I've had as good a legal education as any (as in, #2 on Harvard Law Review), and practiced for almost 10 years -- although I decided life was too short about 15 years ago and quit. I never answer a question on any enotes topic without double checking to be sure I have it right. Nevertheless, I've often started to answer a legal question and then gotten cold feet, feeling that I have to be more than confident that I'm right.
I suspect that this is because my training has so thoroughly ingrained the idea that you have to research any legal question to death. Also, the consequences for being wrong as a lawyer are pretty serious.
Does anyone else share these doubts, or am I just being a wimp?
Yes and no. I think there is always a danger of eNotes users taking our opinions about legal issues and cases and treating them as accredited legal advice. I am also a little wary of people who cite very specific circumstances, obviously from a case of their own or a relative or friend, who then want advice on how to proceed. I also think most people do not appreciate the complexity of the law, and its variation from state to state, not to mention the complex web of legal precedents.
That being said, both we as editors and the site adminstrators themselves have made it very clear that this is not a site to be considered a replacement for an attorney's advice.
I consider it my responsibility to try to leave the reader with an understanding that my opinion should not be the end of their search for an answer. And I am sure that I do not do it well everytime. But if that general message is embedded in my answer, I usually feel pretty comfortable. I think it's more useful to tell readers that they need to do more for themselves than it is for me to be perfectly accurate in the substance of my answer. That said of course, I think we also have a duty not to be negligently inaccurate.
And of course it could not hurt to make boilerplate disclaimer language more prominent as well.
Maybe it would be useful to have a link to legal services for those who can't afford an attorney.
I'd agree with further publicizing the disclaimer as well.
Our feeling is that this is a good starting point-- the non-students posting here usually seem like they have no idea how to research their case, who they should ask, or where they should get started. This service gives them a starting point and virtually every answer ends with "consult an attorney". As a free online service, we provide information but not definitive answers.
Perhaps we should make the disclaimer more prominent? It does take up most of the page where people ask the questions but maybe we should link to it at the bottom of the page as well?
I just worry that people will rely on what I have to say. I don't want anyone relying on that in a legal dispute unless I have thoroughly researched it. The stakes for many of these questions seem way higher than for an English paper.
I know that people should not take what is said as gospel, and that they do so at their own risk. But don't we have a responsibility to protect those who predictably will rely?
Take the example mentioned by #3. "In New York City the law states . . . ." It's really not enough to see what the statutes say. You also have to look at how the law has been interpreted by the New York courts, as informed by the whole body of US law. In addition, with many of the questions, actual practice in the trenches of criminal (and, to some extent, civil) courts has a HUGE bearing on what you really can and can't do.
Are any of us -- unless we are thoroughly versed in the statutes, precedents and practice of a given jurisdiction -- competent to answer many of these questions?
I am not an attorney, however teaching political science, Landmark cases of The Supreme Court and just having a personal interest in law has led me to answer several questions under this topic. I will admit I only answer questions I feel secure in answering, but that is how I feel regarding all the questions i answer on this site. As for the law topic, if the questions are asked in a general sense I always begin my answer by saying in 'New York City the law states....' I do this because local jurisdictions differ as well as differences between state laws.
Remember, it is only advise and you have the credentials.
All you can do is give advice. It's up to the person who asked the question what he or she does with that advice. It certainly sounds to me like you're highly qualified to answer questions about the law, so you shouldn't second guess yourself. No, you're not a wimp! (But make sure you cover yourself by inserting the disclaimer that what you're about to say cannot be considered a consultation with an attorney.