The idea of free legal advice will likely inspire many different images in the minds of population at large.
One would expect that most lawyers offering public services would be likely to encourage people to seek an initial discussion with them or another qualified specialist, in person, with a view to using their services, as a preference to ‘shopping around’. On the other side of the desk, the concept of charged time is something many members of the public may be unfamiliar with and the idea of instructing a legal professional to act on their behalf perhaps puts them off initiating dialogue. Then of course there is the obvious question of affordability in the mind of the potential client. In an age where the perception often appears to be that anything can be found online, where are the other ‘go to’ options and how prevalent are they?
For many it could be the most obvious option of the Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB). Set up in the 1930s this historically was the place to turn up and wait for an adviser to guide you on a contentious matter, such as rental disputes or consumer law. Now the bureau is a much searched and used online resource, signposting to other agencies, be it health, law or consumer rights. There might be a number of reasons for this transition. Certainly one may be the rise of multiple other sources of information, often also digitally accessible.
In the 1990s, the high street banks launched a series of benefits with their 'packaged' bank accounts. Along with various insurance offers and other services, and a legal helpline was often one of them.
Similarly, it is often a feature of corporate HR packages to offer some kind of support to their staff in a number of ways and an option to offer legal advice is one of the benefits that is sometimes made available.
So who is offering legal helpline services?
A simple web search on the term free legal helpline today draws an interesting range of results.
The availability to the public seems to split very roughly into a few categories:
- Public information or charity helplines
As well as the CAB, and Government department services this also includes issue-based services almost ad infinitum, from health-based organisations like Macmillan cancer support, who recently offered up a free Will writing advice line for a month in January 2018, to organisations advising on property law. It Is landlord and tenant that attracts the most web browsers, judging by the sheer volume of available free ‘go to’ resources, There's a good list of these here.One that legal professionals will probably know well is the Law Society’s legal helpline and a good source for free advice and guidance on employment law matters is ACAS: see www.acas.org.uk. This offers employers and employees general advice for free and they have a lot of written guidance on their website as well.
- Service or packaged helplines
This type of offer is often presented to a customer or consumer as a useful provision, sometimes enclosed in a 'bundle' offer. Packaged bank accounts are a very good example of this, where items like travel insurance and legal helpline are available to customers as 'added value’ alongside their current account services. The PPI mis selling issue has cut back on some of this type of offer. A simple piece of research shows that all of the following large companies or organisations are advertising a client advice service of some sort:
- Legal and General
A lot of insurance companies, such as the ones listed above, offer legal expenses as part of their claims package, often with a helpline facility too, although this is typically offered with a slight increase in premium so isn’t strictly ‘free’ competition.
- Law firms promoting their services using a free helpline to the public.
This appears to be a very popular way for lawyers to advertise their services to attract business, especially via Google AdWords. This features and encourages advertisers to use a call to action of a phone number on the top of their advert, as Google rewards those adverts that do feature a phone call to action with higher positioning against ads that don’t.Many firms use blogs or news items on their website to give ‘free’ information in order to give potential customers an idea of what they do.In-house legal helpline as part of company benefits.
- This kind of offer is part of a corporate package and therefore not public as such, making it hard to gauge how common it is but with employee welfare an ever increasing concern for companies, Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPS) are on the rise, growing from their US base to corporations across the world: http://chestnutglobalpartners.org/Portals/cgp/Publications/Trends-Report-April2017.pdf
In 2007, when John Lewis launched its own legal support line for its staff, it was reasonably big news in the HR sector, now it’s a more common feature.
What actually constitutes legal advice?
The organisations offering help mentioned above are well known names we are likely to trust. But what about organisations that are relatively unknown? Is there any way of the public knowing who is using bon fide legal advice from a ‘helpline’ and who isn’t? How does this reflect on the profession?
To go back to basics, let’s look at what actually constitutes legal advice in the first place. Here is the definition from the online resource, the law dictionary:
‘Legal information pertains to the more factual side of the law. For example, telling somebody that the legal drinking age is 21 does not constitute legal advice since it is strictly informative and factual. Likewise, parking signs display legal information without providing advice. Of course, what one does with the legal information one receives may impact one’s legal rights, but it cannot be said that the information itself was advisory in nature. Also, there may be cases where what looks like legal advice is actually legal information. For example, if an attorney runs an online blog about popular legal matters, then that attorney’s opinions on that blog, because they are not addressed to a specific individual, are considered informative rather than advisory in nature.’
Of course, lawyers and firms are regulated by the Solicitor’s Regulation Authority (SRA) and cannot legally advise without a letter of engagement. That means lawyers must take care not to give ‘client’ advice before the paperwork is signed, it is legal ‘information’ that is used to attract clients if done well enough
It seems that companies wanting to give clients’ confidence and free knowledge to encourage engagement are working on solid ground and are giving what is known in other sectors as ‘information triage’. That is gaining the attention of their prospective public by using expert content of some value, ideally a one to one conversation (virtual or real on the ‘phone) in exchange for trust and maybe future custom. It has been an approach that has worked for quite a few organisations.
So is ‘free’ legal advice a professional threat to lawyers?
Well the first thing to say is that there is no better source of legal information than a lawyer his or herself. Many firms, and not just those in fields like personal accident, welcome clients speaking to them for free advice. There is also the possibility of tie ups or events offering helplines as part of an in-company offer that can be a great source of client referrals as well as reducing possible ‘competition’.
One lawyer I talked to put it like this:
‘I don't think free advice is a threat to lawyers, I personally think it helps to educate members of the public so that they can then either deal with the issue themselves or get a better service from a lawyer because they have some knowledge and can say exactly what it is they want to achieve but realise they need help from a lawyer to get there.’
It is perhaps not easy, for, say, a smaller law firm to look at what well-known and well resourced resources such as the Citizen’s Advice Bureau do and draw a direct comparison. But after deeper reflection it is possible to see the parallel . The ‘gift’ of credible free advice has built their reputation, reaching out to help people and by doing it successfully has created a bond of trust with the interested public. Others following that approach can only advance their own reputation and are also widening the public’s access to themselves and also perhaps, raising their opinion of, the legal profession as a whole.