11 August 2011

Free Legal Advice

Scott has been set off by lawyers (and non-lawyers) giving free legal advice over the interweb. His main complaint? They get it wrong.

I'd like to hone in on that a little bit. Since time immemorial, people have given defendants bad legal advice. Usually, it's been Uncle Louie or the guy at the barber shop or even the guy in the next cell over. These people have always had more credibility to defendants than their defense attorneys. After all, Uncle Louie has been to jail seven times and he's talked to at least a dozen attorneys with all the times he's been charged; surely he's got more accumulated knowledge than a mere attorney.

The interweb has just added another dimension to this. Scott's right. If you search the web you find any number of sites claiming to give out free advice - advice which almost always seems to be substandard, incomplete, or even naive. It's another layer of garbage the defense attorney has to fight his way through in order to convince his client of the realities in his particular case.

Personally, what bothers me the most is when an attorney answers a question from someone in a different State. I hate to tell this to all of you out there, but it doesn't work in Virginia like it does in your State. We kept the common law (no MPC here), we have common law rules of evidence (not a set of rules based on the federal rules), required discovery is pretty much the constitutional minimum (no witness list, no statements from Commonwealth witnesses), juries sentence (usually hard), we have no parole (life means life & other felons serve 85%), and most every jury trial that's not a rape or murder takes a single day. There are a million differences between the way it works here and the way it works where you are. When you confidently tell a person online that the law is X, Y, and Z and the trial will proceed A, B, and C you are probably absolutely correct for your little corner of the universe. You are absolutely wrong as to Virginia.

There's a story I when I first started practicing criminal law in Virginia. A Big City Lawyer had come down from somewhere up North to try a cocaine distribution case, pro hoc vice. He walks into the Virginia courtroom on the day of trial and states imperiously to the judge, "Your Honor, I don't see jury selection taking any longer than two weeks in this case." The judge looked down from the bench and said, "You're right counselor. Jury selection will be done in one hour. Opening statements will take up the next 30 minutes. Then will come the evidence and I expect the jury to be out by 4 pm or so. We should have the trial finished today." And, so the story goes, the trial was done that very day and Big City Lawyer went back North in a state of shock.

Now, I think a good portion of that story is apocryphal. However, it does reflect the reaction I get from most lawyers from otherwhere when I explain how juries are done in Virginia. It also demonstrates how different judicial systems are from place to place.

I'll make a deal with ya'll. If you don't give advice to people from Virginia about criminal law, I won't start telling them how everybody should only get convicted of possession in the 7th degree. Deal?


Anonymous said...

That big city lawyer was Roy Black, from Florida, defending Marv Albert (Yesh!) when he bit a prostitute in Arlington County. The Judge was Ben Kendrick (since retired.)

Landon Ascheman said...

Fantastic blog post. I understand this all too well. I often find myself reading (and occasionally answering) these types of questions. I only answer the questions I know in the State I practice. And even then the answer is generally, "Find an attorney, sit down, and talk to them." I can't tell you the number of responses I see from lawyers in Texas, California, and New York who (I assume) are answering out of the goodness of their heart (and for advertising) and getting the answer incorrect.