the 15-year-old chose, LawGuy1975, on a message board designed by a private company simply for knowledge- sharing. Because questioners rank the answers and "experts" get star ratings, the message board seems to have become very competitive, rewarding speed, clarity and frequency of responses. LawGuy--whose real name is Marcus Arnold, but who signed his messages "Justin Anthony Wyrick Jr."-- became well-regarded, in the Top 10 of the 150 or so lawyers answering questions in the law division.
To the surprise of no one on this Web board, there were many desperate queries. "Your son should not be in jail," wrote Marcus to one person. "According to Miranda v. Arizona, the person to be arrested must be read his rights before he was asked any questions...If you want me to help you further, write me back on this board privately."
(Actually, you have to be in custody to be subject to Miranda warnings, but most criminal defense attorneys might raise the Miranda issue anyway, regardless of the facts). Marcus seems to have gleaned his information from Judge Judy, Court TV and the Internet. Judging from the article, he has never cracked a book open ("Books are boring. I don't like reading").
He never stated that he was a lawyer. On the page that advertises his services (it was unclear to me that anyone got paid for answering questions--though I'm sure people did get paying work off the site), he described himself as, "a law expert with two years of formal training...i will help anyone i can! i have been involved in trials, legal studies and certain forms of jurisprudence [this is all false--WL]. I am not accredited by the state bar association yet to practice law...sincerely, justin anthony wyrick jr."
As Marcus's posts proliferated, so did his ranking online. People began asking for his phone number and fee structure. That's when he revealed his age--he changed his bio to read "15-year old intern attorney expert." That's when all hell broke loose--from the lawyers on the board, not from AskMe.com, nor from those Marcus had exchanged e-mail with. "Leave the kid alone!" they seemed to say.
Marcus is continuing to answer questions, and the article actually shows him accompanying a woman to court --she sent him her file. Although his mother feebly protests, Marcus is determined to help people. He says he's just as good as the lawyers on Court TV. He insists that his mother give him a ride to court so he can accompany the woman into the building. I think that's damn nice of him.
Since he's not a lawyer, who would be subject to misrepresentation and other ethics dilemmas, and he won't be allowed to represent the lady in court, and he seems to be helping people as well or as badly as many actual lawyers do online and off, I see little problem with his answering questions on AskMe. I think he's right that the outrage engendered by his revealing his age stemmed merely from those lawyers who felt humiliated that they were ranked below a 15-year old. (His replies are clear and concise and generally consist of legal information, not legal advice).
Am I too sanguine? Or too jaded by being too well-acquainted with some of the shoddy legal work offered to the poor ("we'll take your name and get back to you in a year")?
My real ethical dilemma is with the recycling of a quote by Richard S. Granat, a wonderful Baltimore-based lawyer who is involved with many e-lawyering initiatives. Instead of interviewing him for the piece, Michael Lewis just uses a quote that Richard already gave to the Times, from a different context. Richard was discussing self-help, which is of course permissible and facilitated by superb Web sites such as Nolo.com and Richard's own www.divorcelawinfo.com. "If you think about the law...a large component is just information. Information by itself can go a long way to help solve legal problems," Richard told a different reporter, Jennifer "8" Lee, for a different article.
I'm as lazy as the next reporter, but recycling quotes for a front-page magazine story is quite misleading. I think Mr. Lewis could have given Richard a phone call--Richard is quite forthcoming and easy to reach-- and asked him specifically about this case. It makes it appear as if Richard approves of Marcus's online activities--I don't know whether he does or not.
So as a journalist, my ethics are a bit troubled by that portion of the article. But as a lawyer, I am happy that so many people are getting the preliminary legal information that they need at a price--free--that is within most people's budgets.